Free Press Journal

Pick battles, don’t play gender cards

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Renuka was justifiably rebuked for having cackled in Parliament during the Prime Minister’s reply to the President’s address. Laughing loudly while any member is speaking is a breach of House etiquette, more so when the PM is on his feet. It is, in fact, downright rude.

Politicians specialise in playing the minority, social justice and gender cards against each other, seeking to paint their rivals as communal, casteist or sexist. As a result, staying within the increasingly tight boundaries of politically correct speech is becoming difficult.

Congress MP Renuka Chowdhury recently played the gender card against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Usually, playing the gender card is extremely effective because it immediately puts the target on the defensive and paints him or her as sexist, boorish and regressive. The onus is on the accused to prove innocence and not on the accuser to prove guilt.


But Renuka appears to have overplayed her hand. A clever politician knows when to play his or her cards. Assuming the mantle of victimhood too often or in a completely out of context manner may prove counterproductive.

Renuka was justifiably rebuked for having cackled in Parliament during the Prime Minister’s reply to the President’s address. Laughing loudly while any member is speaking is a breach of House etiquette, more so when the PM is on his feet. It is, in fact, downright rude.

The PM responded by hinting — not stating — that her laughter reminded him of Shurpanakha’s guffaw in Ramanand Sagar’s TV serial, Ramayana. The House erupted with mirth (probably along gender rather than party lines) and Chowdhury took great offence. She threatened a privilege notice against the PM and rallied Congress women MPs to her cause.

Certainly, it was politically incorrect of the PM to crack a joke at Chowdhury’s expense. But let’s hit pause for a moment and extend the benefit of political correctness to Shurpanakha. She is, the Ramayana tell us, a sexually liberated female member of the race of rakshasas. Surely, it’s sexist, racist, classist and bigoted to regard her as a villain for those reasons?

After all, Shurpanakha is portrayed as the victim of a misogynistic assault by Lakshmana, who chopped off her nose and ears. She was not the aggressor. Then why take offence at being compared to her? Might not Shurpanakha, who appears to have observed protocol when her head of state (Ravana) was speaking, take offence at being compared to Chowdhury?

Thus, the insistence on the gender card renders the whole argument absurd and if apologies are to be tendered, it should be both ways. Renuka must apologise to the House, the chairperson of the Rajya Sabha and the PM. Since her sentiments were hurt by the amusement of her peers, the PM should render an apology for laughter-shaming her, by hinting that the sound she made was discordant. Regardless of gender, she is a member of the House and as such, deserving of consideration.

The BJP is no less thin-skinned than the Congress. Back in 2012, MP Sanjay Nirupam heckled Smriti Irani, then the BJP Mahila Morcha chief, by saying she had morphed from a dancer on TV to a political analyst. Given that people of all ages and backgrounds vie for the privilege of dancing on TV, it was a rather a silly remark. But Irani chose to play the gender card and shot off a defamation notice.

Similarly, Sanjay Dutt was summoned to court for having “outraged the modesty” of BSP supremo Mayawati by saying he would like to give her a “jaadu ki jhappi” during a 2009 election campaign. “Jaadu ki jhappi” is a line from a film and refers to a completely platonic hug, but the political correctness police took him to court.

It’s hard -– perhaps not even humanly possible -– to be politically correct all the time. Chowdhury herself publicly characterised former MP Jayaprada as a ‘bimbo’ and made equally uncharitable remarks about another prominent politician.

The obsession over political correctness is such that a US-based academic came up with a ‘social justice card game’ called YPIS –- Your Privilege Is Showing -– as a means to allow people to negotiate cultural sensitivities of class, privilege, race and gender.

In the long run, the exaggerated outrage over small breeches of political correctness will blunt public sensibility. So, when a serious violation of civil rights or gender crime occurs, the sense of outrage may not be commensurate with the crime.

Let’s face the fact that Indian society is strongly patriarchal and the political establishment reflects that truth. Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar’s blatantly sexist remark about young girls drinking beer is a case in point and is not merely politically incorrect, but truly offensive and merits a strong response. Similar remarks have been made by any number of male MPs, across party lines and have not generated adequate censure.

So, women politicians must pick their battles and not dissipate their energies over eminently forgettable, if somewhat crass, remarks. They have far more serious issues at hand, like giving the National Commission for Women some teeth and reviving the Women’s Reservation Bill. Affirmative action will get women politicians much further than political correctness.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.