Whether it is the home minister of Madhya Pradesh, a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, or the president of Russia, that impersonal-sounding word, power, is always embodied by a human being thinking human thoughts and speaking human language. This is both consoling and the opposite of consoling. The nature and quality of these thoughts and expressions may vary a great deal, as may the nature and quality of what is commonly understood as ‘human’. So, in spite of the trappings of office that fix the distance between the powerful and the ordinary, what slips out sometimes, almost inadvertently, are utterances that turn out to be moments of truth, or of being human — though tending also to lower the bar for both humanity and truth.
Vladimir Putin, during a recent interview on radio and television, when asked about his relations with Hillary Clinton, comes up with a series of startling judgments on the nature of women. It is better not to argue with women, he says, before pronouncing on how Ms Clinton falls short on “gracefulness”. He goes on to detect signs of “weakness”, rather than strength, in her “pushing [of] boundaries”, concluding that weakness, perhaps, “is not the worst quality for a woman”.
Cut to Madhya Pradesh, where the home minister has come out with a series of gnomic statements on rape. It is a social crime that depends on men and women; sometime it is right, and sometimes it is wrong; and, until there is a complaint, nothing can happen. The incident he is referring to involves the gang-rape followed by hanging of two Dalit girls by two policemen, among others, in Uttar Pradesh. It happens to be a state whose former chief minister had questioned the death penalty for rapists by asking everyone to consider the fact that “boys commit mistakes”. After the Delhi gang-rape of December 2012, the Madhya Pradesh home minister had made the observation, much too frequently heard in India, that women wearing provocative dresses are asking to be raped.
What does it say, then, about the nature of power that two embodiments of it, culturally and politically very different from each other, both resort to unabashed generalizations about the nature of women when they cannot help speaking, as it were, from their guts? Here are two men, as unlike each other as could be imagined, unwittingly in resonance as they talk about women. Although they are both speaking publicly and in office, what they present to their respective audiences is what would come across to most as the truth of their personal convictions. So, what the world hears, or reads, when faced with their words is both more and less than ‘politics’. It is the voice of the ‘political’ itself, in the sense that everyday life is political or everything is political. It is a sense that the prevalence of ‘politics’ often makes people forget, but one that occasionally reveals itself as lying at the very heart of it.