Millennium Post

Power of 49: Wooed but ignored

The hope of women’s increased representation at all levels of legislative decision-making became a little more distant with the Women’s Reservation Bill lapsing for the fourth time. Hopes were raised after it was passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010, but our honourable parliamentarians with their antiques made sure it could never be introduced in the Lower House. One fails to discern what is more shameful: That a country with 49 per cent of its population as women had only 59 women MPs in the last Lok Sabha (mere 11 per cent of the total 543 seats), or that marshals had to be called in to bodily lift seven MPs out of the Upper House to get the Bill through. True, another general election is round the corner; but it can be said with some certainty that women representation in the 16th Lok Sabha will remain abysmal because political parties go all out wooing the power of 49 to win elections only to resist their dominance in politics.

The reluctance of political parties to give tickets to women candidates points to the fact. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi believes empowering women is imperative to make India a super power and BJP leader Narendra Modi says ‘She is a national builder’, but their parties fail to display the same trust when it comes to giving tickets to women candidates. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, only 521 women were in the fray. The Congress and the BJP – the two major national parties – fielded 39 and 40 candidates respectively. J Santha was the lone BJP candidate (and she won) in the 2009 LS election from Karnataka, a state then ruled by the BJP. More recently, in the 2012 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, for 403 seats Congress fielded 40 women, BJP 50, SP 33 and BSP 14.

Women candidates usually lose out on the selection table because their winning ability is always doubted. BJP’s Sushma Swaraj and Congress’s Prabha Thakur once told me that the ‘jeet nehi payegi’ argument is a stumbling block to getting tickets for women. It shows that some women leaders may have earned prominent positions in party administrations but their articulation of equality isn’t enough to earn tickets for women candidates.

Most important, such an argument defies logic. Sample this. Twenty-three women candidates, out of the 39 fielded by the Congress in 2009 LS elections, won. It is a good 59 per cent. In the 2012 UP Assembly elections, out of the 33 women Samajwadi Party fielded, 22 won. The Sagar constituency in MP was never a BJP stronghold but Sudha Jain won thrice. In reality, any candidate’s winning prospect is as good as the party’s. Trinamool Congress was certain to perform well in the 2009 LS elections, riding the anti-incumbency wave due to people’s disillusionment with the Left rule in West Bengal. So, somewhat predictably, 4 of the 6 women candidates fielded by the party won. Similarly, the Congress, which was wiped out in Delhi in the 2013 Assembly elections barely winning 8 out of 70 seats, saw all its six women candidates lose.

The denial to recognise the power of 49 has its roots much deeper. In a patriarchal society like ours, women have been traditionally regarded as subservient, weak and vulnerable. So, women’s political activism is encouraged so far as it supports the traditional gender hierarchy. Further, political parties across the board believe good work and articulation notwithstanding, muscle power is necessary to mobilise support base and garner votes.

Hence, when leaders like Mulayam Singh and Lalu Yadav thwart every attempt to present the Bill in the Lok Sabha demanding a ‘reservation within reservation’, it is just a ploy not to give women their due. They know working out the OBC reservation poses lots of complications. Since the list of OBCs varies from state to state, arriving at a consensus will be difficult.

Further, states like West Bengal, which have a small OBC list, will find it daunting to fill up the reserved seats. I remember CPI leader late Geeta Mukherjee, who was the chairperson of the Joint Select Committee of Parliament on the Women’s Reservation Bill, telling me ‘reserving seats for religious minorities will make the Bill constitutionally illegal because India is a secular democratic country as per the Constitution’.

It doesn’t merit reiteration that only legislation can end the political injustice. When the 73rd and 74th amendment to the Constitution mandated a 33 per cent reservation for women in panchayats and municipalities, we saw women leadership emerging spontaneously at grassroots level.

Women went on to win 2-3 per cent of the general seats apart from the 33 per cent reserved seats in subsequent elections because they delivered. The only silver lining in this battle for political empowerment is the unity among women leaders on the issue, cutting across party lines.

The way Brinda Karat of the CPI(M), Jayanthi Natarajan of the Congress and Sushma Swaraj of the BJP fought for the introduction of the Bill in the Lower House amid frenzied opposition shows they are determined to get women party workers their due. Only the wait has just become a little longer.
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