Do Women Count? For all their purported devotion to women, which political party actually empowered Indian women?

More Indian women have voted than Indian men. But the number of Indian women empowered to stand as political candidates is miserable. Do our women-friendly political parties even care?

 |  5-minute read |   12-05-2019
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2018 had been a decisive year for gender politics in India. It’s the year when homosexuality was decriminalized, striking down a colonial era law in favour of equal opportunity to love. It’s also the year that urban Indians took part in the global #MeToo movement. From academia to media, films and even politics, no one was exempt as harassers were named and shamed.

India emphatically said 'No' to sexual harassment — and 'Yes' to equal opportunity plus a safe and humane workplace.

The message was clear — gender disparity had no place in the India of 2019.

So, it came as no surprise when political parties rushed to express their gender sensitivity while releasing candidate lists for the ongoing elections.

It all began with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee throwing the gauntlet to all political parties, daring them to increase women's representation in Parliament. She also took the opportunity to proudly announce that her party had given 41% tickets to women candidates for the Lok Sabha elections.

mamata-690_050819033_050919075111.jpgRead My Lips: West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee announced 41% tickets to women candidates for the Lok Sabha elections. (Source: PTI)

And she was not alone. Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik followed suit by assuring 33% reservation for women. Close on his heels, Congress President Rahul Gandhi promised to pass the long-pending Women’s Reservation Bill and 33% reservation for women in government jobs if his party was voted to power.

However, despite these wonderful poll promises and lofty claims of gender sensitivity, facts paint a different picture.

From the first Lok Sabha elections in 1951, where only 4.5 per cent of MPs were women, to the last Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the number only climbed to a meagre 12.15%. However, what's more worrisome is that, according to a 2019 report by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) and National Election Watch (NEW), the percentage of women MLAs and MPs across the country in 2019 is a mere 9 per cent.

The same report also stated that in the 16th Lok Sabha ,there are only 63 women MPs of the 543 elected representatives that we elect to the lower house.

Skewed gender representation is not new to India. Such broad-based representation is also dependent on various other factors such as the inherent patriarchal mindsets that do not allow women to go out and work or exercise any freedom of choice, the lack of political will in giving tickets to women candidates — and the total failure to realise that women, in fact, do constitute a substantive vote bank.

About 49% of India’s population constitutes women.

Now, political parties might make a beeline to tap into this voter base ahead of elections, by announcing women-centric schemes under the assumption that women still are the primary household managers, when it comes to doling out tickets, they are still remarkably stingy. According to a report again published by ADR and NEW, only 10% of the candidates vying for Lok Sabha seats in phase 4 were women — and this number is still the highest in our history.

wo-k7z--621x414livem_050919075541.jpgHalf of India: About 49% of India’s population constitutes women. Women have in fact voted in higher numbers than men in 2019. (Source: PTI)

The two national parties have gone out of their way to prove that they are gender-sensitive. For the BJP, programs such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao and Ujjwala Yojna have been cornerstones of their welfare schemes, not to forget their fight to abolish instant Triple Talaq in Parliament. Keeping the contentions in the bill aside, the ruling party has gone out on a limb trying to project that women’s welfare indeed tops their vision of India.

Yet, at the same time, party spokespersons such as Shaina NC are forced to call out the forgotten women’s cause, eight-time Lok Sabha MP and 16th Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan is denied a ticket and BJP’s Rampur hopeful Jaya Prada is left questioning why other women leaders were not calling out Azam Khan’s sexist spiel!

The Congress has not fared much better, despite fielding 60 women candidates against BJP’s 38 in 2014 and positioning itself as a pro-women party.

In the run-up to the 2019 elections, the Congress lost ground when it failed to articulate why the party was opposing the Anti-Triple Talaq bill. More recently, when their own party spokesperson, Priyanka Chaturvedi, walked out of the Congress, claiming that workers who had allegedly misbehaved with her were reinstated, Congress became just another party. It seemed to propagate that misbehaving with a woman is a matter that can be made to go away with an apology in the interest of winning elections. At least that’s what UP General Secretary Jyotiraditya Scindia would apparently have us believe.

priyanka-690_0418190_050919074850.jpgFacing Misogyny? Priyanka Chaturvedi alleged violent sexism got preference in the Congress party. (Source: India Today)

So, it’s safe to say that alienating the women voter has become the norm for our parties.

Just forget India’s long list of female politicians or the women who stood shoulder to shoulder with men and won India the right to vote and right to lead, or the fact that India already had a woman as head of state decades before the United States did.

India, in 2019, is all about the symbolic women's vote for our political parties — you evoke them in your speeches, you include them in your manifestos and welfare schemes, but they still are not good enough to lead, nor are they a substantive vote bank to pay any real attention to.

On the other hand, women are turning up in higher and higher numbers to vote.

Initial data shows that women have voted in higher numbers than men in 2019. The message is clear. They are ready to choose their leaders, they know who they want, why they want it and what they want them to do.

India's women are speaking.

But is anyone listening?

Also read: BJP's Smriti Irani 2.0: How Nirahua could upset SP-BSP’s poll calculations in Azamgarh


Sravasti Dasgupta Sravasti Dasgupta

Author is a producer-anchor at India Today Television. She's a lazy news junkie with idealistic views on news, politics, gender and social change. Views expressed are completely personal.

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