Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Of Women and Presidents: Debjani Banerjee

It has been a heady week in Indian politics and the Presidential nomination is still up in the air. But I thought I would post this anyway so we can mull over matters while the politicians play their cards.

I was excited when I heard that India was going to have its first woman president. Even if the role of the Indian president is largely symbolic and not quite equivalent to that of the French or American president (if the U.S. swears in a woman this November, I promise I will have no rants), it is path breaking. A woman even as the ceremonial head of India seemed like a harbinger of things to come.

But as I pondered over the matter I wondered if Pratibha Patil-Sekhawat’s nomination was clinching a deal for the women of India. I think people who are working at the heart of gender politics would not agree so readily.
The problem is not that she is low profile or that she has not done enough work in the area of gender development. The problem is that she is being chosen for her name rather than her work. Her hyphenated name at once appeases the vociferous Sekhawat community and complicates the candidature of the Vice President, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat who has jumped into the fray. As a son (sorry, daughter) of the soil, her nomination would please the Maharashtrians, (The NCP of Maharashtra, under Sharad Pawar, has been threatening to break away over several issues and they need to be mollified.) Suggesting the name of Pratibha Patil, currently the governor of Rajasthan, was a brilliant masterstroke by the Congress (who along with their allies are in political power at the moment) after their candidate, Shivraj Patil, the ex speaker of the Lok Sabha was turned down by the Left. The Left and the allies had also rejected the names of Sushil Kumar Shinde who represented Maharashtrian Dalits (we have already had a Dalit President in K.R. Narayanan so there is no urgency to appease them again right away?) and Karan Singh. (Dr.Karan Singh who hails from the royal family of Kashmir and studied at Doon School is obviously too esoteric a choice?) In contrast, Pratibha Patil, who belongs to a comfortable middle class and has a good education and a distinguished, if not spectacular career, seems like a safer choice. Her nomination has been lapped up by the allies of the Congress. But the Opposition parties have other ideas.

In the most recent development, the Vice President (who is being supported by the Opposition party) has said that he would withdraw his candidature if Dr.Abdul Kalam, the present incumbent, agrees to a second term; supported by heavyweights like Jayalalitha from the south, the President has maintained that he will return to Rashtrapati Bhawan only if he is the consensus candidate. In this complex game of identity politics and electoral ratios, Pratibha Patil, is being positioned as a woman candidate who, by virtue of her gender, represents all the women of India. My concern here, is not that she would have to be called the rather inelegant, Rashtrapatni, but that too; are we going to rename the post and the place of Residence? And even if we do that, can this lady stand outside of petty political strife to even try and make a difference? India is no stranger to women in politics. We have had a woman Prime Minister who has “ruled” India for fifteen years; the current de facto power in Indian politics, it is whispered, is a lady. And yet the position of women in non urban India has not improved in leaps and bounds.

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So, if Pratibha Patil is chosen as the President when the politicians have exhausted all their moves, will it mean something for the women of India? Does it mean that women can have more legislation in their favour? Can it even signify that women’s achievements are substantial enough for them to be considered as the head of state, even in a titular position? Or is it just a token gesture that will not serve any real purpose? Tokenism worries me because for those of us who take gender politics seriously, it is a reminder that those in power can just use gender politics to their advantage; because “they” do not want to commit themselves to women’s empowerment in any serious way, they nominate a woman president! It sounds like circular logic but it is unfortunately how tokenism works. And tokenism implies condescension. Well sorry, we cannot pass the bill that ensures that women should have 33% seats reserved in the Lok Sabha, (and this is the place where Bills are debated so it is important to be there) but instead, we can have someone who looks like you as the President! It is like being handed a bar of chocolate when one needed serious attention in order to deal with female foeticide, anti dowry legislation, better education for women and the skewed gender ratio. Tall orders, any of these, but this is what India needs if ever we want development for all our citizens and globalization at a less-than-surface level.

