A review of Tarini Bedi’s The Dashing Ladies of Shiv Sena: Political Matronage in Urbanizing India

“It’s so nice to have only ladies-log (ladies people). It is more fun, more free”  

Tarini Bedi’s political ethnography of the women members of Shiv Sena illuminates an underexplored aspect of women’s political participation in urban India: their role as brokers, fixers and intermediaries in the lower rungs of a party machine. This is a role too often missed in scholarly and popular discourse that is centered on women voters, candidates, or elected representatives. It is also missing from a burgeoning body of work in political science exploring the micro-foundations of political brokerage in South Asia (e.g. see Auerbach and Thachil 2018; Cheema, Liaqat and Mohmand 2018; Schneider forthcoming). This work largely features male brokers, even as it seriously considers their interactions (or lack thereof) with female constituents. With this book, Bedi goes further than writing women into existing accounts of brokerage – though this is in and of itself an important contribution – she also takes on the important task of re-conceptualizing political brokerage from a gendered perspective.

Bedi sets out to challenge two pieces of conventional wisdom with her detailed account of the women party workers of Shiv Sena: 1) that men’s political strategies are generalizable to women, and 2) that women’s access to political power is largely dependent on their access to powerful men (p.xxii).

The first is complicated by some of the Shiv Sena women’s own testimonies where they explicitly assert their equivalence to men: “Whatever men and doing, women are doing; if men are breaking glasses, women are also breaking glasses; if men come forward and shout, women are also shouting;” “see 100 percent I was like a man”; “You see I am both gents and ladies.” Indeed the party structure also appears to foster equivalence in some organizational aspects e.g. the lack of physical separation between men and women in the party; the presence of both women and men at all party events and meetings, the reference to both men and women members as Shiv Sainiks (p.87). However, this “equivalence” has its limits. A clear manifestation of such limits is how women’s ambition for political power is received within the party, both in terms of treatment by male colleagues, and as reinforced by formal party rules which disallow women from fundraising and distinguish between men and women in parallel appointed posts as being shahkha-pramukhs (party-branch chiefs) versus shakha sanghathaks (party-branch organizers) respectively. In the words of one of Bedi’s informants: “We get plenty of respect from the men, but when we start to talk about our goals they do not like it and do not listen” (p.86).

Bedi’s account thus adds an important dimension to our understanding of the observed gender gap in political ambition, particularly that women who are by no means lacking in ambition may strategically downplay it in certain contexts: “By casting themselves as no more than ‘social workers’ they are seen as unthreatening by their male colleagues and as trustworthy by their constituents even when they do in fact attempt to gain […] some authority”. Bedi notes that this deliberate downplaying of political ambition is not unique to Shiv Sena’s women, and the “demarcation of politics (rajkaaran) from social work (samaajkaran)” is something both the men and women of Shiv Sena try to uphold. Yet is seems to be a strategy that women can deploy more credibly, in no small part because of their forced distance from fundraising activities. Indeed they seem to put it to use it at critical moments such as the defection of Narayan Rane from the Shiv Sena to the rival Congress party, after which women Shiv Sainiks distanced themselves from Sane with language like “He is into politics. We are not”. Just as Bedi’s informants express resentment with the inability to formally engage in party fundraising activities, they simultaneously acknowledge that this allows for them to be perceived as less corruptible, and provides them with a particular kind of access to constituents.  

The idea that women’s engagement in similar political activities as men could produce different outcomes resonates with recent empirical work from other contexts: Cruz and Tolentino (2019) use survey and social network data from the Philippines to demonstrate that common forms of political engagement (party membership, political meeting attendance and connections to politicians) are positively associated with perceived political influence for men, but are unpredictive, and in some cases even negatively associated, with women’s political influence. Bedi shows us that Shiv Sena women are acutely aware of how different modes of political action are perceived, and opens us to the possibility that the gender gap in “familiar” (male) forms of political engagement may be one strategically maintained by politically savvy women who realize that the payoffs to “equivalent” forms of engagement are unequal, and may even backfire.

A valuable contribution of Bedi’s book is expanding the set of questions we may ask when considering the consequences of women’s participation in brokerage networks. Specifically, Bedi explores how the political life of Shiv Sena transforms the lives of the women themselves. Bedi’s informants use the language of change in personality, nature and image to describe their self-transformation, and there is a clear sense of a psychological “before and after” in their narratives (p. 71). This transformative effect – often from shy to daring, from risk-averse to risk taking, from unknown to public figure – seems to be tied closely to the women’s “dashing” public behavior, which involves various types of gender role transgressions and encounters with risky situations that leave them changed.

