Here is what we say:
recognize the altered night and day;
men and women must together find
an honest will to put behind
a habitually distorted humankind.
(Badri Raina, Our Share of the World, Museindia.com)
Since all evaluations nowadays of India’s standing in the world must be made in relation to America, we say “America, eat your heart; we win you lose.”
Who knows when, or if, dear Hillary will ever make it to the Whitewashed house; but here, where all the “growth” is, a woman will soon be the Republic’s first citizen, and the commander of its armed forces. That too. So prepare your salute, O macho Generals; a woman awaits your allegiance.
And, dear uncle Sam, we have already had our Dalit Rashtrapati; when will you have your black one?
So you see, the most ancient is also now the most avant-garde, while the most modern remains mired in Biblical binaries: man, the lord; white the god.
So hang your head, dear Sammy,
hang your head and cry;
’cause next you visit the republic here,
’it’s a woman will make you standby.
Now I must confess that I have never shared the sentiment that a world led by women must necessarily be a better world, or a worse one for that matter.
I have long observed that men and women share pretty much the same abilities and aspirations. I do not believe that there is anything in their “natures” severally that sets them ontologically apart, the good book notwithstanding.
Give a man or a woman half a chance and they can be equally tender or uncaring, canny or brazenly brutal, tactically cool or blasÃ©, skinflint or generous, daring or dodging, moral, amoral, or plain immoral. It is just a matter of opportunity.
That being the case, how is the outrageous asymmetry in how much men and women own or control to be justified? It seems just the fact that man’s early advantage in muscle has encouraged him since not to yield, and to build laws and dispensations that keep the illogical asymmetry in place. Yet, inevitably, history works its ways, whittling away at the imbalance. After all, where abilities and aspirations are evenly spread, so should goods and governance be.
Thus, the candidature of Shrimati Pratibha Patil for President of the Republic of India may leave many askance, including some flaming feminists in high places.
It is their argument that she was but an afterthought. Hey, do we have to tell you that some of the most momentous discoveries in human history have resulted purely from inspired misdirections? Think that had good old Columbus not made one such mistake, believing the Americas to be India, we may have had no Manhattan. Of course, we may also have been spared Hiroshima, Vietnam, Iraq, and George W. Bush. But see how that cookie crumbled, and now we suffer the consequences. Likewise, was Madame Curie looking for Radium? No. Yet imagine medical science without that discovery.
Many years ago E.H.Carr taught us how the modern historian does not moralise or hypothesise, or do a saintly inquest into motives; she merely explains that which happens. Best to keep it that way, remembering only that Shrimati Patil may have been an afterthought, a masterly one at that, but she could be so only when she was in thought. Therein resides history.
Then we are advised not to be too joyous about what is a purely “symbolic” gesture. Symbolic, indeed, might be Durga riding the tiger (what harm, pray, might that do so long as the symbol remains on poster?), but a duly installed head of the republic, custodian of the Constitution with the power to appoint the prime minister, commander of the armed forces, the country’s chiefest ambassador in lands far and wide—”symbolic” you say? What, we ask, may your idea of the “Real” be?
It is not our case that Shrimati Patil’s elevation to the very top equates, ipso facto, with the attainment of gender equality among the polity, or to the liberation of the mass of Indian women from thankless and payless drudgery, from male violence, or other myriad forms of systemic disenfranchisement.
But it is our case that her elevation will in the days to come prove an unerasable alphabet in the book of India’s long and tortuous tryst with a democracy wherein only the rational will be the right. Rather a ponderously bookish construction there, but adequate to the sentiment that I wish to express. So let it remain.
What we need to recognize is that in a world which renders, for now atleast, sudden and cataclysmic transformations considerably out of reckoning, we need to work through symbols that straddle the world of concrete power, however circumscribed the ambit. Engaged as we are in a long revolution, what seem mere symbols today will surely become unstoppable urgencies tomorrow.
In that context, one sometimes wonders whether or not our rampant media infact have any steadfast view of the democratic process itself. When results issue from necessarily complicated interchanges of interests, sections of the media yell “how messy and tainted.” When decisions sometimes are centralized, the cry goes up “dictatorship, dictatorship.” You can’t have it both ways, so make up your mind. When the chairperson of the UPA, Sonia Gandhi, yields in the best democratic traditions, to contrary opinion, we are told she has lost out; were she to have floated Pratibha Patil’s candidature from the first, the pointing finger would have said “see, she calls all the shots.” And even the feminist columnists would have forgotten how they should have thrilled to the choice of woman from the first. Beware the jauntily un-selfcritical and the glamorously self-righteous; not for them the tough asks of a horrendously demanding India.
