Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Women on the edge

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Column in Business Standard, July 3, 2015

The best-known political by-product of Ekta Kapoor’s all-time TV blockbuster is Smriti Irani, India’s controversial, and many believe misguided, education minister. In the decade-long soap that brought her fame, riches and a Cabinet berth she plays the long-suffering traditional daughter-in-law, often at the receiving end of a difficult and manipulative mother-in-law. Both characters are in the mould of classic gender stereotypes of Indian women: one, compassionate and giving, always there for friends in need; and the other, sharp-tongued, conspiratorial and demanding. It is curious to see how many of the country’s top women politicians either consciously conform to the templates or are viewed as such through the public prism.

In trying to extricate themselves from the murky Lalit Modi scandal both Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje are keen to usurp the role of the meltingly kind-hearted daughter-in-law. The foreign minister’s humanitarianism and the Rajasthan chief minister’s urgency in helping a family friend is their sole defence. Their pleas can hardly be ascribed to inexperience: Swaraj has been MP since 1990 and has headed numerous Union ministries including a brief tenure as Delhi’s chief minister in 1998; Raje is serving her second term as chief minister and has been a member of both the state legislature and Parliament since 1985. Yet their obduracy is matched by the ostrich-like stance of the BJP’s senior leadership. Party president Amit Shah and ministers such like Nitin Gadkari commend them for passing the ideal daughter-in-law tests, of morality and helpfulness, in assisting the flamboyant ex-cricket czar fix his travel and residence papers in Britain.
Central to the success of the Saas Bhi Kabi Bahu Thi drama are the convolutions of family life, a theme dearly beloved of audiences in India and overseas (the serial was dubbed in languages as far apart as Sinhala and Dari). In a plot more gripping than anything the soap’s scriptwriters could hope to conjure both women in public office claim pseudo-kinship to Modi, a fugitive from Indian law. Swaraj’s lawyer husband and daughter have represented Lalit Modi legally for years, while Raje’s son, BJP MP Dushyant Singh’s business interests reek of financial jiggery-pokery with Modi.

But they are not the only political damsels in distress on the scene. J Jayalalithaa, serving her fifth term as Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, won the RK Nagar by election from north Chennai last week with a majority so huge that the DMK Opposition didn’t bother to field a candidate. She was convicted and disqualified from holding public office in 2014 by a CBI court in Karnataka for what must be one of the strangest – and longest-running – family soaps in Indian politics. A heartbeat from her troubles in the disproportionate assets case (including 2,000 acres of land, 30 kg of gold and 12,000 saris) that has rolled out in installments for 18 years, are her close friend Sasikala Natarajan, whose family plus the CM’s “disowned” foster son, were also convicted. They got out after brief jail terms. Still, Ekta Kapoor’s toiling serial hacks would be hard pressed to spin a yarn so intricate and inventive of kinship between Jayalalithaa and her adopted family. To her household she must seem a doting, munificent sister and auntie but for her adoring public she often assumes the guise of a stern “Amma”: distant, imperious and unrelenting in her demand for absolute obedience. Ministers hurl themselves in prostration at her feet; her fans immolate themselves in grief when fresh misfortunes befall her.

She may be the universal “Didi” but West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee – hectoring, mercurial and prone to temper tantrums – is the archetype of the TV mother-in-law. She is unpredictable and ideologically capricious. It’s never been clear what she stands for. She has allied with both the Congress- and BJP-led governments in New Delhi; though she led the anti-industrial protests in Nandigram her Facebook page is currently splashed with gloating images of wooing investors. “Ease of Doing Business in Bengal reaches a new level…Our target is to make Bengal the No. 1 Investment Destination.” This is unlikely given the ramshackle finances of her state which some consider to be India’s Greece.

For someone born into relative poverty, and adhering to an austere lifestyle, you would think she would be far removed from the taint of political corruption. But the Saradha financial scandal which robbed nearly two million low-income depositors of their savings has dented her image and sent members of her government to jail. You may also believe that an unmarried leader without progeny would be impervious to letting her family anywhere near her public life. No, again. The rising star of her party is her 28-year-old nephew Abhishek Banerjee, elected MP from Diamond Harbour last year, who now heads the Trinamool Youth Congress.

For current entertainment who could write a better serial, or reality show, than the one playing out before our eyes? You could always call it “Women on the Edge”.

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