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Why one won, the other lost

Being a well-meaning candidate in the electoral fray isn’t enough. This is what Atishi’s defeat and Pragya Singh Thakur’s win tell us about India

More than 100 years ago, in the iconic Citizenship in a Republic speech, US President Theodore Roosevelt outlined the key drivers of a successful republic: the quality of its citizens and high calibre political leaders who would hold the average citizen to a high standard—not just by words, but by deeds as well. The Aam Aadmi Party’s Atishi fits this idea of a high calibre leader, one who is—as Roosevelt said—critical to the success of a democracy.

Atishi, born to Delhi University professors Vijay Singh and Tripta Wahi, studied at St Stephen’s and Oxford University, excelled at academics, and chose to work for the Aam Aadmi Party when she could have chosen the path of corporate opulence just as an overwhelming number of people with pedigree do. The 37-year-old was AAP’s only female candidate in Delhi, besides being the only woman on its highest decision-making body. In one of her interviews, she said she chose politics because that is the path that helps bring change.

Yet, in her political debut, she lost to BJP candidate from East Delhi, Gautam Gambhir, another political debutante and star cricketer who is far removed from everything she stands for: the politics of development, social policy and genuine groundwork. Atishi trailed behind the Congress candidate from East Delhi, Arvinder Singh Lovely.

As Delhi’s education advisor since July 2015, Atishi was at the helm of large-scale education reforms in the government schools of Delhi with stunning results. A gaping divide separates government-aided education from private school education in India and she helped bridge the gap with policies and programmes that sought to replace the tarred image of government schools with that of swanky and sharp ones where classes do happen and dedicated teachers show up at school for children from India’s underclass. Her door-to-door campaign turned the BJP’s religious slogan of “Mandir wahin banayenge” into “School wahin banayenge”, a clear marker of the kind of politics she has been vouching for.

But in the din of Indian politics, strong interplay of caste and religious identities can take well-meaning leaders down. This could explain the win of the BJP’s Pragya Singh Thakur—who has absolutely no development agenda to boot. Pragya wears her Hindu nationalistic robes with fervour, rides on the politics of saffron symbolism, and played the victim card in her campaign by talking of police cruelty, while she was jailed.

Atishi’s struggle has been a departure from Pragya’s politics. For Atishi, being in the electoral fray with confusion over caste and religion turned out to be a self-defeating thing to do. Advising the government on winning programmes can win women respect, but to talk of real development as a woman politician fighting to win is even worse—or so it appears.

In India, being a well-meaning woman in the electoral fray isn’t enough. The political structure is designed to accommodate women in non-threatening roles, with little or no career progression to bigger political roles. Those who co-opt into the system survive with glorious wins. Like Pragya Singh Thakur has. Many view women as intellectually or economically weak to win an election. From Lalu Yadav’s cheesy references to actor and BJP MP Hema Malini’s cheeks to Congress candidate and actor Urmila Matondkar’s rival calling her a bholi bhali ladki to SP politician Jaya Prada being called derogatory names—all this drama and mansplaining in politics is contemptuous and sickeningly sexist, and yet it continues to resist women from moving forward.

Atishi’s surname of Marlena, given to her by her Leftist parents, was attacked first with rumours projecting her as a Christian. Days into her political campaign, Atishi had vehemently said that the only plank for her in the elections would be her work on health and education and her vision for East Delhi.

Very soon, her surname was called into question and we heard Atishi declaring her caste at birth: “My actual surname is ‘Singh’ and I come from a Punjabi Rajput family.” This is how she went around telling people, frazzled about the fuss over her caste and religious identity. Atishi ultimately dropped the name Marlena.

In the rabidly masculine world of politics, Delhi’s East Delhi constituency looked like just another post waiting to be swallowed by the saffron surge. Gautam Gambhir was just BJP’s foot soldier like hundreds of others, guarding the post as votes were cast for the overpowering persona of Modi.

Atishi and her report card, her campaign videos and her repeated emphasis on developmental issues were just weak straws against a very strong saffron wave. The fact that Atishi suffered an attempt at her character assassination doesn’t seem to matter.

While it can be safely said that in seats that went to the BJP, the votes were cast for Modi, was it also Atishi’s aggressive campaign that weakened her position in a highly sexualised campaign? Popular support for macho, sexually-charged campaigns that male politicians run and women politicians like Pragya Singh Thakur co-opt into silences women with an agenda to work.

Below the belt

“How will women participate in politics if treated this way?” was the common refrain during Atishi’s very difficult campaign, during which she publicly broke down. Atishi has been raw, articulate and human. And her campaign relentlessly kept putting the focus back on real issues. In contrast, 49-year-old Pragya Singh Thakur’s contest in itself was an escape from the problematic questions that her candidature and now her win raises.

An accused awaiting trial in the 2008 Malegaon bombings, she, as her political rival and Congress’s veteran leader Digvijaya Singh has said, is the face of Hindu terror. She faced arrest for terror charges, but has consistently used it to her advantage by playing the victim card. Her frequent references to her “tortuous” jail time and other comments have kept stirring controversies, the latest being the one where she called Mahatma Gandhi’s killer a patriot.

When examined through the lens of gender, Pragya Singh seems to have successfully channelled gender as a weapon to shame the state apparatus and its dealings with terror accused free of any other identity of privilege except religion.

A sadhvi for Hindus remains a sacred identity and Pragya Thakur’s allegations about police torture on her body remains, if not a political issue, definitely a religious issue, finding appeal with the masses.

Way forward

A 2017 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women indicates that between 2010 and 2017, the share of women representatives in the Lok Sabha rose only by one per cent. This means that the percentage of women elected to Parliament has stagnated between three and 11%  since the first Lok Sabha was constituted 67 years ago in 1952.

This is a paradox, considering the increasing share of women voters in the electorate. From 48%  in 1971, the turnout of women increased to 60% in 1984 and then to 65.3% during the 2014 general elections.

While the sheer size of women voters is heartening and the representation of women in Parliament may have a long way to go, it is time the debate on women’s participation in politics discussed the quality of women in the electoral fray and not just increasing the number of women in Parliament. To be sure, the same standards could be applied to male candidates as well, but we often fail.

However, given the sheer impact of women’s political participation on the life of a nation, it’s important that we are clear about the role models we have: the ones who burn the unchartered path to build anew, or those who fall into the macho-masculine narrative of male politicians and close the room for negotiation.

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