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Women politicians in India have to be either a “bahu” (daughter-in-law), “bhabi” (sister-in-law), “biwi” (wife), or “behen” (sister) as an appendage to male leaders with a clearly identified traditional relationship.

If you are a woman politician without the aforementioned tags, watch out. You will be savaged, ripped apart, slandered, and defamed for blood sport by a social media lynch mob.

Your clothes, whether you smoke, how you relate to male politicians, and even your dog will be mocked and jeered. If you don’t have a thick skin, you will be scarred for life.

Just ask Mahua Moitra, Trinamool Party Member of Parliament, who’s in the eye of a storm in a cash-for-questions scandal. Even while nothing has been proved yet, Moitra’s life has been turned into a misogynistic meme.

Before Moitra became a cautionary tale of a patriarchal society savaging women, there were prominent female political figures like the late Jayalalitha, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu; Mayawati, the Bahujan Samaj Party supremo and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh; Uma Bharti, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh; Vasundhara Raje Scindia, BJP Chief Minister of Rajasthan; and Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal.

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Thinly disguised misogyny

If the prurience-filled “news channels” are flashing the number of Ferragamo shoes owned by Moitra, back in the day, the entire media had no qualms flashing the number of shoes and jewellery sets found at Jayalalitha’s home post an investigative agency raid.

Staid and serious newspapers put the pictures and story on page one. Mayawati’s bags, and her birthday celebrations where she wore jewellery, were similarly mocked by the media. Mayawati’s cutting her hair became national news, and her penchant for pink provided fodder for satirical pieces of thinly disguised misogyny.

Male politicians publicly speculated about Jayalalitha’s relationship with the late MGR, who was her political mentor and earlier her film hero. Jayalalitha was humiliated in the Tamil Nadu assembly and was not even allowed to join MGR’s funeral. Mayawati also faced similar slander about her relationship with the late Kanshiram, the founder of the BSP.

The infamous “guesthouse” incident where Mayawati was threatened with physical harm and worse by political rival Samajwadi Party scarred her for life. Banerjee was knocked about and got a head wound in a street fight with the left parties in Kolkata. Banerjee gave herself the universal moniker “didi” to safeguard herself in patriarchal politics, as did Bharti.

Despite wearing saffron robes, Bharti was the target of vicious gossip and speculation about her relationship with RSS pracharak (full-timer) Govindacharya. Both their political careers suffered because of the endless controversy.

Raje faced flak for her lifestyle choices and friends in a surreal rerun of the attacks on Moitra. 

Misogyny in the highest office

A very senior woman leader told me, “From the lipstick I wear to a smile I get from a senior male leader, all this is under constant microscopic scrutiny. The bags I carry — nothing is off-limits. If I work harder than a male politician and get rewarded, the only reason the frustrated man will give is that I used my feminine wiles to get where I am. It never ends. I thought when I crossed 50 it would stop, but it continues. Seeing the slander, I break down but never in public because in India, women leaders can’t have emotions and relationships other than the traditional ones.”

While the daughter of senior leader Sharad Pawar — Supriya Sule — got a relatively smoother ride, she also faced sniggers of being “nepo baby,” something her male counterparts Anurag Thakur or Piyush Goyal wouldn’t face.

Sonia Gandhi, the wife of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the longest-serving President of the Congress Party, isn’t immune from sexist attacks on her Italian origins and salacious speculation about the work she did before she met and married Gandhi. Misogyny and the double standard even trump the highest office.

The bar for women politicians is the “agni pariksha” (fire ordeal) faced by Sita in the Ramayana. Sita triumphed the fire ordeal but was heart-broken. Women leaders in Indian politics today have to ensure they can’t listen to their hearts.

They have to be doubly competent, present a traditional face complete with a sari (traditional Indian garment worn by women) and sindoor (traditional vermilion worn by married Hindu women) if married, and look absolutely non-threatening if they want to succeed in politics.

Look at “didi” Banerjee in her trademark crumpled white sari and rubber chappals. Moitra should have learnt from her leader. Even if you are a former investment banker, you can’t enjoy the trappings of success if you want to succeed in Indian politics.