Madhya Pradesh (MP)’s former chief minister and Congress leader, Kamal Nath’s sexist remark against state minister, Imarti Devi, merits unequivocal condemnation. It is to the credit of the Congress’ former president, Rahul Gandhi, that he has pulled up his senior party colleague and expressed his disagreement with the language used by Mr Nath. And it is Mr Nath’s failure that he is yet to express an unqualified apology for the incident. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has used the remark to mount an aggressive campaign against what it calls the Congress’ anti-women attitude.
The episode, however, throws up a larger question about the challenges faced by women in politics. At every step — joining a political party; participating in political programmes; working with male colleagues and experiencing varying degrees of harassment; getting a ticket; winning elections; finding space within power structures; and dealing with misogyny and often sexist taunts and accusations — women have it far more difficult than men in India’s political theatre. And no party is an exception.
While the current Lok Sabha has the highest number of women representatives in its history, it still falls short of the promise of 33% seats (which is in the long-pending women’s reservation bill). But representation is only one, though critical, element of women’s participation in politics. How women politicians are perceived and how their colleagues and opponents frame their approach on the question of gender are equally important. Mr Nath’s statement reflects a larger mindset — and until this mindset is fought and defeated, the quest for gender equality in the political space will remain unmet.