The recent'askmumma' and 'maahir' jibes are a new low in the rocky relationship that the women leaders share
New Delhi: They are the two most powerful and senior women in Indian politics, but Sushma Swaraj and Sonia Gandhi have always had a rocky relationship. And although they come from two ends of the political spectrum, a few of their run-ins have been personal as well.
It all started in 1999, when Sonia Gandhi contested the Lok Sabha election. She filed her nomination from two constituencies—Bellary, Karnataka, and the Gandhi family seat of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fielded Swaraj, the in-house orator and poster child for the “adarsh bharatiya nari"—an ideal Indian woman.
With a big bindi on the forehead, sindoor (red vermilion powder) in the parting of her hairline and photo-ops celebrating various festivals dressed in traditional attire, Swaraj was the perfect nationalistic foil to what the BJP derided as the “Italian-born" Gandhi, widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
And thus the seeds of the battle between the “Indian beti" and the “foreign bahu"—daughter of India versus Italian daughter-in-law—were sown.
Swaraj lost in Bellary, but the battle was revived in 2004, when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won the general election and Congress loyalists urged Sonia Gandhi to take up the prime ministership.
Then, in what can only be described as over-the-top and exaggerated outburst, Swaraj threatened to shave her head and wear white—a Hindu sign of mourning—if Gandhi became the prime minister. At the time, Swaraj had said her reaction was due to her hurt sentiments because, as she put it, “even after the culmination of British rule and the sacrifices made by fellow Indians…a foreigner was being chosen".
Swaraj has maintained this line ever since, expressing admiration for Sonia Gandhi but stating that her selection for the top job was unacceptable to her.
The tables were turned when Sonia Gandhi refused to accept the post of prime minister. With the bahu making the ultimate Indian woman’s sacrifice, the entire game changed. “The BJP could not keep harping on her foreign origins after that. Whether it was an emotional decision or a calculated one, we can only speculate, but it silenced all of Sonia’s critics and ended the foreign aspect of the debate once and for all," says a political analyst, who did not wish to be identified.
Over the past few years, the relationship between the two leaders has been tentative.
According to a report in The Telegraph newspaper, in the 15th Lok Sabha, Swaraj “warmed up" to Sonia Gandhi, though it took a lot of effort on the BJP leader’s part to “thaw their frostiness".
The paper said that during US President Barack Obama’s visit in 2010, the two women discussed families and saris.
“I think it’s not fair to assume that two politicians will be friends just because their gender is the same. Why should the equation between these two MPs (members of Parliament) be singled out for scrutiny? Over the years, many politicians have had run-ins like this," said a BJP leader. The following year, Sonia Gandhi complimented Swaraj while delivering a Commonwealth lecture on women, calling her a woman of substance. In 2014, Swaraj praised Sonia Gandhi on the floor of the House as a graceful leader.
But from there to Swaraj’s ask mumma" speech last week—taunting Sonia Gandhi’s son Rahul Gandhi—and Sonia calling Swaraj “maahir" (expert) in theatrics, it seems as if the work of the last five years has been undone. “I think they both are acting out a new kind of morality play, a Punch and Judy show, if you must, as there is no quality of communication," says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. Political watchers, however, dismiss this as a simple political rivalry with no personal animosity. “Simply put, they both can take each other and as such they do," said a political analyst. And perhaps that’s all there is to it.