Women voters in India want to stand up and be counted
Several years ago, a dinner-table conversation about state elections in Himachal Pradesh veered towards a candidate who gave away pressure cookers to woo women voters. Of course, bribing voters is illegal, but I remember wondering whether all I wanted as a woman was a pressure cooker.
The Delhi rape case and the molestation of a young girl in Guwahati in Assam last year have underscored the place that women often occupy in Indian society. These incidents have made me wonder to what extent our country’s political parties will focus on gender inequality as they look forward to the 2014 general elections. How will they vie for the women’s vote?
Until now, political parties and their largely male leadership focussed on the ‘aam aadmi’, or the common man, a phrase which subsumes women. Politicians and other public figures don’t make much hay of gender inequality and many of the attitudes toward women that hurt a large portion of our society — and when they do, they’re often lacking. The best attitude that politicians often apply to women is a patronising one. Instead of focusing on women’s empowerment through education and awareness, politicians distribute saris, cookers and sanitary napkins.
There is some attempt to change that. The Congress party’s weekend “Chintan Shivir“, or brainstorming session, in Jaipur put a special focus on women.
“Discrimination against the girl child and atrocities against women are a blot on our collective conscience,” party chief Sonia Gandhi said while opening the gathering. “Gender issues are fundamental and should be of concern to all of us.”
The party has come up with a new slogan, “Pehle mahila ka samman, phir Bharat nirman” — First respect women, then build the nation. This could be seen as an attempt at targeting the women voter. However, the idea is not just appeasing women, but recognising them as an important part of the electorate and the democracy, and cosidering their specific needs as a part of developing national policy.
For most of the larger parties, the issue of women’s participation in the political process boils down to the question of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which has been languishing for years. But the issue is not limited to reservation.
Women are not seen as politically important as their votes are taken for granted and political parties assume that their voting patterns are mostly influenced by the male members of the family or community. In India, where women constitute nearly half the electorate, around 364 million voters remain excluded from the decision-making process.
No mainstream party has shown enthusiasm in addressing women’s problems. As of now, all they are talking about is a speedy and efficient trial for those accused in rape cases. Maybe that strikes them as being a strong pro-female statement.
“This, however, cannot be a good election issue for good reason,” said sociologist Dipankar Gupta. “I cannot see any party opposing this move for they know that nothing will really change on the ground.”
It is time for political parties to think of the impact that their policies will have on women. Promises of more jobs, better education and tackling domestic violence are all part of election manifestos, but how will they explicitly target obstacles faced by women? Addressing gender issues in politics also depends on how many women candidates are endorsed by parties and how they choose candidates.
“It would make a lot of difference to the cause of women’s empowerment if parties concur in making sure that nobody who has been charged with rape, armed assault and kidnapping gets a ticket to fight elections at whatever level,” said Gupta. “Every party has cupboards full of skeletons and can barely get their doors to shut.”
The issue of political representation for women in India was first raised in 1917 as a demand for universal adult suffrage. Women got the right to vote in 1930, but nobody really sees them as a “vote bank”. Women have held the highest offices in India. We have had a woman president, woman prime minister, speaker of the Lok Sabha and leader of the opposition. But they still do not have adequate representation or a say in the political process — note that there are 59 women MPs in a parliament that includes nearly 800 seats.
A United Nations report said it will take more than 50 years for countries like India to achieve gender balance in politics if women’s participation in parliaments does not improve. On the brighter side, statistics show that women are voting in larger numbers. State elections in Uttar Pradesh last year saw nearly 60 percent of women coming to vote, compared to just 42 percent in 2007.
It is not that women in urban and rural areas are not politically aware. They simply don’t always display interest in the process, and when they do, people don’t take their opinions seriously. Political parties don’t take into account the idea that women voters might have different demands. In elections in Punjab, women voters demanded security and less inflation. Before Gujarat’s elections in December, the Congress promised affordable housing to married women who rent
In 2009, activists organised a “Wada Na Todo Abhiyan” (holding the government accountable to promises), and a women’s manifesto developed in consultation with people in 100 parliamentary constituencies. Education for girls enforced by law, enactment of the Women’s Reservation Bill and stronger implementation of the domestic violence law were three key demands. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s “Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana” was a game changer in the 2010 assembly elections, providing thousands of bicycles to school girls.
I wonder if any political party will be brave enough to reach out to women’s votes in the next elections — with an invitation to be taken seriously. That’s much better than receiving a pressure cooker.