If someone asked me to describe the last five years as a reporter on the President’s beat, I’d say it’s been five, frustrating years of futile searching — searching for the woman who was apparently representative of my sex in the highest office. As she left Rashtrapati Bhavan on the almost-fairytale buggy this week, it was as if the myth of a female power was coming to an end, having been illusory in the first place.
It wasn’t always like that, at least for me. I remember being really excited when she took office. ‘It can’t be a Rashtra-pati, right, if it’s a woman president? What will they call her?’ ‘There’s no first lady, so will there be a first husband?’ The possibilities made me drool. My mind, fatigued of the kurta-pajama-type-of-politician and their predictable habits was dying to soak up and tell stories that would be a first. Yes, I had read all the bad press of the defaulting loans, and brahmakumaris and dream-visiting gurus, and the lackluster CV where her interest was listed as Kho Kho, but I thought she’d rise to the position of her high seat at Raisina Hill.
“Oh, no no, nothing will change because she is a woman. She is still Rashtrapati and there will be nothing different for her, no protocol change at all,” said her aides at that very first meeting which was the beginning of the road to disappointment. So yes, my tales of fantastic new precedents being set before my eyes, of being the recorder of history was going to remain just a fantasy. So I tried to dig a little harder. “We’re all looking for signs of how Rashtrapati Bhavan is different now that a woman is in it.” After all, when the rocket scientist made President, didn’t he make us see fireworks? He flaunted his difference from the political types by making reporters repeat after him, he showed his teaching ways by constantly talking about the importance of education, he did all this even if he did seem a bit eccentric.
“Why don’t you look at her speech? I think it gives a great degree of insight into President Patil’s ideas.” I was handed over a copy of her first speech and sent on my way. I went through that and all her subsequent speeches with my zoom lens on, and they all sounded like government press releases — full of promises and lists of schemes, and whenever, I’d call her aides to ask if she’d added anything extra — they’d say no but helpfully point out all the platitudes about women’s empowerment. No one would ever read them and imagine a woman had written such a speech, and she probably hadn’t.
At the end of her tenure, what’s tragic to me is that Pratibha Patil has lived up to all the criticism that was thrown by her critics. She was just another loyalist Congressperson who did exactly what her government asked her to do. She never sent back a file, or questioned their decisions, however dodgy they may have been. In the last few weeks of her office, there have been terrible attacks on women, but we never heard from President Patil of how looking out from that 300 room home, she worried for the rest of us. There have been gangrapes, murders, injustices that made us all lose sleep now and then, but why is it that nothing roused President Pratibha Patil to prod the government a little bit?
Maybe, that’s the trouble with tokenism at the end of the day. It stays limited to privileged circles giving merit a raw deal. So while we sucked on the lemon that was the gift of the first woman President, Yahoo went and hired the best CEO they could find and didn’t care that she was pregnant. Having been on the Forbes list twice, and already a star employee with Google, Marissa Mayer may not be accused of tokenism as easily as Pratibha Patil. As Pratibha Patil packed her bags, the other privileged woman politician exhibited her token concerns for women like her. Dimple Yadav’s state may be burning with news of how some elders have decided women can’t go out at night and can’t talk on cellphones for their own good, but she tells us that she manages her political work because 'Akhilesh is understanding, and I am good with compromise’. Frankly, my dear, I’m a little tired of women who compromise. Aren’t you?
Sunetra Choudhury is an anchor/reporter for NDTV and is the author of the election travelogue Braking News On Twitter: @sunetrac