In the course of a high-profile speech Narendra Modi, putative great leader, ended up repeating every female stereotype he condemned, points out Rajyasree Sen

April 13, 2013, Times Crest

Narendra Modi has been a busy man for the last few weeks. And I’m frankly surprised that he hasn’t lost his voice by now. His first stop on the lecture circuit was the 29th a nnual general meeting of FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO) in New Delhi this week.
So who made up the audience? People from the grassroots level who were trying to break out of the constraints placed on them by tradition and society? Who needed to learn that they could play the roles which their social milieu expected them to adopt — that of wives and mothers — and also be economically independent ?
No, these were women togged up in Satya Paul sarees, pearl earrings, perfectly coiffed hair, and were involved (at least some were) in a business of their own or with others. I might be making a blanket statement, but I can pretty much bet on it that a negligible percentage — if that — of these women would be making chapatis for their husbands at home. Not while the subalterns were there to do so.
The problem when you make three speeches in a day is that you forget to tailor your speeches to your audience. That Modi is a great orator, who doesn’t need to fumble through cheat notes is known. It is only expected that he will speak without hesitation, crack a joke or two and not falter. But what of the content? The keynote address was to be on women’s empowerment. What was obvious 15 minutes into Modi’s speech was that only the mother and sister amongst us should be empowered. Bad luck if you’re a childless woman without siblings. This speech wasn’t meant for you.
What is worrying is that a man who claimed that the West views women in India incorrectly, assuming that all Indian women are housewives, seemed to believe the same thing. Analogy after analogy painted women out to be pining for their husband’s affections and attention, spending hours trying to make the perfect chapati and when burning their fingers pretending that the burn was worse than it was when their husbands came home from work. Following this analogy, Modi even asked the FLO audience if they’d done the same thing. They giggled and agreed. There was also a story about how mothers will desert a sari sale to save their child from a burning house. The bizarreness of it all, made you wonder if he knew what he was saying. Did he even realise how brainless he was making women sound?
Modi also went on to say that in the 21st century, women are killed before they’re born. While this is appalling, this really isn’t news. What he didn’t state was that the highest instances of female foeticide in Gujarat have been seen in the state’s urban areas. We did get another analogy about how families with four sons have been abandoned by their sons. And of families where the eldest daughter has refused to get married so she can look after her parents. The either-or, neither-nor choice was a little absurd. The stated premise of stating these analogies was that women must be protected and they are our future.
And while Modi’s love for the girl child might indeed be genuine, ground realities belie what he said. Since he did give examples from Gujarat for any ill he mentioned, you’ll realise that his argument sounds a bit hollow. While he said that women should be included in decision-making, look at how only 2 of 19 ministers in his cabinet are women. Also, under his rule, Gujarat’s sex ratio has dropped even further —from 920 in 2001 to 918 in 2011. Yet it’s not like Modi was averse to mentioning facts. He peppered his speech with examples of the many achievements and measures Gujarat has taken to empower women. All these were passed off as ‘chhota nirnays’ by Modi. And all are indeed commendable measures.
He also seemed to be very pre-occupied with cooking and food. From Jasuben’s pizza to Induben khakrato Lijjat papadto Amul milk — almost all examples of entrepreneurship were related to food. By the end of it, you felt that all that people in Gujarat did was cook and sell food. Also, poking fun at the Congress and its build-up of the Kalavati incident is fine. But FLO members seemed to think it was very funny when he said that Induben had died five years back, because they burst out laughing. Nice.
You felt that at least when the ‘Q & A’ segment
began, the ladies would rise to the occasion. Ask him why if he was all about women’s empowerment, he felt that he could refer to Sunanda Tharoor as a 500-crore girlfriend and whysex ratios in Gujarat had worsened. But no such luck. He instead got asked the vital question: “You are such a strong personality and so disciplined, what is your weakness?” Then there was the bit about how the Congress had left so many potholes in Gujarat, which was repeated the next day in Kolkata, as Modi took a potshot at the Left.
It must be tiring to have to deliver so many speeches in a span of 36 hours. And, of course, there’ll be spillovers. But if you can’t figure out what you need to talk to your audience about, it’s better not to talk. While Modi’s heart might indeed be in the right place when it comes to the ladies, he would have done himself and his audience a favour if he’d realised how irrelevant his speech was to the gathered audience. And how it drove home the fact that according to Modi a woman’s identity is connected directly to home and hearth and to the male members of her family. There’s no place in the Modi scheme of things for all us brotherless spinsters who don’t cook.
The writer is with Newslaundry