Indian election 2009

This year, International Women’s Day comes at the end of a long election season in India. Since January, five states—Goa, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Manipur—and one major municipal corporation—Mumbai—have been caught up in election campaigns with polling dates stretching across a five week period in February-March. Women’s political participation should be top-of-mind this year, but predictably, it is not.

The Election Commission threw open the election season by mentioning special arrangements for women in the poll schedule announcement. There would be separate polling stations for women so they did not have to stand in the same queue as men and as far as possible, each Assembly constituency would have an all-women managed polling station. In both Goa and Punjab, the all-women polling stations were painted pink and in Goa, pink teddy bears were given away to first-time women voters as an incentive. The election observer team announced for Goa was an all-female team because men were likely to be distracted by Goa’s many temptations. The team announced for Manipur was all-male because that state with its many conflict-related tensions was not safe for women.

With this point of departure, what can you expect? The election campaigns have been largely gender-blind.

Party election manifestos—to the extent that they have any relevance—generally include a ‘women empowerment’ section which is fairly perfunctory and serves best to remind us that the work of gender sensitisation of the political class is itself a distant dream. By and large, promises made reinforce existing patriarchal roles and relationships. Cash gifts on the birth of girls, wedding assistance and widow’s pensions are common. Job reservations are promised in the government sector but party nominations for the elections show no interest in gender inclusivity. To some extent, the Aam Aadmi Party manifestos seem to be the product of local consultation and deliberation and this is reflected in the quality of promises. In Punjab, their manifesto speaks about domestic abuse and ‘holiday brides,’ women’s hostels and crèches. In Goa, it includes single-window credit clearance for women entrepreneurs and several provisions for addressing violence concerns. In Manipur, Irom Sharmila’s Peoples’ Resurgence and Justice Alliance includes reservation for women in all government offices as a promise. In Mumbai, an NGO got young girls to draft a charter of demands ahead of the election that bears no resemblance to what parties are actually promising.

But everywhere, women candidates form between 8-10% of all candidates. This is a pathetic tally for a country whose million mutinies feature countless women and where electoral democracy has been around for at least seven decades. Uttarakhand has been home to several grassroots agitations to conserve the environment and women have been in the forefront of all of them. There are constituencies where women outnumber men. Nevertheless, there are hardly any women nominees. By mid-March 2017, we will know how many of this small number were elected by the overwhelming turnout of women voters.

Given the patriarchal nature of India’s political parties, this is not surprising. Leading male politicians routinely make cringe-worthy statements, such as the misogynistic discussion a few weeks ago about which party had the most attractive female election campaigners. The more suave among them express outrage after reports of gender-based violence on various platforms and speaking of the need to protect “our” women and children, “our” mothers and sisters. Even in parties headed by women, women are rarely humans or citizens in their own right.

What does strike me as outrageous at this historical moment is that we are not, as voters or the media, incensed by this exclusion. We do not demand equal representation ahead of the nominations. We do not challenge exclusion when the lists are announced. We do not condemn it as we comment on the campaign. It does not determine how we vote—after all, if we were to make gender a factor in our decision, “none of the above” would have to be a universal choice.

Will a Women’s Reservation Bill make a difference to this situation? After two decades and some, reservations for women at the Panchayat level may be declared successful. One sees a new generation of women leaders at the state level, most of whom began their political careers in the panchayats. The challenge is that patriarchal party politics continue to sideline these young leaders who work hard in their Assembly constituencies but lose the nomination to a better-connected male politician. A Women’s Reservation Bill would partially force open access to political opportunity at the state and national levels.

However, any quota is at best temporary and a holding measure. The actual timeline—ten years, twenty years, fifty years or a century—does not matter and we need not waste time on this pointless debate. What matters is that the work of making the quota redundant should commence even as the quota comes into force. We have failed to do this with every kind of reservation so far, but it is never too late to learn.

 A year ago, ahead of the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, we released a Gender Equality Election Checklist that offered five criteria for assessing candidates.

1. Zero-tolerance for violence in speech or action.
2. Commitment to gender parity (or something close to it) in nominations.
3. Evidence of equal party support to male and other candidates.
4. Strong and clear positions in favour of gender equality.
5. Genuine concern about gender-related issues in speeches and interviews.

This cannot be a checklist we dust off only at election time. The challenge is two-fold. First, it is to sustain our own engagement with the political process and the political class year-in and out. This engagement should take us from basic gender sensitisation to a fundamental transformation over time in thought, action and policy. The second, greater challenge is to get past the jealous gatekeepers and conservative leaders of Indian political parties and prise open their closed doors to such engagement at every level.

Dr Swarna Rajagopalan works as a writer, political analyst, consultant and social entrepreneur in Chennai, India. She tweets @swarraj She is the founding trustee of The Prajnya Trust, which is building a centre for policy research, advocacy and networking in the areas of peace, justice and security. It tweets @prajnya Image credit: CC by Al Jazeera English/ Flickr.

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