Hits and Mrs

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By The wives of several Indian politicians are taking time out from their work to throw themselves into their husband's election campaigns. Varuna Verma on India's Michelle Obama effect Additional reporting by Hemchhaya De in Calcutta
  • Published 26.04.09
(From top) Meenakshi Byre Gowda; Bhargavi Gopinath; Tejaswini Ananth Kumar

A snazzy coffee hang out is not considered a place for politics. But Meenakshi Byre Gowda added a caffeine twist to her husband Krishna Byre Gowda’s election campaign.

The event was called “Coffee with Krishna.” Young coffee aficionados were caught by surprise last week, when Byre Gowda, South Bangalore’s Congress candidate, walked into a Café Coffee Day outlet at Jayanagar. Over an espresso, he played the youth card to the hilt — when he spoke about women’s safety, congested roads and the curfew on Bangalore’s night life.

The chat over coffee was the brainchild of Byre Gowda’s wife. “It was an effective way to reach out to the youth,” says Meenakshi, who works as a consultant at CGI India, an information technology and business process services company. Meenakshi has taken leave for five weeks from work to coordinate her husband’s election campaign. “I manage Krishna’s Internet campaign, organise meetings with voters, mobilise volunteers and ensure that the house runs smoothly and everyone is fed on time,” she says.

You could call it the Michelle Obama effect. Career wives of several Indian politicians are now taking time out from work to manage their husband’s election campaigns.

Independent candidate G.R. Gopinath’s wife Bhargavi has left her business in the hands of her deputy, while she coordinates her husband’s door-to-door campaign. Tejaswini Ananth Kumar — wife of South Bangalore’s BJP candidate Ananth Kumar — is never seen campaigning without her laptop. When she gets time off from wooing voters, she catches up on pending work at aviation firm Oak Systems, where she is employed as a director. Ramadevi Radhakrishna — a professor of sociology at Bangalore’s BSVP College for Women — has mobilised her students to win youth votes for her husband, Janata Dal(S) candidate K.E. Radhakrishna.

Elsewhere too, the wives have stepped in. In Calcutta, actress Nayana Bandopadhyay has put all movie shoots on hold to campaign for her husband, Trinamul candidate Sudip Bandopadhyay. The only thing common between the Congress and BJP candidate in East Delhi are their career wives who’ve turned campaigners. Congress candidate Sandeep Dikshit’s wife has taken leave from work to canvas. BJP candidate Vijender Gupta’s wife, Dr Shobha Gupta, is a regular at election rallies.

Urban Indian women are no longer a feminine prop in their husband’s lives, says sociologist G.K. Karanth, formerly with the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. “Today’s women complement their husbands. Also, when career wives become campaign managers, they give an image of a complete, successful family to politicians. This helps garner young urban votes,” he says.

Karanth adds that politicians’ wives can also help them reach out to women voters. “Today, women voters take independent decisions. If a politician’s wife campaigns for him, she can swing their votes,” he explains.

The Gopinath residence in Bangalore is a buzz of activity. A shamiana has been set up at the entrance, where, over coffee, visitors can read up everything on the candidate’s past and present credentials and his political plans for the south Bangalore constituency. The lady of the house, however, is missing in action.

Bhargavi spends her day campaigning from door to door for Gopinath. “Since my husband has no time to visit each voter in the constituency, I have taken over this task. I visit 800-1000 houses every day,” says Bhargavi, who runs a bakery shop, Bun World, in the city.

Campaigning has become a family affair with the Gopinaths. Their two daughters are handling Gopinath’s Internet campaign. “I share his beliefs in a caste free and communal tension free society,” adds Bhargavi. “So it was given that I’d help him.”

Campaigning from door to door isn’t the only way to help. In Calcutta, Nayana Bandopadhyay keeps a strict vigil on her husband’s fitness regimen. “Election candidates must look vibrant. So I look after Sudip’s diet, skin care treatment and wardrobe,” she says. The candidate has been put on a strict skin programme of face packs and toners. Besides giving beauty tips, Nayana accompanies her husband in campaigning and interacting with voters. “Campaigning is my current full-time job,” says Nayana.

Tejaswini is known as the “content manager” of Ananth Kumar’s online campaign. A scientist who worked with the Aeronautical Development Agency for 11 years, Tejaswini designed a website for her husband 12 years ago.

Life as a scientist was probably easier. As chief campaign manager, Tejaswini’s day starts at six in the morning, when she visits parks and clubs to talk to voters. “The rest of the day goes in coordinating email and phone campaigns, organising women’s meetings, door-to-door canvassing — and running the house,” she says.

Tejaswini feels that politicians have a lot on their plate and any help is welcome. “It becomes important for family members to pitch in,” she says.

Meenakshi Byre Gowda agrees. “In politics, you can’t trust many people. So it is best to draw support from the family,” she says. “An urban family’s size has shrunk and couples need to support each other.”

When Krishna Byre Gowda decided to return to India in 2003 after a 12-year stint in the United States, Meenakshi followed suit. Byre Gowda fought his first election the same year, and Meenakshi found that campaigning was not easy. But this time, she has taken charge of her husband’s campaign.

Ramadevi Radhakrishna believes more career women being seen on campaign trails is a sign of middle class India showing an interest in politics. “It means that professionals are entering politics,” says the 56-year-old professor. Her husband is a retired college principal.

She helps with her husband’s door-to-door campaigning, visits slums and meets women’s groups. “I have got my old students to help with the e-mail and phone campaigns,” she says.

After college, as Ramadevi prepares for a campaign trip, the only thing she says she regrets is losing out on her afternoon siesta. But if her husband wins a seat in parliament, that will be a small price to pay.