By Nisha Susan
What does a leader look like? To many people round the world, the picture of a leader remains male. In a recent CNN News 18 short docu about women’s political representation, Bangalore’s only woman MLA Sowmya Reddy tells this story — “I was at an event and someone was introducing me and said here is the MLA. Everyone was like where?” It was only when someone said ‘Lady MLA’ that eyes focused on her. It is this kind of ingrained thinking that allows political parties around the world to justify not even nominating women candidates. It is also this ‘male as neutral’ thinking what probably led to the former Silicon Valley darling Elizabeth Holmes (now accused of enormous scams) reportedly even faking a deep baritone to go with the Steve Jobs costume she wore every day. What is the meaning of a Jacinda Ardern then? What is the meaning of her leadership after the massacre in Christchurch?
It is hard to get away from the fact that Ardern is a woman. She is New Zealand’s third woman prime minister. Ardern’s ‘womanness’ has been underlined in our visual-loving and odd-news loving world by her youth (she is only 38) and by her giving birth to a child while in office. But now what has brought Ardern to the attention of the world this week is her generous and compassionate response to the killing of 50 Muslims in a mosque by a white supremacist terrorist. Her speech underlined the grief and fear that the shooting inspired. It left no wriggle room for the kind of thinking that justifies rage against immigrants and/or Muslims as natural or ‘just’ backlash, the kind of thinking that has got prominence through Brexit, through Donald Trump and our own right-wing government in India. The killings were wrong. The man who did it was wrong. He shouldn’t be deified and there would be laws put in place to ensure it never happened again. This is what her response has been. And then she put on a headscarf when visiting the mourning families, prompting even more goggling and googling.
Plenty of observers are now arguing that it is her gender that prompted her humane response and who am I to say it is not? We can try to understand whether it is Jacinda Ardern’s gender that has prompted her to a response (first in words and then in action) that did not make a tragedy worse. Or was it the progressive political movements that she has been part of her entire life? Certainly we should look around and see whether the political parties around us have nominated any women at all these upcoming elections in India and ask ourselves what that means. When we vote for women we cannot possibly do any worse than voting for the men who have been offered to us for 70 years.
What does interest me is how swiftly we have arrived at a place in the last decade where the simple response of a politician to an incident that should be unequivocally a Bad Thing (killing random people = Bad) invites so much scrutiny. We have arrived at this ridiculous place because of our search of Authenticity. A political cartoon I saw a few years ago summed it up the best. A flock of sheep are standing in front of a political hoarding featuring a wolf. The wolf’s slogan is “I am going to eat you.” The sheep say to each other, “at least he is honest.”
Around the world, we see people saying they will vote for the politician ‘who says it like it is,’ and ‘who doesn’t pretend.’ Almost always these are politicians who have taken on the job of voicing meanness and articulating our most ill-formed prejudices. This honesty doesn’t extend to not taking bribes. It doesn’t extend to challenging the rich and mighty. It doesn’t even extend to fiscal responsibility. No, what it does is give you a politician much like our relatives who justify their worst behaviour with what they see as their finest trait – their lack of hypocrisy. It gives you a politician who will undertake the job of quickly dismantling the protection of minorities that a country has usually built painfully and usually over many, many decades. Let us blow this popsicle stand, they announce and vast voting populations applaud because what else could it be but a joke, this idea that minorities, women, people with disabilities and queer people deserve protection from the mean impulses of the world.
As a deeply shallow person, I am very much in favour of hypocrisy, dishonesty and politicians who pretend to believe in the popsicle stand. Regardless of the state of their soul or their inner convictions, I would like them to not make fun of the dyslexic as our Prime Minister recently did. I would like them to not use casteist slurs. I would like politicians to say aloud that mass shootings of Muslims are terrible. I would like them to pretend they believe in democracy and not that they intend to cancel elections in 2024, as the most honourable Sakshi Maharaj has.
We should be as interested in the authentic and honest politician as we are in authentic chow mein.
Co-published with Firstpost.com