In her latest book Why I Am a Liberal: A Manifesto for Indians Who Believe in Individual Freedom Sagarika Ghose argues why it is so important to renew the meaning of Indian liberalism with new energy. An excerpt:

Politics remains such a closed bastion of male networks and so old-fashioned in consigning women to the bahu-beti trap that women can rarely rise in politics through a normal route. No wonder women politicians are invariably called by family titles, like ‘amma’ and ‘didi’ and ‘behenji’ as if to underline their relationships with men. In this family soap opera, unpredictability is their weapon. They must embrace a certain public madness and deploy a designer insanity as a tactical ploy. They must seek recourse to their inner Kali and slip suddenly into Kali-hood to keep enemies at bay. By keeping people guessing, they make cadres and opponents stay in line. To be volatile is to be feared and to be feared is to rule. For women politicians, irrationality makes for perfect rationality, their irrationality a mark of the brutal environment in which they operate. Powerful women leaders sometimes appoint women as tokens too, such as when Sonia Gandhi, once the most powerful woman leader in India, handpicked an undistinguished Pratibha Patil as the twelfth President of India.

For women politicians, irrationality makes for perfect rationality, their irrationality a mark of the brutal environment in which they operate.

Powerful women are judged in terribly harsh terms and often face hateful verbal abuse. Mamata Banerjee battled the Left for decades, suffering near-fatal blows to the head and gaining the image of a ‘streetfighter’

In 1995, Mayawati faced threats to her life from Samajwadi Party (SP) rivals when the VIP guest house she was staying in in Lucknow was surrounded and besieged by violent SP cadres because she had withdrawn support from the Mulayam Singh Yadav government. Jayalalithaa had her sari torn and hair pulled and was reduced to tears in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1989. A swaggering 56-inch-chest-flaunting male politician is admired, but a similarly powerful female leader is invariably dubbed a tyrannical despot and even attacked in public. Across the subcontinent, women who have managed to succeed in politics have mostly done it through the syndrome Oxford professor Ali Mazrui described as ‘female accession to male martyrdom’, like Sonia Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sirimav Bandaranaike, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, or women who take on the martyrdom of a dead male relative and rule as his proxy. In the case of Rajiv Gandhi, he acceded to the female martyrdom of his assassinated mother.

A swaggering 56-inch-chest-flaunting male politician is admired, but a similarly powerful female leader is invariably dubbed a tyrannical despot and even attacked in public.

Yet whether women they have the luxury of belonging to powerful families or whether they fought their way up, they cannot afford to be ‘normal’. The occasional rampaging Kali avatar is the strategy they must adopt. After all, Sita can be ordered not to cross the Lakshman rekha, but nobody dares to tell Kali what to do. Indira Gandhi fought hard against Congress party bosses to establish her authority; in the process, she had to emerge as a populist virago-like authoritarian figure, like Margaret Thatcher, outmanning the men around her, and getting the reputation of an Iron Lady. Unless politics and the nature of political participation changes, women will be perpetually trapped in their Kali avatars. The inherently violent Big State, which legitimizes violent ways of imposing authority, creates a political culture inimical to women, and makes women imitators of violent men.

Why I Am A Liberal By Sagarika Ghose

 

After all, Sita can be ordered not to cross the Lakshman rekha, but nobody dares to tell Kali what to do.

That’s why liberals in India have constantly called for political reforms to make politics more ‘normal’. C. Rajagopalachari spoke constantly about reforming the election system in India so that the talented and honest would join, irrespective of gender. ‘What is to be deplored most . . . is the terrible rise in election expenditure . . . money running so alarmingly ahead of education leads one to ask what hope or way out is there for democracy . . . we cannot save democracy for India unless we make elections less expensive than they are today.’ With the rise of money power has also come the criminalization of politics and the rise of goondaism. When politics is about disbursing patronage by securing access to the public exchequer, elections will necessarily become astronomically expensive and spiral into criminalization. For liberals, the real answer lies in reforming politics by restraining and limiting the power of the Big State so that politics does not appeal to those who only want to capture the state apparatus through the election system. When winning elections at any cost is the established norm, money and muscle power will call the shots and in this ferocious political culture where values and ideas don’t matter, women will inevitably be marginalized and jawdroppingly prejudiced views about women will be openly voiced by normless power-displaying forces.

When politics is about disbursing patronage by securing access to the public exchequer, elections will necessarily become astronomically expensive and spiral into criminalization.

Thus, ‘normal’ women leaders will not be able to emerge, let alone succeed, and educated progressive women will either be kept out or be forced into regressive and theatrical stances to make their presence felt.

The ascent of women leaders in India, like women sportspersons, thus has little to do with the system genuinely making way for women. Instead, it has everything to do with herculean, life-altering effort and the dewomanizing roles that political women have to play if they want to win in public life.

The ascent of women leaders in India, like women sportspersons, thus has little to do with the system genuinely making way for women.

This is probably the reason women politicians cannot afford to be seen as gender-sensitive or woman-friendly, or accommodative and consensual. How can they when the very acceptance of womanhood is an admission of weakness? The lives of India’s women leaders reveal the patriarchy and feudalism of our society rather than its progressive forward movement. Whether it is Mehbooba Mufti in Jammu and Kashmir or Mamata Banerjee in Bengal or the late Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, glass ceilings have hardly been broken in politics, because when women succeed they do so despite the system, not because of it. Sadly, perhaps because these women attribute their success to the prevailing system, they don’t feel the need to change it.

Excerpted with permission from Why I Am A Liberal by Sagarika Ghose, published by Penguin. Rs 499, 244 pages

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