Another aspect of this transformation is tied to women self-fashioning themselves consciously -- or at least comparing themselves to -- various other political role models. Much existing discussion of the “role model effect” of women in politics focuses on how the presence of women in leadership roles may encourage the entry of more women into politics. However, through various accounts, Bedi explores the way in which role model effects may operate among women who have already very much decided to enter politics, and are navigating their space within it. Here too, “dashing” public behavior is important as “many senior Shiv Sena women are invoked by junior women in the party as inspirational examples of what public women can be” (p.245). The appeal of “dashing” women leaders often trumps political alliances and institutional allegiances. For instance, while Shiv Sena women express contempt and scorn for the police force at large, they admire women police officers as symbols of daring; Bedi documents how female Sena leaders widely quoted the biography of India’s first female police officer Kiran Bedi at a gathering organized for International Women’s Day. Similarly, the national level female political leaders that Shiv Sena women speak of frequently are Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi from the rival Congress party.

The perennial question of how the personal and the private come into conflict with the political and public, and how the lines between the two are blurred is a running theme throughout the book. Certainly, women’s household roles under strongly gendered norms of division of labor exist in some tension with the demands of political life. This is apparent from the fact that most of Bedi’s informants are over forty, an age where they are relatively free from domestic responsibilities towards younger children, and potentially able to transfer the burden of household work to younger women in the home. In Chapter 8, Bedi explores what Shiv Sena women call adjustment: “a renegotiation of domestic life to accommodate a sustained public presence” (p.178). She is careful to note that “adjustment” rarely implies transformative change in household dynamics, or the gendered division of labor: it often involves shifting household responsibilities to younger women. Even as they are individually transformed by their exposure to and undertaking of “dashing” political action, transforming family structures and household relations is not a goal for the Shiv Sena women. Although Bedi expressly states the case for “moving beyond ideological motivations” to understand women’s participation in non-liberal politics, ideology seems key to fully appreciating the strategy of adjustment. It stands, for example, in stark contrast to the explicit attempts to challenge and transform traditional family relations and household structures undertaken by the women (and men) who feature in Ania Loomba’s book Revolutionary Desires: Women, Communism and Feminism in India, which explores the lives of militant nationalist and communist women in 1920s-1960s India. 

Another contribution of Bedi’s book is the meticulous documentation of the various types of political action undertaken by Shiv Sena women ranging from the familiar rally and party meeting, to the party-specific darshan at Thackeray’s home Matoshree, to the morchas and andolans, to the women-only haldi-kumkum ritual and party picnics. Why do women workers pour significant effort, time and resources into these activities? Each type of action has its own specific goals, and a specific politics of visibility (the darshan is a place to be seen by the highest level of party leadership; the morcha and andolan are important photo and press coverage opportunities; the women’s-only activities are a place to be invisible from the public eye). However, a common theme across them is that women are often having fun. Bedi captures this in the vivid descriptions of women playing antakshari on the way to a rally; the exhilaration a woman corporator feels after delivering a speech to the Mumbai mayor even though he pays little attention to the content; the joy of wearing jean-pants to a women’s only party picnic. In a forthcoming study “Can Fun be Feminist? Gender, Space and Mobility in Lyari, Karachi” Nida Kirmani makes the case for “taking fun seriously”, and considering fun activities as part of a larger repertoire of acts of resistance, which taken together, may pose a challenge to gendered norms of appropriate behavior. This approach may help make sense of the sustained enthusiastic nature of participation by Shiv Sena women described by Bedi.

Bedi’s book pushes forward a research agenda on political brokerage in South Asia, with a crucial intervention of bringing a gendered lens to the topic. Her advice to be “wary of assuming that male political categories are generalizable” is well taken, and the book demonstrates the possibilities for a richer understanding of women’s political participation that emerge when that assumption is actively questioned. Finally, the book itself is a truly fun and pleasurable read, as Bedi brings her subjects to life. Come for the aptly named concept of political matronage, stay for the story of Moti, who loves to dance so much she claims she shakes the entire bus on the way to a party picnic with her moves, and later when a neighbor compliments her dancing in front of her husband, who turns to her in horror, she pleads ignorance and says it must have been someone else. 

Works Cited:

Auerbach, A. M., & Thachil, T. (2018). How Clients Select Brokers: Competition and Choice in India's Slums. American Political Science Review112(4), 775-791.

Cheema, A., Liaqat. A, and Mohmand S. K. (2018). Party over Person: Preferences for Leaders in a Pakistani Megacity. Working Paper.

Cruz, C. & C. Tolentino. (2019). Gender, Networks, and Political Influence. Working Paper

Kirmani. N. (2019). Can Fun be Feminist? Gender, Space and Mobility in Lyari, Karachi. Working Paper.

Loomba, A. (2018). Revolutionary Desires: Women, Communism, and Feminism in India. Routledge.

Schnieder, M. (Forthcoming). Do local leaders know their voters: a test of guessability in India. Electoral Studies. 

Sarah Khan is currently Postgraduate Associate at the Yale Macmillan Center (South Asia Studies Council) and affiliate at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, Lahore. Her research focuses on women’s political participation in Pakistan, and the politics of gender inequality more broadly.


Twitter: @_sarahkhan

Visit Tarini Bedi’s website here

Purchase the book on Amazon here`