So what if India’s Parliament remains a swaggering boys’ club for the most part? Soon- if all goes according to plan — the three most powerful people in the country will be women. The controlling hand behind the present government is that of a woman’s. The head of the most populous and politically significant state is a woman. And now, our first citizen too may well be a female.
Even America is still debating whether it can ever get over its White Male obsession and elect a woman as president. But here in India, we have apparently already shown the way. Sonia Gandhi has billed this moment in time as “historic” and the presidential candidate herself says her nomination is proof of how much India “respects women.”
Isn’t the emergence of the relatively unknown Pratibha Patil as the consensus candidate more about survival and strategy than equality and empowerment? Isn’t her candidature more symbolic than substantive? And worst of all, wasn’t she pulled out like a rabbit from a magician’s hat only after six other male nominees were shown the pink slip?
As an unapologetic feminist, the prospect of a woman as the President should be a moment of pride and satisfaction. Instead, I’m left feeling utterly cynical and confused. And I suspect, I’m not the only one.
I accept the argument that in a country that carries the burden of historical prejudice, symbolism may have its own value. Often what seems like tokenism can be the kickstart for real change. I have always argued that women in politics are put under the microscope in a way that their male counterparts never are. Many male contenders for the top job have also had perfectly pedestrian careers but never get torn apart by public scrutiny in the way that Patil has and will.
Nor do I have anything specifically against Pratibha Patil as a candidate. By all accounts she has an entirely acceptable resume — early training as a lawyer, five stints in an assembly, a term in Parliament, and even hardy experience as the deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha for two years. She has risen through the ranks and has a track record that is unblemished by accusations of corruption or impropriety. Most recently, as the first female governor of Rajasthan she held her own against the state government by refusing to sign a controversial religious conversions bill. And she even seems to be married to that rare entity — a liberal husband who woefully talks about living apart from his more successful wife.
So, why isn’t all of this enough to make the Presidential nomination a watershed moment for gender equality?
The answer is simple — it’s because Pratibha Patil’s accomplishments were never considered good enough by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to make her their first choice, or even second, or third, or fourth or fifth. She’s now being billed by the Congress as a person of impeccable qualities. But if that is indeed the case, then why has she spent so many years in political wilderness? Why is that when she was appointed as the Governor of Rajasthan, many saw it as a deft way of pushing her out of active Maharashtra politics? If she is so well regarded by the party, why didn’t they think of her earlier?
Now, let’s forget about Pratibha Patil’s individual history for just a moment. This is meant to be a great moment for women in India because we finally get our “own” candidate. Yet, till it reached crisis point, did you hear the UPA mention a female nominee even once? In all the fevered speculation that tailed the presidential sweepstakes there wasn’t even a whisper about a woman.
Even as tokenism goes, this one wasn’t planned. In the past, India has already seen a Sikh, a Dalit and a Muslim in the
President’s chair. Gender was the next obvious symbol of worth that could have been explored. But it seems no one thought of it till dire political circumstances forced a change in strategy.
We all know how and why the men got knocked out. The foreign minister got his own party’s veto. The Left wouldn’t even contemplate Karan Singh, despite his public bid for the post. History had already anointed a Dalit as President, so Sushilkumar Shinde had limited cache, not to mention Mayawati’s possible disapproval. N.D Tiwari was too old and unwell and Arjun Singh, far too controversial. That left only the Home Minister, who remained at the top of the race till the Marxists just refused to say yes (for reasons that still remain mysterious).
So, basically, when the squabbling allies could not reach an agreement on the male stalwarts, suddenly they all remembered the women. And from their list of possible options they pulled out the “nicest”, most non-threatening and least controversial person from Raj Bhavan retirement and dressed it up as history in the making.
And then there was the bonus: this last-minute nominee was even married into a Shekhawat clan from Rajasthan setting the electoral stage for an ironic battle of Rajputs. As politics go, it was indisputably a tactical masterstroke. The NDA has been pushed on the defensive; its strategists have to completely re-do their caste arithmetic, and the Maharashtra lobby across parties (including the Shiv Sena) may well be inclined to support Pratibha Patil.
It seems that after weeks of bickering the UPA-Left have found a winning formula. Unless something goes terribly and dramatically wrong, India is all set to get its first woman President. As a woman, I think that in the sixtieth year of independence that’s a suitably appropriate and happy development. Pratibha Patil may even take this debate beyond gender and prove to be a fine President.
But let’s remember that we got to this point entirely by accident. This was about circumstance, not courage.
Barkha dutt is managing editor, NDTV 24x7 firstname.lastname@example.org