Why do I, an avowed feminist, not feel ecstatic at the news of a woman being chosen as a contestant for the post of the president of India? Why do I find the assertion made by a normally astute journalist like Vinod Mehta, that the UPA government’s decision to float Pratibha Patil’s name as its candidate for the forthcoming presidential elections is a reason for advocates of gender equality to rejoice, a highly misplaced one?
The answer is simple enough- I do not see this incident as an outcome of any larger, sustained effort on the part of the government, or rather, successive governments in India to bring about meaningful and far- reaching improvements in the life of the average Indian woman. Instead, the sordid reality behind this facade is the UPA’s desire to play a political masterstroke, a clever tactic that seeks to get a low- profile presidential candidate who’ll remain grateful to those who’ve brought her instant fame and, in all probability, might help her secure the most prestigious office of the nation, while also aiming at rendering voices, that are skeptical about and dissatisfied with its (UPA’s) gender related policies, silent. Indeed, it appears that the UPA hopes to use the benign, motherly appearance of a woman, who is nevertheless competent enough to have been the governor of a state, as the pretty wall hanging that hides the rotting patch of wall behind it. The female literacy rate continues to be abysmally low. Female infanticide has become the norm in some of the country’s most well off regions. The passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill seems like a distant possibility that might or might not be realized. A woman presidential candidate will be able to veer public attention away from certain highly disturbing facts as far as the current social, political and economic status of Indian women is concerned.
Or so the UPA thinks. As a nation that has finally arrived at an awareness of the ingenious games politicians play to fool those very people who vote them into power in the first place, we should refuse to be duped by the government’s latest act of appeasement. Let us not allow our politicians to get away with a gesture that only seems grand and noble, but remains, all the same, a mere gesture. A female president is not, and can never be an adequate substitute for equal opportunities in education, jobs and legislature, or freedom from domestic violence and physical and mental harassment at work for women. The personal success and achievements, however phenomenal, of isolated individual women hardly indicates overall prosperity of women in general. After all, if this were true, wouldn’t Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan or Khaleeda Zia’s/ Sheikh Haseena’s Bangladesh have been paradise on earth for women, or at least more liberated than, say the USA, which we Indians keep mocking as a country which has never had a woman as its president?