A Hug and Birthday 'Gift': How Kejriwal, His Wife Are Changing Our Idea of 'Macho' Indian Politicians
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INDIA - February 12, 2020

A Hug and Birthday ‘Gift’: How Kejriwal, His Wife Are Changing Our Idea of ‘Macho’ Indian Politicians

New Delhi: In 2015, the photograph that made headlines right after Arvind Kejriwal won the Delhi assembly elections was of him hugging his wife, Sunita Kejriwal. That one photograph broke the norms of how Indian politicians like projecting themselves: Brahmacharis, have no time for love (or life) and have selflessly devoted their lives to serve the country. Five years later, cut to February 11, 2020.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) mopped up 62 of the total 70 seats in results declared on Tuesday in almost a repeat of its stunning performance from five years ago. Right after the verdict, photographs of Kejriwal feeding cake to his wife started doing the rounds on social media. At the AAP office in Delhi, he celebrated Sunita’s 54th birthday along with his father and children. Soon, his win had turned into a ‘birthday gift’ for his wife. “I had believed that there will be victory and a good one at that. The people of Delhi have given a good gift,” Sunita told the media.

The idea of a ‘macho’ politician isn’t new in India. Politicians here like making claims about their chest size, but often shy away from being seen with their partners, even if they are married. The idea that an Indian politician should be a solitary individual, ‘bachelor’ and devoid of attachments perhaps also stems from the fact they have never had to flaunt their marriages unlike in the West, and singledom is almost seen as a virtue.

While male politicians save their emotions to be at full display during passionate and often hateful political campaigns, the women politicians, too, keep their husbands at a careful distance, away from the media. Of course, Priyanka Gandhi’s husband Robert Vadra is an anomaly, and she perhaps wouldn’t choose to have it this way.

In fact, forget hugging and feeding each other cake, no Indian political couple has ever become popular for their behaviour as a ‘couple’. Indian politicians believe, for some reason, that pulling off a Michelle and Barack Obama is a big ‘no’ to ensure their voters don’t mistake their sincerity for a flaw.

Before holding a triumphant roadshow on Tuesday, Kejriwal stood on a balcony at the AAP headquarters along with some of his party colleagues with a wide smile on his face. The 51-year-old former bureaucrat and anti-corruption activist said, “Dilliwaalon… I love you,” prompting roars of approval from scores of cadres and supporters gathered below. Sunita stood right next to him, smiling. This is when Kejriwal announced to his sea of supporters that it is his wife’s birthday. The remark was unexpected, how often do you hear a politician (or rather still a man) acknowledging their wife’s birthday in public? “…My workers and my family also supported me. Today is also my wife’s birthday. I had the cake, will share it with you all too. Thank you all,” the Delhi Chief Minister said.

Sunita had campaigned for her husband before the Delhi election, going from door-to-door with AAP workers, raising suspicions that this may indicate her entry into full-time politics. However, she denied the possibility and said, “The support system needs to be strong too.”

After his historic win five years ago, Kejriwal had put his arms affectionately around Sunita and said, “This is my wife”. “She never appears in front of the public…Today, I have forced her to come here.” Sunita, meanwhile, greeted the journalists and supporters with folded hands.

A Quartz piece noted that this particular hug was as important as the Modi-Obama hug: “With this gesture, the AAP co-founder has endeared himself to millions of Delhi’s women—a crucial vote bank as nearly six million women voted in the capital last week.”

A story in Mint noted the phenomena of politicians’ missing wives from public view. “Wives do emerge during election time, their sari pallus wrapped around them to portray a perfect picture, but it’s more like a flash of a trailer than a full picture. So the most we have as a ready reckoner is 500 different ways of folding hands in a namaste that could describe spouses in Indian politics. Not to mention the absolute absence.”

Sunita and Arvind Kejriwal met more than 25 years ago at the National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie during their training after both of them qualified for the Indian Revenue Service (IRS). In 2016, she took voluntary retirement from the IRS, after serving for nearly 22 years in the Income Tax department.

Just like he did five years ago, Kejriwal, once again showed on Tuesday that the muffler wearing, broom-yielding aam aadmi is very much capable of being just an ordinary man, who is not shy of showing affection to his wife in public and projecting himself as a ‘family’ man with attachments.

This is indeed a refreshing change and a much-needed one.

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