As 7, Racecourse Road ushers in a new Prime Minister after a decade of incumbency, all eyes to lead to his cabinet. The PM’s choice of his cabinet reflects his mood – an attitude to carve out the path his government would take for the next five years. But beyond the permutations and combinations of ministers to their portfolios and his own political sagacity, there lies an important duty on the man who is the First among Equals. This duty entails an active effort on part of Mr. Modi to banish stereotypes and herald in a new approach to break down such institutionalized stereotyping. The case of the erstwhile CM of Delhi, Mr. Kejriwal’s cabinet is illustrative. Out of the 7 ministers in his cabinet, only one was a woman. It must be noted that in the patriarchal society that comprises our society, the process of empowering women by encouraging their political participation is tedious and slow – but it is taking place nevertheless. Hence, the problem of there being only one woman on the cabinet is a different point of argument. Instead, to examine the portfolio given to Ms. Birla is exceedingly important.
She was given charge of women and child development and to chalk out a plan to ensure better security for women. This might seem almost inconspicuous and discreet to a lot many, but what strikes as most callous is that a woman is entrusted a ministry that deals with the child and the woman herself. Is the underlying assumption of handing over such charge to a woman minister this – being a woman, she would intrinsically be accustomed to solving the myriad problems that plague a woman and her child? Such an assumption only perpetuates the idea that a woman’s first biological priority is rearing a family and to take care of the progeny. One cannot deny that this might not be the only or even a reason for handing over such a portfolio to a woman, but is it not important to identify this as an exercise that does nothing but continue the state of inertia the society is in regarding gender roles? Although WCD is a comparatively new ministry, all ministers since its inception have subsequently been women.
In contrast, the Big Four of defence, finance, home and external affairs has seen only one woman minister – Indira Gandhi. She managed to hold all four portfolios over different years in various Congress governments; it’s a near-impossible feat, something that must be commended in this atmosphere of male hegemony. In its long list of ministers, many are repetitive and they are men. Men have handled the “tough” ministry of defence which has an aspect of security and war that naturally feeds into the assumed biological role of the man as the protector, the ministry of finance that requires an astute mathematical mind (does it, really?), the ministry of home that dons the role of man as protector of the state (again) and the ministry of external affairs that requires protectors of different states to engage in talks. Does a woman find no place amongst this? Is her job relegated to dealing with what is often perceived as “gentle” or “humanitarian” ministries of social justice or women and child development? It is worth stressing that this might not be given much thought – handing WCD to a woman to consolidate her position as homemaker might not be intentional – but it is nonetheless encouraging that exact gendered societal role.
In the new Modi cabinet, representation of women has been at a high. To induct 8 women into his cabinet is laudable. Further, Sushma Swaraj has been given the hefty task of handling international relations whereas Nirmala Sitharaman is the new commerce minister. To see stereotypes being actively broken is a welcome step, done in tandem with the slow awakening of our society. But Maneka Gandhi is the new WCD minister. While I hold no serious grudge against this, it struck me as I read the news that slowly trickled in after the swearing-in ceremony that a woman is lo behold the minister of WCD (again).
It’s easy to brush this off as extreme feminism, but is there anything such as extreme feminism?
PS: The lone Muslim face (Najma Heptullah) on the Cabinet is the Minister for Minority Affairs. Food for thought?