Indian Decade

Sex and Politics

A casual remark by a government minister ignites a row over sexism.

Some years ago, then-union minister Sriprakash Jaiswal was a guest panelist on a political program I was anchoring. He looked dapper, dressed for the live telecast in a stylish kurta stitched in his hometown of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. He offered to spruce up my wardrobe when I inquired about his outfit at the end of the program.

Jaiswal, now the coal minister in Manmohan Singh's government, came across to me as a very sensible, intelligent and prudent politician with a keen awareness of political correctness. It was not without reason that Congress President Sonia Gandhi gave Jaiswal the prize post of Uttar Pradesh Congress chief a decade ago.

And yet the 68-year-old Jaiswal is now embroiled in a storm of his own making. On October 2, a sacrosanct day in India known as Gandhi Jayanti, Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, Jaiswal made a decidedly incautious remark. He must have felt at ease with his guests when he said, at a women's college poetry event, that cricket victories were like wives: they become old as time passes, and are "not fun as (they) used to be." Jaiswal's comment came soon after India's win over Pakistan in the International Cricket Council World Twenty20.

Jaiswal later apologized but also tried to defend himself. "Media and some political parties are trying to blow the issue out of proportion. I have been quoted out of context. I had tried to say that a new victory is as good as marriage of a person. But I must say sorry if it hurts someone," he told India Today.

This controversy comes in the wake of several other incidents in which celebrities, politicians and government officials have been embroiled in accusations of sexism. Mamta Sharma, the chairperson of the National Commission for Women, claimed in February that women should not mind being called 'sexy', since the word contained nothing offensive. Days after this remark, she put her foot in her mouth once again when she said that girls often invited trouble by dressing inappropriately in public. Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi stirred the pot in late August by saying that Gujarati girls were so conscious of their figure that they starved themselves to the extent of malnutrition. And in September, Karnataka high court judge Justice Bhaktavatsala inexplicably remarked that the occasional bit of wife-beating doesn't hurt — too much.

Jaiswal's most recent remarks have create a nationwide furore and ignited women's rights organizations. A social activist, Anita Dua, has now filed a petition against Jaiwal in a court in Kanpur over the comments. Mamta Sharma, ironically enough, has promised to write a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi saying that the remark belittled women on the whole and demanded action against the minister.

A massive reshuffle of the council of ministers is on the cards later this month, where Jaiwal's latest slip may put him at risk of demotion.