It is being claimed that Pratibha Patil’s biggest advantage is that she has the right name, she is close to the Gandhi family and that she is non-threatening. This last bothers me more than the first two. Previous presidents have been chosen for their names and yet Abdul Kalam, Zakir Hussain and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed have left individual imprints as good speakers, who with their knowledge and intellect can make appropriate legal interventions. Kalam certainly has been hailed as a popular President and as such, Patil has large shoes that she has to fill. Can she find non threatening ways to commit to progressive and secular values for the women of India? Or will she be just another name on Wikipaedia? Going for her is that she is a lawyer, an efficient administrator and an experienced politician who has held ministry portfolios of housing, health and education. And my personal favourite – she was the table tennis champion in her college!


17 comments:

Vidya said...

Nice write up. The US presidential election is November of next year, not 2007 as you have mentioned.

ishani said...

The Presidential race in the US this time is being touted as being all about big money and fund-raising skills. In India, however, it's turned into an interesting powerplay! While the Congress seems to have made a nimble-footed move in bringing in the "woman" card to get its Left allies in line - now the lady herself has goofed up on the "purdah" theme. The left historians and intellectuals have been the first to raise the issue which leaves the parliament representatives rather red-faced! Ms Patil, in fact, has gone a step further to denounce purdha, raising questions about the gunghat! For non-partisan political observers, things are getting more & more interesting.

Debjani said...

Vidya, thank you, I stand corrected.

Ishani,yes, I hear she has really goofed up in her speech in rajasthan about the origin of the veil. See that's my worry, there were others like Mohsina Kidwai whose nominations were being considered, but perhaps Patil fitted into the identity politics slot better and then she really is not involved with any progressive movement enough to cause any embarrasment to those who are rooting for her. Rather disturbing...

D A E said...

Great post... Rashtrapatni is just too much!
By the way, Karan Singh, the all-time presidential hopeful, gave a media interview the day Pratibha Patil's nomination was announced. 'I still think I am the best man for the job,' he said, 'but, well, they've decided to give the job to a woman.' Rather telling, in a way...
Speaking of appeasements, mustn't forget that the first choice for the job was in fact Pranab Mukherjee, but the government apparently couldn't 'spare' him. So how is the nation going to make it up to the bengalees? There's never been a bengali president or vice president. Somnath, Buddha, Mamata, are you listening? The Vice President's chair beckons.

Debjani said...

d a e, yes I did wonder about Pranab Mukherjee's choice as a candidate. If one were not doing appeasement politics, what do you think one could look for in a Presidential candidate? As I was writing the blog, I wondered about those criteria; are they written somewhere or we make it up as we go along?

But the whole Bengali angle is really interesting; may be we can sow some seeds of discontent right here...make a Bengali president or else...

On a more serious note, did Karan Singh really say that? Used to have more respect for the man..

P2C2U said...

When I first heard that a woman might become the next President, I'll admit that I was happy. Then I began wondering if it is just tokenism, as you said.

The thing that really frustrates me is that we have a strong women's movement in this country, more vociferous and more demanding than in many other nations. It makes me angry to think that all their efforts might be rendered null and void if a woman is made President, merely as a gesture.

Debjani said...

Yes, I agree with p2c2u that it is this process of 'making' that jars so much. But what is the opposite of this, I wonder, is it not making someone a President because she is a woman; or could it ever be, that someone will earn the position of President?

manasi said...

Debjani,
I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the power of symbolism. For many of us growing up in North India, Rani Laxmibai as immortalized by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan symbolized women's empowerment. Here was a woman who in practical terms did not make much of a difference to the mutiny and a poet whose remaining oeuvre is not particularly impressive, but put together there is a remarkably inspiring imagery that captures the imaginations of little brown girls. A. B. Bardhan has a really nice interview on the NDTV website justifying the choice of Pratibha Patil. He raises an important point about exactly who is considered in the English mainstream media to be high profile. Here is a woman who has reached quite far without being the daughter or wife of a politico. She contested and was elected to the Maharashtra assembly before marriage, and from all accounts her husband has kept a distance from her politics. I can't be sure, but I think we are onto something good here.

Debjani said...

