When Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav's heart bled for 'boys who committed the mistake of rape and who shouldn't be hanged for rape' it was a familiar narrative from the Hindi heartland. But coming from a former chief minister and prime minister hopeful, it rang loud and clear in one's ears.
Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav adressing a rally for upcoming Lok Sabha election at Mihir Bhoj Degree College in Dadri. (Atul Modi/HT photo)
A day later Yadav's colleague in his Samajwadi Party, Abu Azmi spoke his heart out. If the Maharashtra SP chief had his way, rape survivors would be hanged for getting raped. (In Uttar Pradesh alone, as per National Crime Records Bureau data for 2012, that would be a little less than 1,963, minus those who died during the act.)
Unmarried women having sex would, perhaps, be lynched and hanged publicly.
While most of Uttar Pradesh is yet to go to vote why would Mulayam make such a comment? After all his son and chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has been wooing women voters with the 'Kanya Vidyadhan' scheme (doling out money to families for girl child's education) and distributing laptops to college girls.
Does Mulayam actually believe in what he said? Is he talking to a particular class, which is likely to agree with him? Was Azmi's statement in faraway Mumbai the result of a well-thought-out strategy?
"Mulayam taking up the case of Mumbai Shakti Mills rape convicts in Morababad, a Muslim-dominated constituency, and Azmi invoking Islam is not only aimed at the party's Muslim votebank, but also at the SP-kind-of-youth constituency," says a senior journalist following UP politics for more than a decade.
Actor Ayesha Takia, who is married to Azmi's son Farhan, tweeted that they were "deeply embarrassed" and "ashamed" and that they "do not share this mindset".
Azmi has since retracted, taking the 'my comments were distorted' line, but Midday website says they have the audio and that Azmi clearly said and meant that "if any woman, regardless of consent, has physical relations with a man, she deserves death penalty".
Akhilesh too tried to do some damage control by distancing the party with its chief, but two days after making the comment and inviting the wrath of women's groups across the country, Mulayam remained unfazed.
Gaurav Bhatia, national president of SP's lawyer wing says, "Our national president has the highest respect for the women of the country and his statement should not be taken in a political context. He was speaking only against death penalty in non-homicidal rape cases."
But it was an election speech and the context Muslim. So, when it comes to polls, is polarisation the only way? This election, established leaders and regional satraps, such as Mulayam and Mayawati, are not even venturing beyond their age-old scripts full of cuss and caste.
But times are changing. Youth, even the nameless cadre, would rather be educated and work for a living if there were enough opportunities.
The poll outcome is far away and much will be said over the next month or so. Most of it wouldn't even be in all seriousness, and would be retracted after testing the waters.
But, people, you see Mr Yadav, are hearing.