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The first wives club

The First Wives Club: It doesn’t really exist in Indian politics – and long may it stay that way, writes Seema Goswami.

india Updated: May 15, 2010 18:13 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times

Who would have thought that being in London as the British chose their new government would make me nostalgic for politics, Indian style? And yet, strangely enough, that’s exactly how I feel.

I could have made my peace with the cheesy, stage-set like ambience of the electoral debates, which created a lot of sound and fury while signifying very little. Even Bigot-gate – when Prime Minister Gordon Brown was overheard calling a life-long Labour supporter a bigot on a live microphone after she quizzed him about immigration policies – seemed like par for the course in an era when non-stories are spun into pivotal media events. But in the end, it’s the wives who really got to me.

No matter which newspaper you opened – broadsheet or tabloid – or which news channel you watched, there was no escaping the First Wives Club. Here was Samantha, dutifully trotting behind David Cameron, all peachy skin, luminous smile and baby bump.

There was Sarah Brown, trying hard to hide a tense look behind a rictus grin as husband Gordon did his own awkward take on man of the people. And bringing up the rear was the redoubtable Spanish spouse of Nick Clegg, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, who bravely built a dry stone wall with her bare hands before falling over in a supermarket and breaking her elbow.

It wasn’t all photo-opportunities, though. The First Wives had speaking parts as well on the campaign trail. Sarah Brown held forth on how her husband was “her hero” and how only he could save Britain from economic meltdown (barn doors, bolting horses anyone?) when she wasn’t tweeting every inconsequential detail of her day.

Samantha Cameron was all about the Bump – how happy she and David were, when the baby was due, how she was feeling these days (tired but great, if you really want to know). And Miriam was all bolshy and defensive about how she wasn’t as prominent a presence on her husband’s election campaign (“I don’t have a job that I can just abandon for five weeks, and I imagine that is the case with most people in this country,” she snapped at one point, though she insisted this was not a dig at Samantha Cameron, whose job at Smythson appears to have rather flexible hours.)

And then there were the obligatory public displays of affection. Samantha and David were pictured on the tour bus, with her head nestled in his lap while he cradled the Bump (by now a supporting member of the Cameron cast). Gordon and Sarah fetched up on the GMTV sofa, sitting far too close together as Gordon held forth on how much he loved her. (“Thank you,” gushed Sarah, looking deep into his eyes even as the rest of us groped around for a sick bag.) And Clegg clung on to his wife’s arm and made inappropriate cooing noises whenever he could coax her away from her high-powered lawyer’s digs.

No detail of any of these men’s private lives was too trivial to share with the voting public. We heard about their love stories, how they met their wives, how they fell in love, how they got married, how much they loved their children, where they liked to holiday, what breakfast cereal they started the day with.

And then, there were the personal tragedies: the death of the Browns’ first-born daughter, Jennifer, who had been born prematurely; the recent demise of the Camerons’ first-born son, Ivan, who was born with cerebral palsy and died at six; the fact that Browns’ younger son, Fraser, was born with cystic fibrosis.

While all of this was compelling viewing – and fascinating reading – what possible connection could any of this have with the General Election? You could argue at a pinch that such stuff goes towards building up character – which it does – but does it make a man a better or worse Prime Minister? Surely to suggest that you can only understand the problems of people in tragic circumstances if you have experienced tragedy yourself is to demean the human capacity for empathy and to diminish us all as social beings.

But while I can understand the impulse to humanise our politicians, what I simply cannot fathom is this relentless focus on their spouses – on what they are wearing; what they feed their kids; where they shop; the list of mindless tripe goes on and on.

Of course, it is all dressed up as political commentary.

Why was Sarah Brown wearing a silk Erdem dress worth £600 and Jimmy Choo shoes at £400 a pop? Didn’t she understand that she is a Labour wife not a posh Tory bird? Did you know that Samantha Cameron’s M&S dress was actually made to measure for her because the store had run out of her size? What was she trying to prove by wearing M&S? We all knew that she was a fully-paid up member of the designer set. And why was Miriam Clegg shopping for lingerie at Rigby and Peller during her lunch hour anyway?

But however you dress it up, all this focus on the wives is just trivia. And it makes me grateful that we don’t have to endure it in Indian politics. We don’t really know or care what the wives of Manmohan Singh or L.K. Advani wear. And long may it stay that way.

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First Published: May 15, 2010 15:35 IST