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Through the Looking Glass: The Rhetoric about Women in the 2014 Election

New Delhi,21/02/2008: BJP workers at the Women's Rally at Ramlila ground in Delhi on February 21,2008 demanding women reservation bill to be passed in forthcoming budget session . Photo:Sandeep_Saxena | Photo Credit: Sandeep_Saxena

As election season heats up and women’s issues come to the forefront of the discussion, Hardeep Dhillon deconstructs the political rhetoric of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi and explains the deeper nuances of the way in which each candidate conceptualises issues of reform related to women. She argues that while the candidates have brought the women’s question onto the national political landscape, they have not addressed the vast – and sometimes conflicting – array of political and social interests that concern Indian women.


As the struggle over India’s future ensues in the current Lok Sabha elections, prime ministerial candidates have scrambled to appeal to voters on the basis of their religion, region, and caste (among other identity markers). Amidst this political landscape, women are increasingly valuable constituents as statistics indicate their growing participation in the voting process; particularly in critical swing-states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Consequently, a renewed vigour to monopolize the votes of women has been made by front-running prime ministerial candidates Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress (Congress).

In February, prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi made his first large-scale attempt to rally votes directly from Indian women. Mr. Modi selected the topic of mahila (women) for discussion on his prominently watched television series “Chai Pe Charcha”. Rahul Gandhi responded to Mr. Modi’s efforts by alleging that the BJP does not respect women. The younger Congress candidate also emphasized the power of women within his own family and the benefits that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the Food Security Bill have provided for many underprivileged citizens to build support amongst Indian women.

Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi have also announced their support for women’s reservations. While Mr. Modi has repeatedly stated his support for 50 percent reservations in Gujarat in local bodies and panchayats, Mr. Gandhi has emphasized his party’s efforts to pass the women’s reservation bill, which would grant women one-third reservations in the Lok Sabha and State assemblies.

As the debate on the women’s question ensues in the current election, there is a dire need to deconstruct the political rhetoric of Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi in order to explicate the deeper nuances that inform the way in which each candidate conceptualises issues of reform related to women. Herein, I argue that while Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi have brought the women’s question onto the national political landscape, they have not addressed the vast –and sometimes conflicting – array of political and social interests that concern Indian women. Instead, these prime ministerial candidates have defined women’s empowerment through a narrow baseline of safety, security, and education while dismissing other salient and more politically controversial areas of much needed reform. In this piece, I also examine how the current political rhetoric of Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi compares to their actions on women’s safety following the December 2012 Delhi case.

Women Beyond the Numbers

On his widely watch television show, “Chai Pe Charcha”, Mr. Modi opened his discussion on women by highlighting their political power. He insisted that a women’s vote bank in India would supersede all voting blocs in the country, including those formed on the basis of caste, religion, and region. He then emphasised that women are missing in the elections and advocated for their greater political participation. On his television show, Mr. Modi also referred to women to as nation-makers and nation-builders. He stated that while women were home-makers that contributed to the nation by raising children like Sachin Tendulkar, they needed to become nation-builders by contributing to the economic development of the country.

In the agenda for women’s empowerment that Mr. Modi puts forward, women are distinctly conceptualised as citizens in service to the country. While this conceptualisation provides an aura of honour and prestige to women, it simultaneously ruptures their access to various rights. Through the rhetoric of nation-builders, women lose their right to make claims on the nation whereas the nation expects these women to uphold the ideals it lays out. In this mode of politics, women are imagined to behave, think, and perform in uniformity and their politics are established prior to their emergence on the political landscape. As a result, Indian women are stripped of the very political agency Mr. Modi claims to advocate for, rendering them as passive – rather than active – political actors.

In response to Mr. Modi’s efforts to solicit the votes of Indian women, Rahul Gandhi has alleged that Mr. Modi and the BJP are dishonest and unconcerned with the plight of women in India. Mr. Gandhi has cited Mr. Modi’s snooping scandal as evidence of his hypocrisy, claiming that the Chief Minister is hypocritical for advocating for women’s empowerment while tapping the phones of women in his home State. 1 In March, Mr. Gandhi also alleged that Mr. Modi and the BJP had made no effort to address the concerns of tribal women while speaking with tribal women engaged in the collection of tendu leaves in the Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh. While Mr. Gandhi emphasised the minority question, he failed to put forward any substantive proposals of his own.

Moreover, Mr. Gandhi has invoked the language of strength to advocate for women’s empowerment. In mid-February, while addressing an all-women rally in Tumkur, Mr. Gandhi stated that the strength of women would push the country towards greater progress. That very month, in a meeting with aanganwadi workers and women self-help group members at Sarai Shekh village of Chinhat, Mr. Gandhi also encouraged women to identify their strength in order to “become self-reliant to improve the future of their families and the country.” The thematic of women’s strength has influenced Mr. Gandhi’s characterisation of Indian women in many of his other speeches too.

By framing women’s empowerment through the rhetoric of strength, Mr. Gandhi fails to address the fact that it is patriarchal and regressive practices -- not women’s lack of effort -- that prevents Indian women from being equal counterparts to men. Moreover, by focusing on the concept of strength, there is a rhetorical shift in the political agenda for reform in which women are asked to be stronger and bear the burden of their empowerment. This rhetoric hinders the development of women and promotes an ethos of perseverance and resilience rather than equity. There is a need to unwed women’s rights from ideas of the nation, family, and strength to recognise that women’s empowerment is first and foremost about their self -empowerment.

