On March 24, amid speculation that Haryanvi singer and dancer Sapna Chaudhary was joining the Congress party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Surendra Singh said Rahul Gandhi should get married to her given that she had the same "pesha as his mother" Sonia Gandhi. Singh, known for his loose tongue, had on a previous occasion dismissed Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati as a "buffalo".
These jibes at women are not new and if you think women in power have the privilege of bypassing offensive and sexist remarks, then you're definitely mistaken. Male politicians making sexist and casteist remarks on women is a recurring issue in Indian polity, something that is widespread across the political spectrum. Remember Prime Minister Narendra Modi casually calling Sunanda Pushkar "Rs 50-crore girlfriend" in 2012?
From Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Mamata Banerjee to Vasundhara Raje, women in public discourse are unabatedly belittled, dismissed as "pretty face", "demoness", "nachnewali" (dancer), undermining their political ability.
Predominantly hegemonised by men, the political language in "world's largest democracy" is laced with centuries of patriarchy, and misogyny and sexism takes over the narrative far too often. Even when women are "allowed" to lead, their voices are stifled on occasions. The casual sexism engraved in public discourse is perhaps the actual reflection of our society.
Priyanka Gandhi's official political plunge as the general secretary of the Congress in eastern Uttar Pradesh offered a recent instance. A host of 'hyper-masculine' men made sexist jibes at her. In contrast, when former cricketer Gautam Gambhir joined the ruling BJP, not a single leader across the political arena cared to make remarks on either his apparel or his face.
BJP's union minister Smriti Irani is perhaps one of the worst targets of sexism in recent years. Congress leader Sanjay Nirupam called the actor-turned-politician a "thumkey laganey wali". West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee too has not been spared. She was called a "demoness" by firebrand BJP minister Giriraj Singh.
Another former Chief Minister Mayawati is not even considered an "ideal woman" because she doesn't "bare the traces of femininity". Priyanka, meanwhile, received flak for changing her Twitter display image to a picture of her wearing jeans.
So, to fit into the public space, a woman is forced to pay heed to the given patriarchal norm of femininity, culture and poise. But what is really behind these distasteful barbs from men when they encounter powerful women?
"Many men are afraid of women like Mamata Banerjee. They often tend to make casteist comments against Mayawati, given that she's a Dalit woman. She is powerful and formidable and instead of admiring, they're trying to counter her," says S Anandhi, professor of gender, caste and identity politics at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.
This despite the fact that women are a minority in Indian politics. During the 16th Lok Sabha, only 66 women MPs made it to Parliament, a shameful slap in the face of gender equality in 2019. Call it lack of reservation or the domination of men, women are still seen as "too feeble" to hold a powerful public office.
Feminist issues don't come into public light unless elections are around the corner. The Congress has for long raised the issue of Women's Reservation Bill (the bill assures 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament). However, they failed to implement it during their tenure.
"The career of the Women's Reservations Bill in parliament is striking for the high drama and rhetoric of women's rights that has accompanied it. The passionate opposition to the bill has generally been characterised by its supporters as anti-women and patriarchal," argues author Nivedita Menon.
The political language reeks of toxic masculinity. Take for example how male politicians communicate their opinions on Television and during road shows, challenging the opponent's masculinity. During a TV debate, BJP leader Gaurav Bhatia told his Congress counterpart to wear bangles and later petticoats.
Even Rahul Gandhi is not without blame. The Congress President, who has been an advocate of women's rights and had recently promised 33 per cent job reservations for women, seems to have a problem with women speaking out loudly in the House. He took a dig at PM Modi for the Rafale deal and said, "The watchman with a 56-inch chest (Narendra Modi) ran away and told a woman, Sitharamanji, defend me. I won't be able to defend myself, defend me".
The BJP criticised Rahul and replied with the hashtag #BeAMan. What the ruling party failed to understand is that in such wars of hashtags, the fight for equality dies a slow death.
The sooner everyone realises this and scripts a political language bereft of patriarchy, the better. Till then, the political ecosystem will continue to remain hostile towards women, with even the 'enlightened' politicians fumbling their lines. India deserves better.