Now that the pious outrage over Narendra Modi’s tasteless remark describing Sunanda Pushkar as a “50-crore rupee girlfriend” of Shashi Tharoor has subsided, I hope we can examine the issue in perspective.
I write this after viewing Modi’s entire speech on YouTube, delivered during the election campaign in Himachal Pradesh. It provides an illustrative example of how our media steadfastly avoids discussion on serious issues and picks up only sensational and titillating tidbits, especially with regard to women, even while pretending to be guardians of women’s rights and honour.
The bulk of Modi’s speech dealt with burning issues such as price rise and Centre-state relations. He focused in particular on the impact of inflation on poor households and addressed specific issues concerning women among the masses. For example, when talking about the effect of the quantum leap in the price of gas cylinders, he expressed concern that the unrealistic quota of six gas cylinders per household per year would affect people in the hill regions more adversely since the cold weather increases the consumption of gas. He pointed out that it would force poorer households to revert to using firewood. That, in turn, would increase women’s drudgery, since they would have to spend hours cutting and gathering fuel wood from forests leading to further deforestation.
He then described how the Central government had torpedoed the piped gas supply programme of the Gujarat government, claiming that the state had already provided cooking gas pipelines in 300 villages covering seven lakh households. His plan was to have covered 20 lakh households by this year. Piped gas costs half as much as cylindered gas. But the UPA government passed a law stipulating that only the Central government can supply piped gas.
As per Modi’s claim, that project would have saved the Centre Rs 15,000 crore worth of cooking gas subsidy and spared three crore gas cylinders for use elsewhere, but it was sabotaged because the Congress felt threatened by the growing support for Modi among the women of Gujarat. He then declared that he had filed a petition in the Supreme Court to challenge this needless encroachment on the powers of the state government.
Modi also talked of perennial power shortages and blackouts in the rest of the country while Gujarat had succeeded in providing uninterrupted electricity to every single village and household. Access to affordable and efficient forms of cooking is an issue of utmost importance for virtually every woman in India. It is a life and death issue for poor rural households where women have to spend hours walking miles on rough terrains scrounging for fuel wood, cutting thorny bushes and trees and carrying loads of firewood for cooking on smoky chulhas that further endanger their health. Deforestation is also a life and death issue for people who live in hilly regions, especially women, because with disappearing forests, fuel, water and fodder become scarce and landslides become a common occurrence. Absence and/ or shortages of electricity have kept our villages impoverished by crushing the emergence of small enterprises and industries in villages.
Finally, Modi critiqued Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi for bragging in election rallies that the Congress party was the one facilitating development by giving money grants to state governments while state governments ignored or mismanaged development works. Modi echoed Nitish Kumar, saying that the Congress talks as if the money coming from the Centre is its personal wealth, which it is distributing as charity.
Neither print nor electronic media chose to investigate and discuss whether the claims made by Modi regarding the piped gas project and universal rural electrification in Gujarat are accurate or exaggerated. Similarly, the Congress party’s use of Central funds to arm-twist chief ministers undermines federalism and vitiates Centre-state relations, impairing the health of our democracy. The Centre’s near-total monopoly over key sources of taxation leaves state governments at the mercy of the Delhi durbar, distorts state policies and development programmes. For example, most state governments end up pushing liquor sales because that is one of the few sources of revenue they can impose directly. Villages that lack clean drinking water have a plentiful supply of government-patronised liquor shops. This drains out incomes of poor households, leads to greater domestic violence and strengthens the hold of political goondas who own these liquor thekas in villages.
But the media did not spend a fraction of the time discussing these vital issues concerning women and democracy. Instead, for hours and days on end, we heard militant feminists breathing fire and brimstone and TV anchors emoting profusely only over the insult levelled by Modi at Shashi Tharoor’s wife.
If Modi’s concern for reducing women’s drudgery is genuine, if he has actually delivered piped gas to seven lakh rural households and intends to cover all the rest, if every household in rural Gujarat is getting round the clock power supply, his frivolous remark against Sunanda Tharoor is not enough to damn him for being anti-women. Mere lip sympathy for women won’t do. I prefer politicians who care for women’s well-being in concrete ways.
The purpose of writing this is neither to defend Modi, nor brush away his uncouth remark. It is only to highlight the fact that when serious issues are shoved under the carpet and a highly disproportionate amount of time is spent on relatively frivolous issues by our national media, is it not fair to complain that large sections of our journalist biradari, especially our 24x7 news channels, are trivialising politics in general and women’s concerns in particular in their insatiable hunger for high-decibel cockfights over sensational sound bytes? No politician dare marginalise the life concerns of the mass of our women as systematically as large sections of our media do, with their disproportionate attention to glamour dolls, film stars and the doings of the fashionable elite. It is easier to call monstrous politicians to account than media monsters.
I know by writing this piece I will be damned forever by my “secular” friends. To those who see Modi as evil incarnate and want to see him defeated, I can only request: please have the courage to stay close to facts and fight him on his home ground. Taking potshots at a straw man or caricature will only weaken the case against him.
The writer is professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, and founder editor ‘Manushi’