Like Mr. Modi, Mr. Gandhi has emphasised only a few areas of reform - namely, safety, security, education, and reservations. The rhetoric of these prime ministerial candidates relies on a grave slippage in language where security, safety, and education are equated with women’s empowerment. While these three elements are indeed critical assets to women’s empowerment, their conflation with women’s empowerment displaces a number of other issues in need of redress, including access to birth control, reproductive rights, access to restrooms and sanitary napkins, marriage, divorce, and maintenance rights, etc. The displacement of these more controversial reforms hinders the development of women in India and limits the scope of women’s empowerment.

The concentration on overarching themes such as safety, security and education also prevents Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi from outlining their agenda for women’s empowerment. While these two prime ministerial candidates have raised their voices in the name of Indian women, they have yet to delineate how they interpret the needs of the very constituents to whom they have laid claim.

For instance, will these candidates offer security to women who choose to celebrate Valentine’s Day with their partners or to those women who choose to model for swimsuit calendars? How will they provide women greater access to education and reproductive rights? How would these candidates resolve issues of violence against women conducted by law enforcement officials, the military, or their own communities in areas of armed conflict such as that of the Northeast? How would Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi respond to men (and women) within their own parties that are regressive towards women’s empowerment? Most importantly, how would they respond to women who envision their rights and needs to be different than those they delineate in their own political platforms? These questions aim to push for greater clarification on the politics of Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi, rather than raise controversy, in order to assess how they imagine, advocate, and put forward the question of women’s empowerment.

Recent History and Current Politics

While the explicated rhetoric that has been used in the current election by Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi portray a need for them to more clearly define their political vision on issues related to reform and women, recent events also provide an insight into how their political statements compare to their past actions.

On the evening of December 16, 2012, a 22-year-old physiotherapy student was beaten, gang raped, and brutally assaulted with a metal rod on a bus during her return home. Thirteen days after the gruesome assault, the young woman died from the injuries perpetrated upon her. The event sparked public outcry across Delhi and other major cities in India. Thousands of protesters clashed with security forces to demand greater protections for women. The United Nation’s Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women also called on the government of India “to do everything in their power to take up radical reforms, ensure justice and reach out with robust public services to make women’s lives more safe and secure.” 2

Following the gruesome assault, Mr. Modi stated on December 16 that women’s safety was a matter of concern for the country. He also added, “I don’t want to indulge in a blame game. It is a serious issue and it is not right to indulge on allegations and counter allegations.” However, by December 2013—as the current elections attained greater prominence--Modi alleged that the Congress Party allowed Delhi to become a rape capital and has since reminded constituents to remember the Delhi rape case as they go to the polls to vote.

Narendra Modi’s response to the 2012 gang rape in Delhi differs vastly from his response to the rapes and abuses inflicted upon Muslim women in his home state. In 2001, Muslim women were beaten, abused, and raped during the anti-Muslim pogram in Gujarat where Mr. Modi resided as Chief Minister. 3 These women continue to suffer, yet, Mr. Modi remains silent on the issue. 4 The stark contrast between Mr. Modi’s actions during the Gujarat pogrom and the Delhi gang rape raises serious concerns about the position of Muslim (and minority) women on Mr. Modi’s agenda of women’s reform. It also begs the question of which women Mr. Modi envisions to be worthy of greater safety and security.

In contrast to Mr. Modi, the Congress candidate Rahul Gandhi maintained a low profile during the immediate aftermath of the Delhi gang rape. It was not until the final days of December that Mr. Gandhi and his mother, Sonia Gandhi, met with protesters to hear their concerns. Mr. Gandhi appealed to the protesters by stating that they should remain calm so that decisions would be taken in a rational manner. Mr. Gandhi also issued a message condemning the rape stating, “We as a nation must reflect on the events of the days gone by”. The central government appointed J. S. Verma, a former Chief Justice of India, to recommend amendments to the criminal law. The Verma Committee was allotted 30 days for their review during which it made over 80,000 suggestions--many of which the commission received from the public, jurists, legal professionals, NGOs, and women’s groups. In February 2013, Rahul Gandhi and his mother met with the victim’s family to offer their condolences as they introduced new laws in court. The new law was passed the next month and served as an amendment to the Indian Penal Code, Indian Evidence Act, and Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

However, while Mr. Gandhi supported the new law, the initiatives for change emerged from women and their supporting counterparts. In protests across India, these women and men took to the streets to voice their frustration with the state. Their demands encompassed a wide range of concerns, including the lack and failure of law enforcement authorities to listen, address, and take seriously complaints filed by women, the failure of the government to act in cases of abuse against women, irritation from sexual harassment in public streets and venues, etc. It is their collective public outcry that brought the 2012 Delhi rape case to national and international attention, and pressured the government to change existing laws. Now, it is their demands and cries for justice that Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi claim to represent in order to increase their political clout. Hopefully, the collective memory of these activists will remind them of the recent past so that their demands are met with greater and continual justice.


Throughout the current elections, Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi have made strong efforts to draw the support of women voters. However, while the two prime ministerial candidates claim that women’s empowerment is a critical aspect of their political agenda, they have failed to address the cornucopia of social, political, economic, and cultural concerns that preoccupy Indian women. Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi must recognize that in a democracy a political candidate is elected on his/her ability to represent the concerns and needs of his/her constituents. If these candidates lay claim to Indian women as their own constituents, it is my hope that they will simultaneously provide spaces for them to serve as vibrant political actors on their own terms. It is only then that the current elections will move from charcha to activism.


1 The Times of India. 2013. “Gujarat snooping: Modi govt sets up panel to probe scandal”. Details available on . Last accessed on 17-04-2014.

2 “UN Women condemns gand rape of delhi student”. Details available on . Last accessed on 17-04-2014.

3 “Gujarat Muslim Women ‘Rape Victims’”. Details available on . Last accessed on 17-04-2014.

4 “Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat”,Report by the International Initiative for Justice (IIJ). Details available on . Last accessed on 17-04-2014.

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