Why voters should care more about sexist speeches and paternalistic politics

There are five indicators of the degree of misogyny in our political culture, and therefore, in our elections.
A politician speaking to a big crowd of people
A politician speaking to a big crowd of people

In the last fortnight, at least two Tamil Nadu campaign speeches have caught our attention for their blatant misogyny. The first was the TV star campaigning for a DMK candidate, describing women as being barrel-shaped. The second was a slur made by a prominent DMK leader against the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, ostensibly to highlight his lack of political experience. Across the hills in Kerala, another campaigner mocked Rahul Gandhi for visiting girls’ colleges. Women candidates seek to hold their own in this dubious discourse in the name of tit-for-tat, as did the BJP candidate responding to the actor-politician's insult with a double-entendre slur.

As shameful as these statements were, the silver lining has been in the universal outrage they have provoked. No one, in March 2021, appears to think that they are acceptable or should be overlooked. Party leaders have issued statements asking for ‘dignified’ campaigning (and we will debate what that means on another day) and although that seems like a tepid, half-hearted response, this is an improvement on times past.

But statements like this are only the visible tip of the iceberg of patriarchal, paternalistic politics.

There are five indicators of the degree of misogyny in our political culture, and therefore, in our elections.

The first is the question of nominations. How many women are nominated as election candidates, and what percentage they make of the total number of candidates, is a clear indicator of whether women are even visible to the mostly male leaders of Indian political parties. As one scans news reports and the Election Commission for data, the findings are pitiful. In Tamil Nadu, 411 out of almost 4000 candidates are women. In Kerala, 38 candidates fielded by the major parties are women and this is less than 10% of their total candidates. In Puducherry, 36 candidates (11%) are women.

Thirty years after the introduction of a women’s quota at the panchayat level, what could possibly account for the paucity of women candidates, if not the willful blindness of male party leaders? Research around the world has established several inhibiting factors that keep women from political careers. On top of that list, we might safely place the assiduous gatekeeping of male politicians. Panchayats, social movements and party cadres all count women members in lakhs, and yet, parties are hard-pressed to find a hundred women, between them, that they deem qualified and deserving (and here we defer the discussion about the quality bar for candidates in general).

The second indicator of misogyny is that while gender might disqualify a candidate, accusations and even being charge-sheeted for sexual and gender-based violence and harassment do not disqualify them. In Puducherry, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, this time, one Congress candidate has listed an indecent behaviour charge in his affidavit. ADR’s 2021 candidate reports for Kerala and Tamil Nadu are not yet out, but their Sitting MLA reports are. In the outgoing Kerala Assembly, one MLA had a case registered against him for forcibly disrobing a woman. In the outgoing Tamil Nadu Assembly, two MLAs had cases against them, one for assault to disrobe and the other for indecent behaviour. These may appear like small numbers but juxtapose them against the size of the Indian electorate and ask: Could you not find people with no cases at all? Of course, parties could, if they would.

The third indicator is the degree of tolerance for gendered hate speech—three examples of which we just witnessed. Remarks that put down women, that trivialise violence, that are homophobic or transphobic and that make obscene references fall in this category. Related to this, is trolling outspoken women and women in other parties.

Violence against women in politics is the fourth indicator of misogyny in our political culture. Rape threats, against the person and members of their family; spreading malicious rumours or even, sharing their number on various platforms as solicitation—the list of “punishments” meted out by the troll armies of political parties, as well as social platform users in their thrall, no longer shocks. While platforms take some local action against them, their political masters follow the ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ dictum and ignore their existence. Beyond impunity and tolerance of verbal abuse and gendered hate speech, political leaders seem to indulge and reward such behaviour by continuing to stay connected online or allowing such people to remain in their parties.

The fifth and final indicator is one that the ordinary public has only recently got access to—manifestos. Not having analysed this year’s manifestos, we can say, in general, manifestos tend to reflect the patriarchal thinking of our parties. Where they consider women at all, it is usually in terms of their familial and maternal roles (maternity care), as daughters who must be married (lump sums towards a wedding), as dependents in need of support (sewing machines to widows) and vulnerable symbols of honour in need of protection (“women safety” programmes). On an average, items mentioning women in party manifestos are rarely gender transformative—that is, intended to transform the substance of the power equation between men and women in society. Of course, every now and then, proposals like the recruitment of more women into government service including the police; easier access to credit; scholarships for women students do make their way into a manifesto.

This year, in Tamil Nadu, the “women empowerment” proposal that has been hotly debated is pay for homemakers in recognition of the care work they do. More than debated, it may be accurate to say that it has set off a contest in monetary benefits to women. But what is the meaning of such proposals? Beyond the election campaign stage, are they feasible? Is there any money in the exchequer for this? Given the misery wrought by the pandemic, a few thousand rupees will make a big difference in many households, but will erratic disbursement of such funds transform gender relations? Luckily for political parties, people do not remember their manifestos at the time of voting, leave alone holding them accountable for their promises later on.

Indian political parties, during election season and at all other times, easily meet the misogyny bar. They can be trusted at all times to be patronising and paternalistic—providing for and protecting women and girls in ways that preserve the power and prestige of fathers, husbands and brothers in familial and social settings and the privilege of men in the public sphere. They have trouble seeing and recollecting experience, expertise and extraordinary leadership and initiative in party members who are not men. Their polemical commitment to progressive or rationalist values stops short of ending male—or caste-class—privilege. That is the frame within which we are permitted to sketch and colour our political ambitions—whether to power or to full citizenship.

And then here’s the bitterest bite of all—as armchair commentators, we are outraged, but as voters, we do not seem to care one way or the other. And until we show that we do, it will be paternalistic politics as usual.

Dr Swarna Rajagopalan is the founder of Prajnya, a Chennai-based non-profit working towards gender justice

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