Carole Spary – From parliament to president: Symbolic representation and the candidacy of Meira Kumar

This post first appeared on IAPS Dialogue: The Online Magazine of Institute for Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. Thanks to the Director of IAPS, Professor Katharine Adeney, for allowing the repost here

In late June, a collective of 17 opposition parties led by the Indian National Congress Party (Congress) announced Meira Kumar, the former Speaker of the lower house of the Indian Parliament, as its nominee for the election of the President of India, due on 17 July. Prior to this, the governing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had announced Ram Nath Kovind, the governor of the north Indian state of Bihar as its nominee. Both are positioned as Dalit leaders, where Dalits are the most marginalised group in India’s unequal caste system. If elected on 20 July, Kumar would not be the first woman or Dalit to become President of India – Pratibha Patil (2007-12) and KR Narayanan (1997-2002), respectively, precede her. But she would become the first Dalit woman President.

Symbolic representation in candidate selection is nothing new for Meira Kumar. As the first woman Speaker in India (2009-2014), she provided her party, the Congress, with an important precedent. However, throughout her presidential campaign, she has rejected the emphasis on her and her rival candidate’s Dalit identity, stressing ideological differences with the governing party. Gender has been absent from the debate, except for the media’s labelling of Kumar as ‘Bihar ki beti’ (Bihar’s daughter) due to her place of birth. The unshakeable focus on identity demonstrates tensions inherent in symbolic representation – while it provides candidates and parties with political capital, candidates find it hard to control the message of who and what they claim to represent, with identity taking precedence over ideas.

Symbolic representation in Indian politics: intersecting identities

Kumar’s election as Speaker in 2009 exemplified complex intersections of gender, class, and caste underpinning debates on women’s under-representation in electoral politics in India and elsewhere. The unanimous election of a woman Speaker compensated for the Congress party’s failure to deliver a manifesto promise on parliamentary gender quotas in their previous term (2004-2009). The additional symbolic capital generated by Kumar’s intersecting identities meant she was chosen above other potential women candidates. Congratulatory speeches by MPs in the Lok Sabha professed the importance of her election for women, especially Dalit women. Kumar acknowledged in a press interview that her election as Speaker sent a positive message to women and Dalits. Sometimes overlooked is the fact Kumar was not the first woman to occupy a senior presiding role in India’s national parliament, that too a woman from an underrepresented group in parliament: Muslim MP Najma Heptulla was Deputy Chair of the upper house (Rajya Sabha) for seventeen years. As a more senior constitutional position, however, the first woman Speaker was an important milestone.

MPs were also optimistic she would represent women’s interests better than her predecessors. anticipating the passage of the long-debated legislation on gender quotas in parliament and state assemblies, which was eventually passed in 2010 during Kumar’s term but only by the upper not the lower house, and had not been introduced in the lower house by the end of Kumar’s term in 2014. Some past Speakers, particularly those who were not from among the ‘somatic norm’ of parliament – predominantly Hindu, upper caste, north Indian, and male – were subjected to similar expectations, like the late Speaker P.A. Sangma (1996-1998) whose election was expected to enable visibility of concerns of the North East.  This ‘burden of representation’ for under-represented groups is rarely placed on dominant-group representatives, at least to the same degree. Some argued, and still do, that Kumar’s privileged upbringing as a daughter of senior political leader, Jagjivan Ram, meant her experiences are unrepresentative of the ‘average’ Dalit woman in India. While this is a valid critique in class terms, we need to consider further the possibilities of the ideal ‘authentic’ representative, and why more attention is paid to Kumar’s supposed ‘inauthenticity’ than representatives from other dominant social groups.

Presidential candidacy and representative claim-making

Meira Kumar’s presidential nomination in 2017 means she again finds herself in the midst of a debate about identity and representation. She has tried to shift focus away from her and her rival candidate’s caste identity, reportedly saying that ‘”When an election to the highest office is being held, the Dalit issue is being raised. Earlier, the capabilities, merits and achievements of the two candidates used to be discussed and no one talked about their caste”. Elsewhere she was quoted as saying: ‘”Do we – Ram Nath Kovind and I — have no other qualities?…”’. In so doing, Kumar attempted to control representative claims. Throughout her presidential campaign she stressed support for secular and democratic values such as freedom of speech, contrasting this with the governing party, criticising a climate of fear and rising casteism and communalism and increasing violence against Dalits and Muslims. She publicly appealed to the electoral college to vote with their conscience.

Consequently, this presidential election has been more confrontational than her Speaker election in 2009, or her earlier diplomatic career. As outgoing Speaker in 2014, Kumar published a volume of her speeches linking her diplomatic career with her experience of parliamentary diplomacy, hosting foreign dignitaries and bilateral delegations, and participating in Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association activities. As Speaker, she claimed she took care to remain above political preferences, and that her speeches were a ‘reflection of a broader outlook’. These experiences provide a good foundation for presidential office. But her principled campaign focus begs the question of how she will manage this confrontation if elected, given conventional relations between the President and Prime Minister.

Gender issues have been notably absent so far in the campaign; if Kumar has discussed gender explicitly, the media have not covered it prominently, except to label her as  ‘Bihar’s daughter’. Perhaps this is because the symbolic dividend of a second woman President is reduced. Perhaps it is because neither the governing or opposition parties can claim a strong track record on gender issues. Perhaps it is because some of the opposition parties supporting her candidacy had vigorously opposed issues such as the gender quota Bill during Kumar’s term as Speaker. Perhaps it is because the current Speaker is an experienced woman parliamentarian from the BJP. Most plausibly, it is because casteism and communalism are the common denominators on which those parties supporting her can agree, even if in the past these have manifested in gendered forms.

The campaign emphasis on democratic values was a public intervention at a much needed time. Whatever the outcome on 20 July, this election demonstrates once again that representative claims by candidates, their supporters and detractors, about who and what they represent, are vigorously contested, and that identity and symbolic representation are likely to play an important role in electoral politics in India in the future. Is symbolic representation enough? No – precedents are welcome but the substantive transformation for marginalised groups needs to follow. Allrepresentatives, not just those perceived to embody more marginalised identities, need to be held accountable for bringing about the change.

Carole Spary is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations and Deputy Director of the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. She tweets at @carolespary . For more on Meira Kumar’s election as first female Speaker in 2009, see the author’s published book chapter on first female Speakers co-authored with Faith Armitage and Rachel Johnson (in Rai and Johnson’s edited collection Democracy in Practice, 2014, Palgrave Macmillan). Image credit: CC by Public.Resource.Org/Flickr.

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