Missing women MPs in the new Lok Sabha - Hindustan Times
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Missing women MPs in the new Lok Sabha

Jun 07, 2024 10:07 PM IST

Despite remaining largely a boys’ club, a new generation of young and feisty women are set to enter Parliament

In the video, Sanjna Jatav is dancing to Rajasthani folk music. Her head is covered but her joy shines through. Shot on June 4, soon after the results were declared, the clip has already gone viral with close to 100,000 views and god only knows how many retweets and forwards.

Geniben Thakor with Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. (PTI)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Geniben Thakor with Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. (PTI)(HT_PRINT)

The new Congress representative of Bharatpur is Dalit, married, a mother of two, a graduate and will, at 26, be amongst the youngest MPs in the 18th Lok Sabha after defeating the BJP’s Ramswaroop Koli by nearly 52,000 votes.

This must seem like a sweet vindication. Six months earlier, Jatav, a former zilla parishad member, had contested the assembly elections and lost by just 409 votes. Now, she’s one of the eight Congress candidates who’ve won from the state.

Away from the heat and dust of the campaign, just days before counting day, Iqra Hassan was in London, back at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies to collect her master’s degree. Plans to complete a PhD on parliamentary processes have had to be put on hold now that the 27-year-old is the new representative of Kairana and the Samajwadi Party in Parliament where she will be one of just 25 Muslim women ever to be elected. Her priorities are clear, she tells me on the phone: “Higher education for women who otherwise drop out because they aren’t allowed to attend co-ed institutions.”

Despite the well-deserved euphoria of individual victories, the new Lok Sabha looks depressingly like the old Lok Sabha in one significant way: The low representation of women. Eight months after political parties in a rare show of unanimity enthusiastically endorsed 33% reservation for women in Parliament and the assemblies, there is, for the first time since 2004, a marginal decline in the number of women MPs, from a ‘historic’ high of 78 (or 14.3%) of the outgoing Lok Sabha to 74, or 13.6%.

“We should be careful about even a slight dip,” says Akshi Chawla who curates WomenLead that tracks women’s political representation. In percentage terms, Mamata Banerjee’s TMC will be sending 11 women, or 37.9% of its 29 MPs, to the new Parliament. Two of the 12 winning MPs of Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), 16.7%, are women. Three of the 22 elected DMK MPs, or 13.6% are women. At the Samajwadi Party and Congress, women are 13.5% and 13.1% of its elected MPs. And even though the BJP will be sending the most women, 31 of 240, to Parliament, in percentage terms they amount to just 12.9% of its winning MPs, according to Chawla’s calculations.

It’s a principle of simple math. If parties don’t, or won’t, put up women contestants, where will the winners come from?

This election, like others before it —the 1977 post-Emergency comeback, the Bofors/rise of V.P. Singh of 1989— saw a fall in the number of elected women. It's as if the need to improve gender representation subsumed the din of the urgent and competing narratives of saving the constitution vs 400 paar. “In a do-or-die election there’s a tension between opting for a pragmatic power grab and standing for principle,” points out analyst Yamini Aiyar who is headed to Brown University as a senior fellow for 2024-25. As in the past, the message was clear: Women can wait.

And yet parties know that they cannot afford to ignore the woman voter, who is increasingly turning up to cast her ballot, exercising personal choice and autonomy and even, in many cases, out-voting men. Quite naturally then, manifestoes were embroidered with wonderful promises, speeches peppered with nari shakti, and, where in power, governments were quick to announce monthly cash handouts and other largesse.

And, yet, what’s seen as a sop doesn’t always yield results. For instance, free bus rides for women, ration, electricity, and allowances by the Congress government in Karnataka did bump up its tally to nine, but still left it trailing behind the 19 won by the BJP-led NDA. In Delhi, despite free bus rides for women and significant improvements in government schools and mohalla clinics, the Aam Aadmi Party failed to get a single Parliamentary seat.

But, says Aiyar: “Treating women as a vote bank and creating a narrative of ‘women’s empowerment’ doesn’t really build a genuine thread of women’s rights.” Women voters are able to see through the “grotesque violation” of giving a ticket to an accused serial rapist like Prajwal Revanna, now in jail and suspended from the JD(S), a BJP ally who, mercifully, lost. Or when the BJP bypassed six-time MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh accused of sexual harassment by India’s leading wrestlers, but handed the Kaiserganj ticket to his son instead. To nobody’s surprise, Singh Junior won by a margin of 1.4 lakh votes.

In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has, feisty as ever, single-handedly warded off the BJP that had made sexual abuse charges against TMC strongman Shahjahan Sheikh, currently in jail, its major plank, even fielding Rekha Patra who had led the campaign against him.

The charge unravelled rapidly after the emergence of a sting video purportedly showing how it had been cooked up and one of the women retracted her accusation. Rekha Patra lost by 3.3 lakh votes.

Despite the entrenched misogyny of political parties, the women MPs of 2024 have, by and large, scripted their own story. Some come backed by family lineage—and in this, they are often no different from male MPs. In Bihar’s Samastipur, it was two dynasts against each other. Shambhavi Kunal Choudhary, the daughter of a Bihar minister for the Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) pitted against the Congress’s Sunny Hazari, the son of another minister. In the end, it was the 25-year-old sociology post-graduate who beat Hazari by 1.87 lakh votes.

In Maharashtra, four-time Dharavi MLA, president of the Mumbai regional Congress committee, and a post-graduate in maths, Prof Varsha Eknath Gaekwad beat the BJP’s Ujjwal Nikam, the former special prosecutor who once admitted making up a story of 26/11 terrorists being fed biryani in jail.

And in Gujarat where the BJP has won all 26 seats since 2014, the Congress finally made a dent—its sole winning candidate in the state has a strong grassroots connect but was forced to crowdfund and accept as little as two rupees. Of course, she is a woman. Geniben Thakor, a 48-year-old OBC who has won two past assembly elections and is now called a ‘giant killer’.

Namita Bhandare writes on gender. The views expressed are personal

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