With the largest democratic election in the world underway in India, political parties and leaders have taken several intricate efforts to woo the 900 million voters of the country. In fact, on Wednesday, Bihar's Chief Minister Nitish Kumar asked women voters to not "feed" their husbands if they did not vote according to their will.
Speaking at a rally in Madhubani, Kumar addressed women in the constituency and said, "If men in the house vote for your chosen candidate, give them food and feed them with love". But what if the husband did not vote for the candidate favoured by the woman? "Make them fast for the whole day," Kumar quipped.
Kumar's Janata dal (United) is part of the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the CM was campaigning for Ashok Yadav, NDA candidate son of sitting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav, who replaced his father and sitting MP Hukum Dev Narayan Yadav.
Along with the "domestic" advice, Kumar also told women voters to cast their votes in the morning.
Though it was the JD(U) government under Kumar that introduced 50 percent of reservation for women in Panchayati institutions in Bihar, campaigned against child marriage and dowry and provided girl students with bicycles and uniforms, the statement in Madhubani seems to run counter to Kumar's carefully constructed perception as a "pro-woman" leader.
Because why would a "pro-woman" leader, concerned with increasing independence and literacy of women in his state, tell women voters that their role was merely to "feed" their husbands? Why would he tell them that the only way they can exert power over male contemporaries is by starving them in the kitchen?
While many would say that Kumar was empowering women by encouraging them to vote for the candidates of their own choice and not their husbands', Kumar's statement once again brought back women to their "original" arena of power - the kitchen - in effect, undoing the years spent on advocating women's literacy and employment.
The fact remains that even for "pro-woman" leaders like Kumar, who project themselves as objective feminists, the biggest weapon in possession of women is control over home and hearth, no matter how educated or successful she may be outside of the kitchen.
When Kumar asks women to punish unsupportive husbands by not feeding them and making them fast, he makes certain things clear, albeit unwittingly - A) that women are still the sole bearers of domestic responsibility at home, especially the kitchen and B) the only power women can exercise over men in order to negotiate with them is cooking for them or cutting them off food by renouncing the kitchen. Because obviously, even the most powerful and successful man needs a woman to feed him at home.
Politicians often get swayed in the heat of the poll campaigning and say things they would not have said on ordinary occasions. Many would argue that Kumar's statements were nothing compared to some of the highly offensive and sexist comments that have already been made by his friends and opponents across the political spectrum this election season. He did not call anyone a "skirt wali bai", nor did he comment on a woman's underclothing or her political prowess.
Kumar's statement, however, point toward a more institutionalized misogyny that refuses to shed the yoke of gender-roles and continues to believe in defined areas of expertise segregated for men and women. It manifests a skewed perception of gender, especially the role of women, in life and society, that refuses to change despite gender-sensitive advertising, woman-centric policies and women candidates getting poll tickets (Read JD(U)'s Kavita Singh who has been fielded from Siwan constituency, BJP's Rama Devi from Sheohar and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP)'s Veena Singh from Vaishali).
Kumar's statement reduces the women candidates in Bihar to mere tokens in a state (and country) that continues to relegate women to kitchens and men to battlefields. And coming from so-called 'pro-woman' leaders like Nitish Kumar, it cannot be taken without a pinch of salt from the kitchens of the women he addressed.