General Elections 2024: Through a gender lens darkly - Hindustan Times
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General Elections 2024: Through a gender lens darkly

Jun 02, 2024 02:30 PM IST

I’m thinking about what the 2024 general elections tells us about attitudes to gender and violence against women.

No party can ignore us any longer. That would explain the grand announcements and the lofty promises, from eliminating cervical cancer to job reservations; from unconditional cash transfers to night shelters for migrant women. But what does the just concluded seven phase-long election really tell us about political parties and their stand on gender? I think this much is clear:

Nadia, May 13 (ANI): Women voters stand in queue to cast their votes for the fourth phase of the Lok Sabha elections, in Nadia on Monday. (ANI Photo) (CEOWestBengal-X)
Nadia, May 13 (ANI): Women voters stand in queue to cast their votes for the fourth phase of the Lok Sabha elections, in Nadia on Monday. (ANI Photo) (CEOWestBengal-X)

Flavour of the election

It doesn’t take a genius to guess why. According to The Quantum Hub, 47.1 crore women were registered to vote this time. That’s 48.6% of the voting population. There’s increasing evidence too that women are exercising choice and autonomy rather than following family diktat on who to vote for.

In 11 states, women voters outnumbered men. These included Kerala, Goa and Mizoram. Party manifestoes were lush with promises from implementing a uniform civil code (BJP) to addressing the low representation of women in the workforce by (i) reserving 50% of central government jobs starting in 2025, (ii) appointing more women judges, law officers, police officers etc (Congress). Yet, when it comes to empowering women by getting them to contest as candidates all parties are equally silent.

[Read Anirvan Chowdhury on how the BJP wins over women]

Laapataa ladies

Despite all the stirring, bleeding heart rhetoric while passing the women’s reservation bill (it won’t come into effect until at least 2026), all the national and regional parties continued to be stingy about getting women to participate in elections by actually giving them tickets to contest.

The exception is Naveen Patnaik’s BJD which kept its 2019 promise of earmarking 33%, or seven of Odisha’s 21 parliamentary seats, for women. Two sitting women MPs were dropped, including Pramila Bisoi, handpicked from the SHG movement by Patnaik in 2019. But two more were accommodated: Lekhashree Samantsinghar and Parineeti Mishra who quit the BJP were given tickets to fight for the BJD.

In contrast, Mamata Banerjee’s TMC did not have an official quota this time around and reduced its share of tickets to women from 44% in 2019 to 25%, or 12 of 48 seats in West Bengal.

With 15.9% or 70 of 441 women candidates, the BJP did better than the Congress that managed to find only 41 women of the 328 candidates who contested, finds analysis by Gilles Verniers, a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research.

Overall, just 9.5% (or 797) of the 8,337 candidates across all seven phases of the election were women, finds the Association of Democratic Reform.

As many as 150 constituencies out of 543, that’s more than one in five, did not have a single woman candidate (slow clap), according to The Quantum Hub.

“There’s a huge chasm between the inclusion of women as targeted voters and the inclusion of women as participants in electoral politics,” said Verniers. “Despite the women’s reservation bill, it’s clear that no party is willing to act on it unless coerced.”

Manufactured outrage and violence against women

It wasn’t just about who was excluded but also who was included that reveals mindsets and intention. For instance, the BJP decided prudently to leave out Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, the six-time strongman MP from Uttar Pradesh accused of sexual assault by India’s leading women wrestlers, and instead fielded his son. Nobody was fooled.

I can’t recall a single election before this one with so many sexual assault charges being so freely traded. At the top of the heap was the circulation of thousands of pen-drives containing nearly 3,000 video clips of sexual assault featuring and apparently shot by JD(S) candidate Prajwal Revanna, the sitting MP for Hassan, grandson of former prime minister HD Deve Gowda and a key ally of the BJP in Karnataka personally endorsed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The leaking of the clips came after Hassan had voted. Prajwal then fled to Germany, returning a month later on Friday when he was arrested. But the key question remains: If Prajwal’s perversions were known even within a smallish circle, as reported, how did he even get a ticket, and what does this tell us, women about the paens to nari shakti?

In Sandeshkhali, West Bengal, the BJP levelled serious charges of land grabbing and sexual assault against TMC leader Sheikh Shahjahan. The TMC countered this by saying it was a cooked up story and, as evidence, produced a video purportedly revealing how the charges had been fabricated. Then, one of the women withdrew her complaint against Shahjahan. Right now, Shahjahan is in jail and the CBI, which reports to the central government, is handling the probe.

And just when you thought everything had calmed down, AAP’s Rajya Sabha MP Swati Maliwal, who is also the former head of the Delhi Commission of Women, claimed she had been assaulted by Delhi chief minister’s aide, Bibhav Kumar at Kejriwal’s official residence. AAP has denied the charge with evidence of CCTV footage of an apparently unruffled Maliwal leaving the house. There is no explanation from her as to why she delayed her medical exam by five days. Nevertheless, Kumar has been arrested. And Maliwal insists her accusations are true and that she is not acting at the behest of the BJP.

If nothing else, elections 2024 tell us how ingrained violence against women is in our society. And how easy it is to manufacture outrage and take a position based on your party’s stand.

All in the family

In Baramati it was NCP founder Sharad Pawar’s daughter, Supriya Sule facing off against her sister-in-law Sunetra Pawar, the wife of Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar. Supriya insisted her fight was with the BJP and not her cousin’s wife.

Hisar, Haryana, hasn’t seen a woman candidate for Parliament in six decades. This time two women from the Chauthala clan were pitted against each other. Naina Chauthala is a sitting MLA and the mother of Dushyant Chauthala who founded the Jannayak Janta Party while Sunaina Chauthala, her sister-in-law contested on an Indian National Lok Dal ticket.

Once used by the BJP to attack Congress for its ‘dynastic ties’, hereditary MPs, to use the late historian Patrick French’s term, now cut across party lines (and, to be fair, gender).

In Delhi, Sushma Swaraj’s daughter Bansuri Swaraj made her debut for the BJP. In Madhya Pradesh, the wife of Nagarsingh Chouhan, the state environment minister, Anita Nagarsingh Chouhan, a post graduate currently working on her PhD, stood as a BJP candidate from Ratlam. Familiar faces from the family quota include Dimple Yadav (Samajwadi Party) and, in Bihar, two of RJD founder Lalu Prasad’s daughters found themselves in the field with the Singapore-based Rohini Acharya, who donated a kidney for her father, joining her sister Misa Bharti.

And then of course are the crorepati women candidates with and without family backing. They include Preneet Kaur, wife of Capt Amarinder Singh, who switched to the BJP just before getting the ticket, with declared assets of 55.83 crore and Shiromani Akali Dal’s Harsimrat Kaur Badal with declared assets of 198.51 crore.

Putting gender on the agenda

Unfortunately, says Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Political Shakti, an organisation dedicated to increasing women’s representation in politics, every election carries with it the weight of some larger-than-life imperative. This year it was ‘save the Constitution’, other years it’s been national security or corruption. “These issues then take over the campaign, becoming larger than 50% of the population.”

There’s a recognition that women matter. And that’s the good news. But political parties headed by men and dominated by them have yet to understand that “women can be more than just beneficiaries of state largesse and political generosity” says Verniers. “It’s time to see women as actors and while there is evidence of greater participation of grassroots level women workers, this has not trickled up to the levels that matter for state and national politics.”

The following article is an excerpt from this week's HT Mind the Gap. Subscribe here.

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