Women are all the chatter this 17th Lok Sabha elections. The electric female voter turnouts, surfeit of hype on women's representation from the BJP and Congress, and avant garde electoral feminisation of the BJD and TMC. Not to mention the persisting public discourse around Mayawati, Mamata, Priyanka, and now, Priyanka.
Serving first as General Secretary of the Youth Congress from North-West Mumbai, and later elevated to the post of AICC Spokesperson, Priyanka Chaturvedi's face, tone, and tenor became synonymous with the Congress, even as she gathered a sizeable fan following. When she quit the INC on April 19 to join the Shiv Sena after nearly a decade in the grand old party, what followed was a deluge of predictable outrage from media and social media. Both yelled foul at the reversal of ideological positions.
Shorn of coloured lenses, this actually reveals just how much of her political identity she had fused into her party positions, into her designated role, as would be expected of a superlative spokesperson. Indeed, the outrage only confirms just how convincing she was as a political communicator, with her audience.
Despite this success, she neither secured a Lok Sabha candidacy, nor a state level leadership role in the Congress.
In more quotidian careers, the salesman switches from selling a product line of say, personal care products or home appliances, to regional responsibility in a career move towards running the company. Geography is gold in sales. So also in politics.
Further, goons had disrupted her party press conference in Mathura in September 2018, broke into an all-out public brawl in the presence of media, and barged into her hotel room with rods and threatened her, and threatened her, abuses especially targeting her gender.
She fought to get them suspended for six years, but just six months later, they were reinstated citing elections, without as much as an apology to her.
And yet, Priyanka's move to the Shiv Sena has, predictably, raised a furore in the righteously indignant, as with most choices made by women, be they career or marital choices. Her choice is assessed through a prism of morality and virtue. Critics find it particularly hard to digest Shiv Sena as a destination, a party known for its miltancy.
What is reality though is that there is never a 100% alignment of anyone with any party, and everywhere is a compromise. Viewed as a career path, this is a politically astute gambit by Priyanka. She knows well her strength: a bold national voice in politics. And in a party like Shiv Sena, she can fill the gap of grassroots connect.
Shiv Sena as a party has been wanting to gentrify while still retaining their very native roots. They have also been attempting to foray into other states, somewhat unsuccessfully for a while now. This involves broadening their image, requiring both political communication and talent acquisition. Priyanka brings these assets in plenty. She is a national face, national voice, hails from UP, and yet a Mumbaikar to the core.
What the Shiv Sena offers her is a strong regional platform for ground politics and base building; her next career stop. Beyond that, it is a governmental playing field at both city and state levels, an opportunity to craft policy and programs. Impactful change that earns her political currency is impossible as a spokesperson and she must get her hands dirty. A smaller and perhaps more wieldy party, where the scion overtly espouses the cause of women's representation, is one she could help feminize, and morph into a less militant, more inclusive avatar as its current biggest female leader.
India is a country where compulsions of dynasty, circumstances, intrigue, and money, often dictate the political journey of individuals. An independent woman exercising political agency, autonomous from external constraints is such a rarity in India, it attracts scrutiny where Shatrughan Sinha caused not a blink.
Maneka Gandhi ditched her natural alignment for the opposite, but due to forces in her personal life. Daggubati Purandeshwari switched ideological allegiance but with little other choice due to the extraordinary political circumstances of her state that rendered the Congress non grata due to state division. Shaina NC complained and continues to patiently wait. Mamata Banerjee is the one that deliberately broke away, as a career choice, and forged her own mould. That was two decades ago.
It is well known that lower level party functionaries change colours all the time. Worse, garden variety male party leaders shed skin willy nilly, continuing to accrue electoral gains and voter base support. Measured by who their rank and file leaders are, most parties are no longer distinguishable, so many men having defected back and forth seamlessly.
Women in politics, though, especially lack autonomy in a chronically patriarchal party and social system. It strips them of choice and parcels them into anonymous retirement as Women's Wing chiefs, with a mere 8% or less fielded as candidates in state and national elections, on average.
Priyanka though, has taken control of the reins of her career. That reeks of agency. She is the narrative in her political story. She is not the discourse as target of mealy mouthed male contestants or as a facade candidate to deflect from lacklustre electoral prospects, instead she is the narrative in her political story.
As to whether that narrative can be lucid in a party like Shiv Sena, that is so far from her decade-long stated positions, remains to be seen. What is certain is that, as an independent female politician with no dynastic backing, she is pursuing career outcomes, not token roles.
Priyanka Chaturvedi's political agency reflects perhaps the coming of age of the female politician.
Tara Krishnaswamy is a co-founder of Shakti – Political Power to Women, and Citizens for Bengaluru. Views expressed are the author’s own.