In this silly season of political ennui women power seems to be the flavor of the week. Starting with Congress’s Priyanka Vadra upping the electoral stakes by promising to give 40% tickets to the fairer sex as start of empowerment. Never mind if this includes fielding wives, daughters and other women members of a neta. They are all part of the Congress parivar, remember.
Undeniably, she is only following in the footsteps of West Bengal’s stormy petrel Mamata Bannerjee who made reservation of tickets for women a talking point in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections with her Trinamool fielding 17 (41%) of 42 candidates. Of its 22 elected Lok Sabha MPs, nine (41%) are women.
In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik’s BJD gave 7 (33%) of 21 Lok Sabha tickets to women, of whom five won. Both BJP and Congress fielded 55 and 54 women (13%) among 421 candidates. Today there are 59 women MPs, a mere 14.58% in Parliament, way behind Bangladesh and Rwanda’s 62% highest across the globe.
Undeniably, women leaders have done India proud. Indira Gandhi was a hardnosed Prime Minister who earned the acronym ‘the only man in the Cabinet!’ and towered over politics for decades. In contemporary times, her daughter-in-law Sonia, Mamata, Mayawati, late Jayalalitha and former President Pratibha Patil are often touted as examples of women’s empowerment.
Yet, when it comes to implementing their tall talk of empowering women and seat distribution in the power sweepstakes netas bandy together and put brakes. Whereby successive Governments have failed to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill reserving 33% seats in Parliament and State legislatures for women introduced in 1999, re-introduced for a third time in 2008 and passed by the Rajya Sabha in March 2010 when Sonia “walked-her-talk-on-the-Bill which still awaits Lok Sabha clearance thanks to our male chauvinist leaders playing spoil sport ensuring it remains in cold storage.
Why is this hurdle so hard to cross? Is it just a pretense, a concession to humour a pocketful of educated women with the Bill, which is meaningless to the large majority? The recent Assembly elections in four States and one Union Territory present a woeful picture. Women who make-up nearly half voters only comprised one in 10 candidates: 9% in Kerala, 7.8 % in Assam and 11% in Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and West Bengal.
Shockingly, six States have no female Ministers, including Nagaland, Sikkim and Manipur. No State even has one-third women Ministers — the highest is Tamil Nadu with 13% while 68% States have less than 10% female representation in leadership roles. Yet, there is no dearth of women workers in Parties who are regularly sidelined and denied Party tickets to contest elections. Despite, 65.63%, women turnout compared to 67.09% men during 2014 Parliamentary elections and more women voting than men in 16 of 29 States.
Perhaps it has something to do with our patriarchal lineage and misogynistic culture whereby, we show utter disregard and disrespect for women. Parties argue against nominating women candidates as they doubt their winning ability. But, the failing goes beyond politics to community attitudes and derogatory comments on social media about women in politics.
An Amnesty International report published last year showed the shocking scale of abuse female politicians face on Twitter. Sexist remarks are regularly directed at women who contest elections about their appearance, clothing or experience. Mamata was subjected to gendered slurs during the recent Assembly campaign.
Anecdotally there is a view that female political representatives in local Government are merely proxy candidates for their male relatives. If this were so, we should see no difference in policy choices made by leaders based on their gender, as these would be controlled by men even in the case of female leaders holding reserved seats. Some view women as being imprudent, irrational and indecisive alongside doubts regarding their leadership skills and ability to win.
However, this is refuted by data collected on 265 village councils in West Bengal and Rajasthan wherein it was found female leaders invested more in public goods like drinking water, sanitation etc. In Maharashtra availability of basic public services was better in female-headed villages. Also, women legislators raise economic performance in their constituencies by 1.8% annually more than men thanks to they being less corrupt, more efficient and more motivated than their male counterparts.
India’s poor record on women’s representation is starkly revealed by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2021, where it has slipped 28 places, ranking 140 among 156 countries. India is the third-worst performer in South Asia, only ahead of Pakistan and Afghanistan, behind Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan. The biggest slump is in the political empowerment sub-index where India ranks 51, dropping from 18 last year.
Pertinently, even as Prime Minister Modi has a fair sprinkling of fairer sex in his Council of Ministers why hasn’t he and his NDA storm troopers done anything about uplifting the fair sex and introducing the ‘defunct’ 108 Constitutional Amendment? Does he need to be reminded the truth that nature created women and men as equals which the Constitution endorses?
However, thanks to Manuwadi women came to be treated as the lesser sex. Thus, affirmative action is essential to jump-start the process of equality as it would wash away the reality of inequality and translate it into a vision of equality. Wherein today’s unequals would become tomorrow’s equals in decision-making.
If India really wants to develop, it will have to find ways to back up laws with quality action, not shoddy symbolism. If we want to use our finest resource, we have to start taking our Stree Shakti seriously and treating them like worthwhile investments. In the final crunch: Follow a ‘womb to tomb’ policy of keeping one girl-child happy.
Given our male-dominated society, the time has come for women to speak up as it will make more people aware and come out in support thereby taking action collectively. Alongside, the right groundwork must be laid for women education, welfare and healthcare at anganwadi, panchayat, zila parishads etc.
Tough times call for tough action. A revolutionary change is needed. The Constitution has given equal rights to women. Merely mouthing platitudes of freedom and fair play will no longer work. Will women continue to constitute the weaker gender? Will males play fair? Will we break new ground and unshackle women? Will women usher in new politics? The beginning of a new dawn to make “Her Story?” Questions which can only be answered when there is a change in the male mindset.
It remains to be seen whether Modi’s promise of uplifting the fair sex will end up as nothing more than tokenism. In a country that ranks 114th among 134 in gender disparities, it is imperative that we create a level-playing field. Good governance is not gender-specific. The big challenge now is to take the move forward, give a push for empowerment and ensure that the benefits become a reality. Can we look forward to a naya mahila daur kab?