The missing link in political empowerment of women - Hindustan Times
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The missing link in political empowerment of women

Apr 12, 2024 11:00 PM IST

If 2024 tells us one thing about sharing power then it is this: The men won’t give it up until they have to. Women will just have to wait.

For all their stirring speeches while passing the women’s reservation bill in Parliament in September last year—454 for, two against—political parties across the board have gone back to their usual stinginess in fielding women candidates.

As voters, women aren’t a homogeneous block.(HT FILE PHOTO)
As voters, women aren’t a homogeneous block.(HT FILE PHOTO)

Nobody knows when the women’s reservation bill will kick in. A long process must be completed first: A census, followed by redrawing constituencies and how many representatives each gets, based on population. Until that happens, proof of intent can be found in the number of women candidates contesting in 2024.

The picture is dismal. Of the 1,625 candidates contesting in the first phase, only 134, or 8%, are women. There are zero women contestants in six states and union territories that vote on April 19. These include Chhattisgarh, J&K, Lakshadweep, Tripura and Manipur.

Our outgoing Lok Sabha had the highest representation of women ever. But even at 14.72%, it was still way below the global average of 26.9%. In our neighbourhood, we’re worse than Nepal (33.09%), Bangladesh (20%) and Pakistan (16.18%).

We have a cadre of over one million women grassroots leaders thanks to reservations in the panchayats and local governance bodies. Why aren’t we seeing them in the state assemblies and in Parliament? Can it really be that in over a quarter century since the passing of the 73rd and 74th amendments, political parties have found no women from amongst these to be fielded in elections? Or promoted within party organizations?

In 2019, we at least had a silver lining. Two parties, Mamata Banerjee’s TMC and Naveen Patnaik’s BJD, set aside 41% and 33% parliamentary seats respectively for women. Five of the seven women BJD candidates won. And to Patnaik’s credit, he has announced that his party will once again set aside 33% of seats to women. Mamata’s 2019 gamble paid fewer dividends with only 10 of the 22 women candidates winning and the proportion of the party’s women MPs shrinking from 28.6% in 2014 to 26.2% in 2019.

Mamata Banerjee and many of the women candidates she promotes are also rare exceptions who come shorn of family dynasty. Political analysts Gilles Vernier and Christophe Jaffrelot figured that 30% of all members of Parliament in 2019 were dynasts. Among women, it was 41%.

The story might not have been half as depressing if it wasn’t for the fact that women’s representation has been so slow to change since our first election in 1952 when we elected 22 women to Parliament, or 4.5%. That, by the way, wasn’t our worst year. In 1977 we plummeted to 3.51%.

But, if you measure political participation by another metric—voter turnout—then we’ve done remarkably well. In 2019 we closed the gender gap with women voter participation at 67.18%, higher for the first time in history than male voter participation at 67.01%.

There are various reasons for the rise in numbers: A pro-active Election Commission ensured voters previously left out now have voter ID cards; improved law and order on voting day has made it safer for women to go to the polling booth; there’s higher literacy and awareness, including social media campaigns.

There is evidence also that women voters are increasingly making independent choices. In 2009, only 43% of women said they voted for their preferred candidate. Ten years later in 2019, it was 81% of women who said they exercised their own choice.

It is these women that parties can no longer ignore: Eager to vote and aware of their power to change governments. And, so, (drumroll) the resounding slogans of nari shakti, the free bus fares and subsidized gas cylinders, the cash hand-outs.

In other words, parties give a newly powerful constituency of women voters what they believe they want.

As voters, women aren’t a homogeneous block. We come with our individual thoughts and wishes. But if we were to generalize, then women tend to look at rising prices, gas cylinders, availability of water and electricity, roads, the state of our schools, affordable health care, and law and order.

What we aren’t demanding is that parties share power with us. We aren’t showing our displeasure by voting out parties that systemically exclude women.

Because, let’s face it, when every party is guilty of exclusion and when no party is willing to go beyond the photo op, the slogan and the odd sop, we would left with only our NOTA option.

And so it remains business as usual, bill or no bill. Parties feel no compulsion to give women a seat at the high table.

Women in modern India continue to hover on the peripheries—and not just in politics. We are less than 14% in the high courts; and 9% in the Supreme Court. Our female labour force participation rates are abysmal at around 30%. This is happening at a time when we’ve closed the gender gap in education and India’s most aspirational generation of girls are lining up to join the army, fly drones and dream of careers before marriage.

The biggest stumbling block for these girls and women is the patriarchs who decide what they study, when and who they will marry and whether they can have jobs. It is the men who run parties who decide who gets a ticket and who is left out.

We’ve been hearing the same tired excuses for excluding women for decades now—women can’t win elections, there are no trained women leaders etc. If 2024 tells us one thing about sharing power then it is this: The men won’t give it up until they have to. Women will just have to wait.

Namita Bhandare writes on gender. The views expressed are personal

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