Dayashankar Singh, the BJP's Uttar Pradesh vice president has done what no one else could do in our fractured polity, not even the Prime Minister. He has brought together our bickering political parties in a common stand on decency and civility in political discourse.
When he compared BSP chief Mayawati to a prostitute, Singh was being the fiery leader with a sharp tongue. But it was he who ended up feeling the whiplash of his own remarks, not Mayawati. An Indian Express article about how the story broke in parliament shows a rare instance of politicians cutting across party lines to make common cause.
Vivek Gupta of Trinamool Congress passed his smartphone with the video of Singh's offensive comments to BSP MP Ashok Siddharth who rushed to show it to Mayawati. Her colleague Satish Chandra Mishra took it to Congress' Ghulam Nabi Azad. TMC's Derek O'Brien showed the phone to BJP's Minister of State Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. Naqvi called Arun Jaitley. Jaitley stood up in the Rajya Sabha to express "personal regrets" and assure Mayawati "I associate our dignity with yours and stand with you." Deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha P J Kurien said the entire House condemned the remarks.
Vivek Gupta of Trinamool Congress passed his smartphone with the video of Singh's offensive comments to BSP MP Ashok Siddharth who rushed to show it to Mayawati. Her colleague Satish Chandra Mishra took it to Congress' Ghulam Nabi Azad. TMC's Derek O'Brien showed the phone to BJP's Minister of State Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. Naqvi called Arun Jaitley.
Subsequently Singh was sacked from all party posts. He will likely be expelled from the party for six years. The police have lodged an FIR against Singh under the SC/ST Act. Mayawati said she was "grateful" to Jaitley and the entire Opposition.
This is quite something in a country where a woman who is raped struggles to file an FIR. This is quite something in a country where a woman who is assaulted often finds her own character, her clothes, her lifestyle put on trial by politicians.
This seems like a rare feel-good moment in Indian politics where the netas stood up with alacrity to defend a woman's dignity. Of course, cynics will say a lot had to do with timing. UP is bound for the polls and no one wanted this distraction. And the BJP, already with its hands full with a Dalit agitation in Gujarat, an Ambedkar memorial demolished in Mumbai and hyperactive gau raksha groups stirring up trouble all over, probably decided the last thing it needed was to hand Mayawati a rallying issue on a platter.
Dalits might be furious that a powerful leader from the community is being pilloried but should not prostitutes feel even more outrage?
But let's not quibble over motivations. It's good the parties reacted with such speed and such firmness and without non-apologies like "If anyone is offended by these remarks, I regret them". However it's worth remembering what Singh was saying exactly.
"Ek vaishya se bhi badtar charitra ki aaj Mayawatiji ho gayi hain. Isi liye Kanshi Ram ke banaye karyakarta unka saath chhod kar ja rahe hain aur BSP samapt ho rai hai... Mayawatiji kisi ko 1 crore mein ticket deti hain. Koi 2 crore dene wala milta hai toh usey ticket de deti hain, aur shaam ko koi 3 crore dene ko taiyyar hota hai toh usey de deti hain."
(Mayawati has become of worse character than a prostitute. That is why Kanshi Ram's followers are deserting her and the BSP is in decline. Mayawati gives out tickets for Rs 1 crore. If she finds someone offering Rs 2 crore she gives it to that person instead. If by evening she is offered Rs 3 crore then she is ready to change again.)
Singh landed himself in such hot water not because he said Mayawati is corrupt and her party tickets are for sale to the highest bidder but because he said she was "worse" than a prostitute. Ultimately our outrage is really about that comparison to a prostitute. That is why the BSP filed a complaint under the SC/SC Act and Mayawati threatened "big protests" around the country.
Dalits might be furious that a powerful leader from the community is being pilloried but should not prostitutes feel even more outrage? What did they do to be dragged into this fracas in the first place, to become the metric by which to measure lack of moral character?
Singh's comment and the swift and sharp reaction to it shows that the prostitute remains among the lowest of the low in public perception.
Singh's comment and the swift and sharp reaction to it shows that the prostitute remains among the lowest of the low in public perception. A prostitute might be trafficked into that profession, might not want to do it, might be a victim of pimps, but a prostitute is not a murderer or a corrupt contractor selling low quality cement that causes bridges to collapse or distributing contaminated medicines that kill dozens of children.
A prostitute in contrast can do an honest night's work, selling sexual favours to someone for a price. But in a dictionary of insults, it's the insult that stings. Chances are if Singh had compared Mayawati to a murderer or a corrupt contractor there would not have been quite so much outrage.
But "worse" than a prostitute was beyond the pale. That was intolerable. As always it's the prostitute that is at the receiving end of the social opprobrium not so much the babus who are buying that sex. Or even the trafficker. The prostitute remains the insult of choice when it comes to insulting someone's moral character.
Singh is not the first to hurl it, especially at a woman politician. In 2011 in poll-bound Bengal 7-time MP and CPM leader Anil Basu sneeringly compared Mamata Banerjee to the sex workers of Sonagachi wondering which rich client (bhatar) was funding her poll expenses. At that time Kavita Krishnan, national secretary of AIPWA had called out Basu's misogyny but also said "The CPI(M) also needs to apologise to the sex workers of Sonagachi, for the humiliation Basu has heaped on them. Pushed by a system that has thrown these poor women into the margins, so that they can be devoured, all they have done is struggle to eke out a living and survived. Why should they be invoked as a symbol of shame? What have they done to be ashamed of?"
That's a nuance and a distinction we all tend to miss over and over again. Singh's remarks prove that. That's hardly surprising in a culture where V K Singh, a minister of the same government that rushed to defend Mayawati's dignity also routinely refers to media persons he does not like as "presstitutes".
One might say he is just saying that some media persons are for sale and that it's a "technical description" not a character assassination but let's not fool ourselves. The reason that Singh uses presstitute is the same reason this Singh used prostitute. It's a slur on someone's character. And it stings for that reason.
Maywati has every right to be incensed and anguished by the remarks made about her. But should not sex workers be just as angry?