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.
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.
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.