New Delhi, Jan. 7: From Nirmala Sitharaman’s verbal thuds and Meenakshi Lekhi’s sledgehammer blows to Smriti Irani’s theatrical entreaties, Vani Tripathi’s bouts of angst and Kiron Kher’s silken repartees, the BJP’s spokeswomen have made an impact after a fashion.
If Nirmala held her own against the Congress’s eloquent Manish Tewari, Meenakshi stumped TV anchors with an icy stare and a cold “Miss” or “Madam, watch your words” sort of rebuke. Certainly, the BJP takes them seriously enough to acknowledge unofficially that its feisty women constitute a power cabal.
Sources said their frequent appearances on prime-time TV talk shows on Gujarat and Narendra Modi and the Delhi gang rape had earned them high brownie points among the party’s topmost leaders.
So much so that Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Shahnawaz Hussain are afraid they might lose their berths on the coveted spokespersons’ panel when the BJP’s next president reconstitutes his team.
The women’s presence as a gender power pack registered during the Gujarat elections when, the BJP grapevine says, Modi asked the central leaders to give them precedence over the male spokespersons.
Modi apparently felt they could take on civil rights activists Teesta Setalvad and Shabnam Hashmi sound bite for sound bite, decibel for decibel on the 2002 pogrom and the cases that followed.
Typically, these women underplayed their roles, knowing well that at their core, the BJP and the Sangh parivar are essentially patriarchal.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s first chief, K.B. Hedgewar, was not enthused when Lakshmi Kelkar, a Nagpur-based reformist, broached the idea of having a women’s wing in the Sangh in 1936. He grudgingly said she could have an autonomous women’s cell if she wished.
Decades later, the Rashtra Sevika Samiti was inducted into the parivar but on the paterfamilias’s terms. The Sangh website summed up women’s “duties” in one word — “matrutva”, defined as “enlightened motherhood” — and portrayed a woman essentially as a “caregiver”.
The BJP’s women leaders had early on figured out the confines they were expected to function within.
Sushma Swaraj sparkled as the party’s greatest gender bender. The sindoor-laden parting on her head and a preachy (not polemical) manner of speech did not exactly endear her to the classical feminist. However, Sushma was clear that her target constituency was the urban housewife wanting to tiptoe out of her ghar ka chaar deewar (four walls of the home) without overstepping the Lakshman rekha.
Vijayaraje Scindia, one of the party’s founders, derived her importance and aura from her status as the matriarch of one of India’s premier royal families. But in the days before political parties had begun showcasing women even as token acquisitions, few slotted the late Rajmata of Gwalior as a woman leader. She was identified with the Hindutva ideology.
Has the BJP changed with the times?
Nirmala believes it has. The former PricewaterhouseCoopers research analyst who studied economics at JNU said: “Much to the surprise of people’s perception, the BJP has evolved all sorts of support mechanisms to facilitate women’s contribution.”
She said it was a “well-thought-out strategy”, crafted in 2007, and that the party leaders had taken it on themselves to identify women for all kinds of tasks.
“For a spokesperson’s role, they wanted women who understood and educated themselves on national and regional issues, and were articulate and aggressive without getting offensive and were not camera shy,” she said.
Vani, a theatre person who has acted in a couple of Hindi films, made it a point to personally interact with the activists protesting against the gang rape. No leader from the BJP, not even Sushma, engaged with them.
“But I wanted to assess the reasons for their anguish because the issue went beyond politics. Otherwise, like the other female talking heads on TV, I might have sounded rhetorical,” Vani said.
If a pro-woman strategy was operating, then Smriti, the martyred Tulsi of India’s best-known TV soap Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, considered Modi one of its best practitioners.
She said that over the past few years, the Gujarat chief minister had ensured that at least 250 women, from the panchayats upwards, were picked and trained as public speakers, technology users and RTI petitioners.
“We haven’t publicised this aspect of Modi,” Smriti claimed, brushing aside the question whether the Muslim women brutalised and gang-raped in the 2002 violence belied, rather than bolstered, the image of a “gender-friendly” Modi.
But she added that the BJP’s push in favour of its women members should be viewed “more in the perspective of talent than gender”.
Asked about the rise of women spokespersons in the BJP and their relative scarcity in her party, Congress spokesperson Renuka Chowdhury said: “I do not think this is deliberate. Perhaps, there is no conscious effort to get more women in, but then, in the Congress, women are much more involved in other political activities like local elections. We are team players.”
Renuka, whom many Congress spokesmen consider a notch above themselves, added tongue in cheek: “I am not considered a woman anyway!”
Some Congress sources, however, admitted to a bit of envy at the BJP for its “impressive” marshalling of spokeswomen to reinforce the Congress’s “negative” image.