With a little bit of luck…

I have always been ambivalent about the clamour for a 33 per cent reservation for women in parliament that has been the subject of so much fire and opposition for years. It is my view that such reservations will help only the wives/mothers/daughters/sisters/aunts/nieces/daughters-in-law et al of men in power or even powerful men out of, well, power and wishing to keep it all in the family.Who will ever give a ticket to any ordinary woman? As such, even now, most of the women in parliament – no offence meant at all; I am happy that they are there for whatever reason – are all by and large related to powerful men, past or present.

So, as Meira Kumar was sworn in as the first woman Speaker of the Lok Sabha, it was no surprise that every welcome speech was laced with references to her illustrious father, the late Babu Jagjivan Ram. Of course, Sonia Gandhi should be complimented for doing for women today what even Mrs Indira Gandhi, her mother-in-law, could not at the height of her powers – adding so many ‘firsts’ to the Indian political lexicon.

But Sonia’s achievement is not just about Meira Kumar. It is also about Pratibha Patil. And I believe the first woman President of India holds out hope for most of the rest of us – for she is the only woman politician I know who has attained all her high offices entirely on her own and owes nothing to any powerful male politician/relative. In fact, with President Patil it is quite the reverse – the men in her family have, on various occasions, tried to ride piggy-back on her but succeeded only to a small extent. And if she has had any help getting to where she is, that was given to her by not men but other women.

I feel a personal attachment to President Patil and her achievement because she was the first politician I ever interviewed when I started my journalism career in the Eighties from Nagpur. Like I mentioned in my previous blog, my editor kept me on soft stories and interviewing Patil was one of them. I do not remember now how I got that interview but I recall quite vividly she was at lunch, eating out of a four-tiered tiffin carrier, when I was shown into her chambers. And I don’t know why I should ever have asked her a question about reservation for women in politics because that was never an issue at the time.

“Are you still at college? Or are you working for some newspaper?’’ she asked.

There was a chill in her voice and I was not sure if she was saying I was stupid or just plain ignorant. But I refused to wilt. “I am a journalist. And I would genuinely like to know if you are for reserved constituencies for women,” I said.

“Not for me, no,” she replied. “I would rather get there on my own. I would not be satisfied that I was the best person for the job if things were made easy for me by eliminating half of the competition. And that goes not just for politics but everything else, too.”

I was not quite sure I understood what she had said but I dared not ask for a clarification. But as I grew in age and experience I soon knew what she had meant. For, I realised neither would I – rising from reservations would go against my self-esteem, too.

Over the years I got to know more about President Patil because, by some strange quirk of fate, I ended up on the fringes of her social circle. And that is how I got my second interview with her – and her only one so far since she was nominated and elected as President.

When she said her nomination meant empowerment of women, most of the media dismissed it as tokenism – just some platitude by a person in a rubber-stamp job. But Pratibhatai was not being trite. I knew what she meant – and that she could not quite bring herself to blow her own trumpet. It is just as well she didn’t because her election was lost in the din of the controversy that broke out over her brothers and the scams that they might have created. I think I knew who was behind those exposés because this was not the first time that male politicians had tried to pull her down. Mrs Indira Gandhi had wanted to reward her for her support when out of power with a Chief Ministership but then Maratha strongman Vasantdada Patil torpedoed those plans and got there himself.

It took Pratibha Patil nearly 30 years longer but she eventually did get there – in fact, higher – quite on her own, leaving all the male contenders far behind. She never had Godfathers, unless you can call Indira and Sonia Gandhi her Godmothers. So, I believe, she should be celebrated as the sole example of how high an ‘ornery’ Indian woman on her own can go even in a male-dominated patriarchal polity.

For that could bring hope to other ordinary women. Without Godfathers. Though not necessarily without a little bit (or may be lots) of luck – just like hers!

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