The panchayat experiment has thrown up many women leaders who have made a huge difference to their areas in terms of sanitation, drinking water, education and health. This should be a good catchment area for women candidates.
The south soars over the north on so many counts when it come to women’s rights: sex ratio, educational parameters, maternal mortality, infant mortality, female participation in the labour force and so on. So it would not be unrealistic to expect that this would translate into proper representation of women in politics. But here the south follows the northern pattern, even falls behind many states, including Uttar Pradesh, in women entering politics and getting elected.
In the recent Karnataka elections, you may have noticed that there was no female presence at all as MLAs were herded from resorts to buses to other states. The Congress gave tickets to 15 of 281 seats to women and the BJP to five of 213. The Election Commission figures show that just 8% of women participated in this election which was an improvement from the 6% in the last election. This is not to single out Karnataka. Other states have been equally dismal. In the assemblies of Kerala, Goa, Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Arunchal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Manipur, less than 5% are women. The states where women do not fare well on social indicators have done better with Punjab, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab notching up around 15% participation of women in the legislatures.
I remember meeting KR Gowri, the legendary communist leader in Kerala, while on election rounds soliciting votes for the party she formed after breaking off from the communist party even when she could barely walk. Such was her drawing power and her oratory that crowds overflowed at the venues she went to. This was a woman who should have been and deserved to be chief minister of the state. But the CPI(M), for which she sacrificed everything, even her personal life, opted for less talented men at every turn. Politics in the south has traditionally been a male preserve and no amount of education and enlightenment has changed that. A powerful woman like J Jayalalithaa could have changed the gender equations in her party, unchallenged as she was, but she did nothing.
The assembly pattern extends to the Parliament as well. There are just 64 women among the 542 members which is 11.8%, a lot less than Pakistan’s 20%, Afghanistan’s 27.7% and Saudi Arabia’s 19.9%. It is not that there are not enough qualified women who could enter politics in India.
One reason is that politics here is seen as so murky that many women themselves do not want to enter the fray. There are many dynasties in politics operating across the country. In the recent elections, outgoing chief minister Siddaramaiah has sought a berth for his son as the consolation prize. The new chief minister is the son of a former prime minister. In each instance, it is usually the man who is chosen in dynasties over the woman. The woman even in dynasties is the choice only when there is no suitable male available.
Women from non-political backgrounds find the going tough as they are not able to compete with the money and muscle power that entrenched parties have. Often, they have no family support as politics is seen as a dirty game. Most parties will cite winnability as a criterion. But this is something the party can rectify. If a woman candidate is chosen, the party should put its weight behind her as it does with male candidates. It is the groundwork and campaign that sees most candidates through and there is no reason why this should not work for women.
The panchayat experiment has thrown up many women leaders who have made a huge difference to their areas in terms of sanitation, drinking water, education and health. This should be a good catchment area for women candidates. When Panchayati Raj was introduced, it was to create a large cohort of future women leaders. Today, we see that women sarpanches rarely move beyond their panchayats, they do not even make it to the assemblies, leave alone Parliament.
The women’s reservation bill is not likely to happen in this Parliament or the next. Of course, in 2019 too, it will be fished out, dusted and presented as a poll promise. But parties could surely display their commitment to gender equality by giving more tickets to women and then ensuring that they have a fair shot at winning. It should not be too difficult and perhaps the first move should come from the parties led by women. There are enough of them to make a difference.