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Sunita, Sonia, and Kalpana: The Curse of 'The Politician's Wife' in Our Politics

What is common is the sexist ridicule and lampooning that comes with being a high-profile politician’s wife.

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Opinion
4 min read
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The defining image of the INDIA Alliance’s rally at Ramlila Maidan on 31 March, Sunday was that of three women sitting side by side – propelled into politics by the fate of their husbands.

As Sonia Gandhi, Sunita Kejriwal, and Kalpana Soren spoke to each other, the world wondered what the conversation would be like.

Would Sonia, a generation senior to the politician husbands of the other two, advise them on how to hold their respective parties together? Or maybe, a novel solution to deal with the prying media? Perhaps, a word or two on how to emerge from the shadows of their husbands as a leader in their own right?

After all, she’s seen and won some of the political battles that Sunita and Kalpana will be facing soon.

Of course, Sonia Gandhi’s circumstances were different.

  • For one, her husband, the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was assassinated, not jailed

  • Second, Rajiv was a PM whose death had far greater implications than the arrest of two chief ministers

What is common though is the sexist ridicule and lampooning that comes with being a high-profile politician’s wife. The optics of the three sitting together may be politics. A show of unity as Sonia comforted the wife of someone who was once her fiercest critic. But the shared fate of the three was not lost on anyone.
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The Rabri Devi Conundrum

After Sunita Kejriwal faced television cameras for the first time to deliver a message from her jailed husband, she was compared to another "politician’s wife” and often not held in the same stead as someone like Sonia –former Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi. When Kalpana Soren took the stage after Hemant Soren’s arrest, the same comparison was made.

In 1997, Rabri, a bonafide homemaker with no interest in politics, was named the CM of Bihar after her husband, the then sitting chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav was jailed in the fodder scam.

The fact that Rabri was a rookie in politics, had not studied beyond fifth standard, and was a clear placeholder for her husband, made her the butt of many political jokes. What wasn’t reported as much was how much of a battle it would be for a woman with such little grooming to take up her CM husband’s mantle in a male-dominated political culture.
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What was also not talked about is what Rabri said in this 2000 interview with veteran journalist Sheela Bhatt: "Even today, our village doesn't have a secondary school. The school I went to was quite far away, two to three miles away. In villages, parents don't wish to send their girls so far. None of my sisters went to school. But my brothers received their education because they could go out.”

It’s delusional for one to expect kindness in politics but the fact that 'Rabri Devi’ has now become a noun for the illiterate, inexperienced politician’s wife who’s been thrust into the corridors of power, shows that the other story – the one of an OBC, underprivileged woman defending her husband’s turf – was never given much importance.

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The Demure and Gentle Goodwife

But neither Sunita Kejriwal nor Kalpana Soren has that chip on their shoulder.

Sunita was a former Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer who took voluntary retirement in 2016. She has a Master’s degree in zoology. Kalpana, on the other hand, has a double Master's in engineering and business.

If either of the two were to take over as CM, they would have commendable educational qualifications to boast of. Then why are they being lampooned in the same manner as Rabri was?
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It’s the role of the politician’s wife in Indian politics that has been restricted to that of a demure partner who stands next to her husband and delicately waves her hand during campaigns. She’ll appear on the occasional election interview to talk about how her busy husband is a family man. She’ll be photographed at the annual Diwali, Holi, and Eid functions. But she cannot step in when her husband’s political legacy is at stake. The son or the daughter can, but not the wife. Especially if she’s never been politically active.

There are instances of the politician’s wife entering politics and succeeding, but never at the cost of eclipsing the husband. A case in point is Dimple Yadav, Lok Sabha MP and the wife of Samajwadi Party Supremo Akhilesh Yadav. During her election campaign, Dimple’s identity as the bahu was of immense prominence and she played the part well. Again, that of a demure wife who’s in the fight along with her husband.

It is now clear that Kalpana Soren will not take over as the CM of Jharkhand with Champai Soren being named as Hemant Soren’s successor. Sunita Kejriwal, however, still has the political pundits guessing.

With the election days away now, a lot will depend on these politicians' wives. It will do them good to keep taking those tips from Sonia Gandhi.

(Ishadrita Lahiri is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. She is primarily interested in politics and covers India’s Opposition parties. West Bengal is her special area of focus and she was earlier a part of The Quint’s Kolkata bureau. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)

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