Manasi, that is an interesting perspective; low profile can indicate that a person has made it without a sugar daddy. Yet may be her closeness to certain centers of power continues to worry me. If she has it in her to snap those strings and make some real difference, I am all for her.
One thing is true for me - if the candidate for President is going to be a puppet anyway, then maybe I would rather endorse the woman than the man.Like you say, at least she would function as a symbol.

Ananya said...

but as a symbol of what? perhaps we could use symbols to mobilize some thinking around what the symbol does not represent.. could be a powerful argumentative device?

Debjani said...

Ananya, you bring up a relevant issue because symbols are always slightly indeterminate; e.g. sindoor or purdah. they always indicate a whole range of things so those who are subject to symbolism could pick and choose. So first and foremost, a symbol has to be stagnant so that it can be made to mean many things. Wars are fought over the body of the symbol as in the case of Helen of Troy. Could she have, in the middle of the war, said -- Stop this war, I dont want to go back to Menelaus? Would Agamemnon have listened? No, because Helen's was a aymbolic presence; she could not have a real voice or real opinions that changed the course of history. Am bringing up all this to answer your question -- what a symbol does not represent--a symbol does not represent a real woman, her opinions or her struggles outside of rhetorical frameworks.
On a more positive note, in Patil's case she probably does not represent, as Mansi, has pointed out earlier a powerful daddy or a powerful husband?? Please do take a look at Shobha De's patronising article on Pratibha Patil at www.indianexpress.com/story/34025 Patil or whatever she symbolises has really offended so called 'high profile' women like De, so there might be a glimmer of hope there.

D A E said...

It looks like Pratibha Patil is rapidly becoming a signifier, not just a symbol. The issue of Outlook magazine just out has run a poll ecxlusively among women in the six metros and adjoining rural areas: 68% of people polled think Pratibha is the right choice for president (only 12% say no, the rest are 'undecided'). Quite a departure from the response cnn-ibn got merely ten days back when they asked: should kalam have a second term? 94% of the respondents (presumably primarily urban and predominantly male) said yes. Outlook also asked: do you think a woman president would be good for india; do women make better politicians than men; do you think women can ensure cleaner politics? Most women said yes (72%, 61%, 66% to the three questions respectively). They also asked: is the choice of Pratibha Patil just symbolism? 47% women say no (only 36% say yes).

manasi said...

Debjani,
I doubt that Patil will be able to make a real difference. The office of the president is primarily symbolic and unless she redefines the institution I doubt that she will have a real impact on empowerment or gender equality issues. However, from her past record, it looks like she will be an intelligent and sober voice on these issues with reasonably high visibility. To be fair, the incumbent who is hugely popular with the middle class media has done little other than offer a few bon mots and far more banalities and is yet heralded as a huge inspiration to the youth of India.
Ananya, is right that there is plenty that symbols do not represent. Nevertheless, there is much that small-town and mofussil India invest in symbols, far more than in the West. I think it will be fun to watch the armed forces, perhaps the last recalcitrant male bastion, deal with a woman supreme commander. Republic day should especially be a treat.
For real empowerment, I think we have to look to our Lady-in-Pink, who just won a resounding mandate in Lucknow (she did start her career with a sugar daddy but has since exceeded her sugar daddy in stature and talent).
I think there is an exquisite irony in the token woman being from the ghati classes rather than the Shah Jehan Road crowd. De's article shows that for some, class is the true identity politics they play.

ishani said...

I'm making this comment mainly because I dont like the number 13. For me Indian politicians & Indian politics are symbolic of one main thing and that's CORRUPTION. The scale of corruption today has crossed all limits and we're never talking short of many crores of rupees! When it comes to corruption, I feel gender, caste and everything else takes a back seat where politicians are concerned! BTW, there's a great discussion on the Indian Presidential issue at eminent blogger Greatbong's blog too! You can follow it from desipundit as well.

Anonymous said...

