Speaking at the foundation day of the Akhil Bharatiya Mahila Congress, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi made statements that invited quite a lot of jest and memes. The Congress leader said that while Mahatma Gandhi had 2-3 women around him, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was never photographed with women around him.
He went on to attribute that to the fact that RSS “suppresses women” whereas Congress gives them a platform. He concluded that, while Modi and RSS didn’t make any woman prime minister, Congress did.
This resulted in many noting certain aspects about Mahatma Gandhi’s relationship with some of the women who surrounded him which are irrelevant for the purposes of this article.
Indeed, India’s only female prime minister so far – Indira Gandhi – hailed from the Congress party. And, while nothing can take away from many of Indira Gandhi’s successes as well as the fact that she was voted in multiple times by the Indian electorate, what must not be forgotten is that she was a direct descendant of independent India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
It cannot possibly be disputed that she benefited from her direct access to power just as Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have benefited from their lineage in the same family. In fact, numerous stories abound about how she was referred to as goongi goodiya (“dumb doll”) who was placed in the prime ministerial seat to essentially be a puppet of the entrenched party seniors.
However, leaving all that history about Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi aside, there is a fundamental problem with Rahul Gandhi’s thinking. Underlying his words is a thought that women can’t serve the nation on their own accord; that men need to walk with them or beside them.
In 2007, the Bharatiya Janata Party, widely regarded as the political representation of the RSS which Rahul Gandhi criticised, was the first political party to reserve 33 percent of positions in all levels of the party’s organisational hierarchy for women. The late Sushma Swaraj, a woman who rose the ranks in the BJP on her own accord, heralded this step which was unanimously accepted by the then decision-makers of the BJP.
One of the most prominent beneficiaries of this landmark decision of the BJP was a woman who was assiduously working – and continues to work – to further the party’s goals throughout India. In 2010, she not only became the president of the BJP’s women wing, but also a national secretary of the BJP. In 2011, she was chosen by the BJP – in particular, Narendra Modi – to represent Gujarat in the Rajya Sabha – the Upper House of India’s Parliament.
She continued taking on each assignment, each task and each role with dedication and perseverance. In 2014, she was chosen to contest against Rahul Gandhi in his family bastion – the Amethi Lok Sabha seat. She wasn’t chosen because she belonged to a political dynasty. She wasn’t chosen because she had been a popular television actor. She wasn’t even chosen because she was a woman.
She was chosen because she demonstrated the tenacity to fight a battle that would get ugly and she presented a repertoire of work as a Rajya Sabha MP in Gujarat. She lost in 2014, but by a significantly narrower margin than previous BJP candidates.
Despite this loss, she fulfilled the promises she made to the people of Amethi. For five straight years, she kept visiting Amethi to redress the grievances of people, running from pillar to post, battling with a largely non-cooperative Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh, seeking interventions from ministers in the Modi government and rushing the pace of pending works as soon as the Yogi Adityanath government took office in 2017.
Resultantly, she forged a bond with the people of Amethi who chose her in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Indeed, she wasn’t even instructed to keep visiting Amethi and solve grievances. She did so of her own volition.
And when she took oath in the newly constituted Parliament of India after the 2019 election results, a room full of Members of Parliament – especially male MPs of the BJP – clapped the loudest.
That woman is Smriti Irani.
In none of her endeavours did she need a man to walk beside her, to hold her hand. She has roots in the RSS and joined the BJP at the age of 27. Neither the RSS nor the BJP “suppressed” her.
In Modi’s recent cabinet expansion in July this year, 11 ministers are women – the highest number of women ministers in the past 17 years. These 17 years include a decade of Congress rule at the Centre from 2004 to 2014!
In fact, out of the three full governments that Rahul Gandhi’s grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru formed only two of those governments had merely one woman as a minister. The government which his father Rajiv Gandhi formed only had one woman as a Cabinet minister.
Rahul Gandhi could benefit from a change in his thinking by focusing on facts. And if that is too hard, he only needs to revisit the story of a BJP politician who defeated him in his den – who incidentally happens to be a woman.