“Most women, trapped in dependency, don’t often get to be taken seriously. However, when they manoeuvre themselves into a superior position, whether as mothers, elder sisters, grandmothers, aunts or even well-established wives, they acquire numerous advantages that accumulate, including certain well-defined rights to order and command.”
Writing in an essay, writer and academic Madhu Kishwar exposes a peculiar trend in Indian politics – the desexualisation of the politician.
In a cultural ethos where familial ties hold prime importance, cultivating the image of an Amma (late Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa), Didi (West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee) or Behenji (Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati) helps. Assuming an association that has familial connotations involves the toning down of one’s sexuality, a trend that is not reserved only for women. Political observers, however, add that the pattern is much more prevalent among women than men.
Creation of a Political Identity
Does this desexualisation contribute to creating a political identity that people can connect with?
“In Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav is known as Netaji. His son, Akhilesh Yadav, is called Bhaiyaa ji. Even Mahatma Gandhi was called Bapu. The Netaji figure implies a person who can get work done and yet be somebody you can connect with,” says political observer Mayank Mishra.
Desexualisation, then, becomes an important way in which political identity is asserted, be it for male or female political leaders. By consciously cultivating and propagating the perception of being “part of the family”, the politician creates an identity that incorporates them into a larger, national family.
Branding oneself as the mother or father figure also works in giving the ordinary citizen a sense of security, lulling them into the belief that the leader will look after them much like a parent would.
“In a paternalistic state structure, leaders become the de-facto family. The family structure is replicated in the relationship between the state and the subject. If you want to respect the politician, you have to look at them as parental, asexual figures,” says Nishtha Gautam, Associate Fellow (Gender) at the Observer Research Foundation.
Gautam also hints at the negative connotations of sexuality in the Indian context. If sexuality is perceived as something dirty, it works to create an image that tones it down.
Amma, Didi and Behenji: Case of the Three Chief Ministers
It’s evident from their monickers. The three prominent Chief Ministers – Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee – are branded as matriarchal figures.
With Mamata’s cotton sarees and hawaii chappals, or with Mayawati’s plain salwar-kameez suits and haircut, the need to tame their sexuality is evident. There is a strange yet obvious asexual iconography.
In an article, senior journalist Hartosh Singh Bal quotes sociologist MSS Pandian telling him that “While Jayalalithaa inherited MGR’s legacy, which was built around his image of a larger-than-life film star, the way she projected herself was very different.”
“You can see it in the way she has completely disassociated herself from her cinematic past. Her cape, the term ‘Amma’, all this seeks to desexualise her, distance her from her cinematic image. There was a lesson on Jayalalithaa in (Tamil Nadu) school texts, it contained no references to her association with cinema.”
In Mayawati’s case, there are several stone statues in Uttar Pradesh that portray her in a ‘masculine’ mould – short hair, feet apart, and looking straight ahead. “The message appears to be: Don't think of me as a man or a woman, think of me as Mayawati,” Bal writes.
“This desexualisation is quite deliberate. Jayalalithaa liked being called Amma. Amma as a concept came into being especially in her third term, where she realised that she can make her connect better. The AIADMK cadre would insist that we call her Amma,” shares senior journalist TS Sudhir, who has extensively covered the late chief minister.
Sudhir adds that calling her Amma is also people’s way of giving her dignity and respect, especially towards the end of her career.
Is There a Gender Bias?
Building an image around a cult of personality is not peculiar only to women, Sudhir adds.
“All politicians like to be called and understood as family members, especially during election time. Like Amma, NT Rama Rao used to be called Anna. In states like Tamil Nadu, people are really emotional and branding leaders like that helps them across a cross-section of people,” he says.
While desexualisation of politicians cuts across gender boundaries, the changing political vocabulary with the inception of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘chappan inch chaati’ image has created a different, new mix.
“In the past, male leaders also assumed this fatherly figure but with Modi, there is a certain overt masculinity and sexuality involved. There are some men who have been portrayed as paternal, even asexual, but there’s an equally long number of male leaders who haven’t been associated with the uncle figure or the father figure. An Amitabh Bachchan did well, became an MP without there being a change in his image,” says senior journalist Vikas Pathak.
A woman in a position of power becomes more palatable if she is the mother figure, he adds. “To make sense of the transgression of gender roles, there is a kind of a domestication, making it more palatable in the patriarchal set-up,” he says.
Nishtha Gautam concurs adding that the only way a woman’s sexuality will get accepted is if it’s co-opted in a family structure, like if the leader is married or has children.
But what about Jayalalithaa, Mamata or Mayawati, none of who have immediate heirs or families?
“Regional parties built around a cult of personality tend to force the same insecurity on every politician, be it Mulayam Singh or MK Karunanidhi. But as women who have had to renounce their sexuality, they do not have families to turn to, whereas Mulayam has his son, and Karunanidhi has an entire clan,” writes Bal.