Now to the charges against Pratibha ji’s candidature.
Too “light weight” it is remorsed. This about a politician who has been five times elected to the Assembly, once each to the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, been chairperson of the Pradesh Congress Committee and leader of the opposition in Maharashtra, when she famously, in her decent but dour and steely way, gave a tough time to Shri Sharad Pawar, the then chief minister, made Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha at one of the darkest periods of Congress history (after the disastrous internal Emergency of the mid-seventies and its traumatic consequences for Indira Gandhi during the subsequent Janata Party dispensation), and then a no-nonsense governor of the state of Rajasthan.
If that be not a heavy-weight CV, pray what is? When, however, they say “light-weight” what they mean is not raucuous, not abusive, not pushy—just the disqualifications that the same media routinely denigrates in other contexts of modern Indian political life.
Next the allegation that she owes her elevation entirely to her “loyalty” to Sonia Gandhi. A matter for some amusement; for when Pratibha Patil first entered the Assembly in Maharashtra in 1962, poor Sonia Gandhi had still to make her first visit to India! So what are we talking about.
Loyalty to the Congress Party yes; and is that such a terrible thing? That “loyalty” to the organization through thick and thin should come to be seen as a backward trait by the very media that routinely sniggers at the “aya rams and gaya rams” (those that switch political party allegiance at the drop of the least temptation) is but another testament to its objectivity and self-knowledge.
The truth of the matter is that the charge issues from that segment of the media whose loyalty to the anti-Sonia Gandhi and anti-Congress platform remain unwavering because their loyalty to the BJP and the free-market so enjoins.
Shrimati Patil is too well-worn and too astute to be too seriously bothered.
Then there is the other aspect to this loyalty question: smart people, don’t we know, ought to remain loyal only to the next big pay and perks packet. Which is why the same face you see today on one mega channel reappears tomorrow on another channel. And don’t we also know how subsequent career advancement within the corporate sector hinges so often on loyalty to the CEO or some powerful member of the Board. Capitalism and loyalty of the old-fashioned kind, however, didn’t Marx tell us, do not go together (Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1959). The only loyalty which it recognizes as “modern” and wholesome is what Dickens called loyalty to “my number one.” Abhorrent idea, thank you.
Speaking of “modernity” some of India’s celebrity feminists have expressed the anguish that Pratibha ji can hardly be said to represent the “modern” Indian woman. And just to tell you what that means: a canny mix of the shopping mall, fashion parade, designer dexterity, tryst with other forms of the socially outrÃ©, convent English and, crucially, a “philosophical” devotion to Hindu religious identity.
Now, Pratibha ji’s CV suggests that she is no stranger to this variety of “modernity”. After all, when as a young person she represented her state in Table Tennis she surely must have worn short shots, and done the rounds of restaurants. But more importantly, when recently as Governor of the saffron-ruled Rajasthan state she returned to the government the communal Bill on Religious Freedom, referring it also the second time for Presidential scrutiny she was expressing a “modernity” which India so desperately can use, namely, an allegiance to secular citizenship. I think we could live with that.
We could also live very well with certain other attainments of Shrimati Patil.
That she established educational institutes for the poor, ran an industrial training centre for the visually impaired, and vocational classes for poor women, and did steady work for the eradication of female foeticide endears her persona to us. For the denigraters, nonetheless, for whom India can advance only if the rich do so, this sort of CV must seem backwardly Nehruvian and suspiciously “socialist”. Tough luck.
We are also deeply heartened by the fact that not once through her long, long political career has anybody ever leveled an allegation of impropriety or misdemeanour against her. Outstanding stuff. That alone, in our circumstances, seems enough to warrant her elevation to First Citizenship.
All said and considered, we invite the nation to recognize that in the prospect of Shrimati Pratibha Patil indeed becoming President of India, a great good will have been done to all of us. We also think that half of India, its women, will see in that prospect the installation of a catalyst that cannot but embolden them to take forward their struggles for equity and fairplay with zeal and conviction.
Shrimati Pratibha Patil, we are delighted that you are our candidate for President, and we wish you well. We have not the least apprehension that you will uphold and deepen the secular, socialist, and democratic intuitions of the people of India.