Woman power returns to upper house after 57 long years
Dr Neelam Gorhe's elevation to the deputy chairperson of the upper house may bode well for the Sena, as well as the political discourse in general
Amid meaningless brouhaha over mundane proceedings, a milestone that the Maharashtra Legislature reached in its 59-year journey went unnoticed last week. For the first time since 1962 — two years after Maharashtra was re-organised on linguistic basis and had freedom-fighter Jethi Sipahimalani as the first woman deputy chairperson of the upper house - another woman, Dr Neelam Gorhe has been given the prestigious position.
Dr Gorhe's appointment should be hailed because it hasn't come as easy for a firebrand. It precedes a 40-year-old career as a women's right activist-turned-politician. Her activism partners wondered why a liberal socialist like her should join a right-wing party like the Shiv Sena after quitting the republicans two decades ago. The 64-year-old has struggled to find a firm standing in a male-dominated political landscape in general and the Sena in particular. Her elevation to the deputy leader of the Sena wasn't appreciated within the party, but the party's top leadership was willing to recognise her leadership, though Gorhe's reward has come late.
Dr Gorhe had been expecting a minister's berth since 2014 but landed in a presiding officer's position four months before the Assembly polls. The position has been vacant for quite some time. Denied the deputy speaker's post in the Assembly, the Sena had staked claim to the upper house's deputy's chairman's office. When Congress desperately needed an opposition leader's status in the Assembly, it was asked to make way for the Sena in the upper house where the ruling parties don't have a majority to get their candidate elected. A deal that succeeded should see Dr Gorhe completing her tenure, provided she gets yet another term in the house where she is sitting since 2002.
Making her way to the top
Political reservation in the local self-government ensures a mandatory number of women representatives. A 'macho' Sena has made women city mayors too. But as far as making women legislators and MPs is concerned, the Sena is as reluctant as all other political parties. A bill seeking a quota for women in Assembly and Parliament is stuck for years. It remains to be seen how many potential women candidates are fielded in the October Assembly polls. The Sena had a sole woman candidate in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Bhavana Gawli, who after getting elected for the fourth time, remains upset because she wasn't made a minister. She was asked to lead the Sena in the Parliament but rejected the offer. If we add ex-Congress national spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi, who made the Sena her home ahead of Lok Sabha polls, to the list, we see the Uddhav Thackeray-led party making space for potential women players. We may also see Aaditya Thackeray-led youth wing creating the leadership of the future, with a special emphasis on woman power.
The urban-rural reach
Gorhe is an urban face that connects easily with the rural folks because of her independent network of NGOs. She is a physician, who did her schooling in Mumbai before graduating from the city's Poddar Ayurvedic College. She quit her 10-year practice to take up the fight for women's rights in 1987. An award-winning author and researcher of social issues, Dr Gorhe is one the most prolific contributors to the periodicals, magazines and newspapers. Articulating public speeches is her forte. She is the first-generation politician from a family of poets and authors. She shuttles between Mumbai and Pune where she has homes and NGOs.
Dr Gorhe's performance as Shiv Sena's spokesperson has been exemplary, not just for her party colleagues but also for the others who very often violate civility, especially during television debates. Her strong voicing of concerns has impacted policymaking. Her penchant for making a studied statement should come in handy while communicating with elders, who become unruly at the drop of a hat. We expect path-breaking and just rulings, and want her to lash out at the members who destroy legislative decorum.
Loner and liberal
At times, Dr Gorhe appeared a loner because she does not really fit the Sena's popular image. She does get into an aggressive mode when necessary and uses strong words when she wants to put a message across, but her hallmark has been avoiding making statements that could possibly add fuel to the fire that simmers between the BJP and Sena. We hope she will no longer be the party's spokesperson because the office she holds is seen as an apolitical entity. She will have privileges and powers that she can use for good causes. Since power works wonders, we don't expect her to be a loner any longer because the people, who thought she was a misfit for Sena, will now overcrowd her offices/residences and sing praises to seek a favour or two.
Dr Gorhe may draw inspiration from late Jethi Sipahimalani who also fought for the community and womenfolk. Jethi quit her school principal's job to join the independence struggle and went to jail for long. She made a career in politics against all odds in Sindh, now in Pakistan. She was elected twice to the Sindh Legislative Assembly where she worked as its first deputy speaker. After partition, she settled in Mumbai where she represented a migrant community in the upper house which made her a deputy chairperson. The Sindhi community fondly remembers her as a promoter of Navjivan housing societies in Mahim, Chembur, Matunga and Lamington Road where 1,600 distressed migrant families were given homes. Her statue greets you in Mahim's colony. She played a major role in setting up educational institutes. A road in Churchgate has been named in her memory too.
Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore
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