Monday, July 25, 2016

The Divine Mayawati: Why Do Women Leaders Need To Be Goddesses?


Or, at the very least, a friendly female relation who cannot be desired?

“To the backward classes, I am a devi. They are angry,” said Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati on Thursday.

A day before that, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Dayashankar Singh had compared her to a “prostitute”, giving rise to demonstrations by activists and supporters in Lucknow.

The image of a female leader in India seems to swing between perilous extremes.

Radical goddess:
Over the years, the divinity of the famous Dalit leader has been projected through the BSP’s visual culture and political practices. Party meetings are marked by rituals of worship such as the extravagant “money garland” of 2010, rumoured to cost crores, and party rallies have often featured the BSP chief on stage alone, an aloof, commanding figure.

Compare this to the cluttered stage of Samajwadi Party rallies, which could pass off for a family portrait of the Mulayam Singh Yadav clan.

The former Uttar Pradesh chief minister has also inducted herself into the Dalit political pantheon. During her tenure, an army of giant statues came up across the state. Parks and public spaces were populated by ranks of elephants, the BSP trademark, as well as Dalit icons such as Jyotibha Phule, BR Ambedkar, Kanshiram – and Mayawati herself.

Such public displays were necessary to inculcate a proper respect for Dalit leaders long neglected by previous ruling parties, she explained.

And by all accounts, the BSP functions according to the god-like will of its popular chief. A monolithic organisation with few prominent leaders apart from Mayawati and little evidence of inner-party democracy, it thrives on the unquestioning loyalty of the cadre and their perfect obedience to her wishes.

Mayawati’s choice to play goddess is, in some ways, a radical one. The BSP’s politics grew out of a Dalit assertion against feudal politics in Uttar Pradesh, traditionally dominated by the upper castes. Kanshi Ram, who found the BSP in 1984, later converted to Buddhism, a gesture of defiance made famous by BR Ambedkar himself. Mayawati, who became the face of this politics after Kanshi Ram passed on the mantle to her, seemed to be rejecting the old gods, building a new pantheon.

Besides, in the rigidly hierarchical, male-dominated world of UP politics, it is not enough for a female Dalit leader to be admired – the goddess can demand reverence that the woman cannot. But the apotheosis of Mayawati has been a slow process.

The popular Dalit leader started her career as “behenji” or sister – and famously took offence at being described as “bua” or aunt by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav – and eventually became “devi” or goddess.
In many ways, the choice to play goddess is not so radical after all.

Respected sister:
Other female leaders are familiar with this trajectory that leads from mother figure to reigning deity. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa came out in support of her “respected sister”, Mayawati, saying that she too had faced the same “atrocities” in her career as a politician. And the Trinamool Congress, headed by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, was loud in its outrage against the BJP leader’s remark.

Jayalalithaa, who started out as a film star, had to scrub her image clean of any trace of glamour and reinvent herself as “Amma”, a mother figure, before she became a prominent political figure. Since then, she has inspired cults of violent devotion. When the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader was convicted in a disproportionate assets case in 2013, for instance, at least 16 people committed suicide, several others apparently died of shock and still more offered to cut off their tongues. Her followers are frequently called disciples.

Even Banerjee, who has always projected herself as the chappal-clad “Didi”, elder sister, did not escape salty comments from her political rivals. In the run up to the 2011 Bengal elections, which ended 34 years of Left Front rule, luminaries of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) wondered aloud about which “bhatar(prostitute’s client)” supplied funds to Banerjee. Five years later, Didi rules supreme in Bengal.

Mother goddesses:
All three cases suggest that Indian politics hasn’t yet come to terms with the femininity of its female leaders. They must provide affidavits for their sexuality, packaging themselves as the friendly female relative who cannot be desired. Ideally, they must be forms of shakti, divine female energy.

Competitors and electorates can be soothed by the knowledge that their political power is merely a function of their divinity.

The fact of the actual woman behind the public figure is an unsettling idea, especially to male colleagues in the world of politics. If her femininity cannot be sublimated, it must be denigrated. And the guardians of our respectability believe they have struck upon the perfect way to do so: suggest that she has sex for money.

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