This interesting blog on Patil reminds me of what Amartya Sen had said years ago, that "…over time the same country can move from one type of gender inequality to harbouring other forms of that inequity..."
Amarty had also explained that "…I must also warn against the smugness of thinking that the United States or Western Europe is free from gender bias simply because some of the empirical generalisations that can be made about the [Indian] subcontinent would not hold in the West. Given the many faces of gender inequality, much would depend on which face we look at. For example, India, along with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, has had female heads of governments, which the United States or Japan has not yet had (and does not seem very likely to have in the immediate future, if I am any judge). To take another example, I had a vastly larger proportion of tenured women colleagues when I was a Professor at Delhi University - as early as the 1960s - than I had at Harvard University in the 1990s, or presently have at Trinity College, Cambridge."

Although Amartya made the above statement years ago, the spirit of his discourse stands starkly true and all the more relevant even today. So we need not despair about Patil, even if we don't feel elated. Brought into politics by Y B Chavan primarily because she is a woman and because she geographically represented two distinct regions (coming from the prosperous Leva-Patil community of North Maharashtra that migrated from Rajasthan centuries ago, she married Devisingh Shekhawat from Vidarbha), no one in Maharashtra recalls Patil for anything that she has done or achieved. Her most prominent brush with publicity being the recent “purdah” faux pas that she committed apart from being the UPA Presidential candidate. On a charitable view, this may have been her ignorance. The fact that she withheld assent to a Rajasthan bill outlawing religious conversion, including voluntary conversion, speaks of a secular bent of mind, though. Yet, it would be unbecoming of a president of India to make remarks that can be interpreted as prejudiced or partisan. The president, as Indians know from experience, aren’t usually a fount of wisdom. Barring Radhakrishnan Narayanan and Kalam, most presidents have been neither erudite, nor wise. A majority were over-ambitious. All India needs is a dignified individual, relatively speaking. If she keeps a veil on her views in the coming months, we might very well have our first lady citizen soon!

Anonymous said...

This interesting blog on Patil reminds me of what Amartya Sen had said years ago, that "…over time the same country can move from one type of gender inequality to harbouring other forms of that inequity..."
Amarty had also explained that "…I must also warn against the smugness of thinking that the United States or Western Europe is free from gender bias simply because some of the empirical generalisations that can be made about the [Indian] subcontinent would not hold in the West. Given the many faces of gender inequality, much would depend on which face we look at. For example, India, along with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, has had female heads of governments, which the United States or Japan has not yet had (and does not seem very likely to have in the immediate future, if I am any judge). To take another example, I had a vastly larger proportion of tenured women colleagues when I was a Professor at Delhi University - as early as the 1960s - than I had at Harvard University in the 1990s, or presently have at Trinity College, Cambridge."

Although Amartya made the above statement years ago, the spirit of his discourse stands starkly true and all the more relevant even today. So we need not despair about Patil, even if we don't feel elated. Brought into politics by Y B Chavan primarily because she is a woman and because she geographically represented two distinct regions (coming from the prosperous Leva-Patil community of North Maharashtra that migrated from Rajasthan centuries ago, she married Devisingh Shekhawat from Vidarbha), no one in Maharashtra recalls Patil for anything that she has done or achieved. Her most prominent brush with publicity being the recent “purdah” faux pas that she committed apart from being the UPA Presidential candidate. On a charitable view, this may have been her ignorance. The fact that she withheld assent to a Rajasthan bill outlawing religious conversion, including voluntary conversion, speaks of a secular bent of mind, though. Yet, it would be unbecoming of a president of India to make remarks that can be interpreted as prejudiced or partisan. The president, as Indians know from experience, aren’t usually a fount of wisdom. Barring Radhakrishnan Narayanan and Kalam, most presidents have been neither erudite, nor wise. A majority were over-ambitious. All India needs is a dignified individual, relatively speaking. If she keeps a veil on her views in the coming months, we might very well have our first lady citizen soon!

ishani said...

From a rocket scientist of a minority community to a lady in ghunghat who proudly proclaims in public that she has communicated with a godman who died decades ago!!! The Indian Presidential scene is yet another unique gallery to showcase diversity!