The patriarchal face of Indian politics

by April 8, 2019 0 comments

Indian Politics

Political parties in India have not only failed to maintain a healthy gender balance in the Parliament, but have also propose feasible women empowerment schemes

“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength,” says activist and writer GD Anderson of an effort that has still not taken off in many disadvantaged countries, India included, when we should not be lumped in this category at all. So when BJP spokesperson Shaina NC recently expressed her concern that her own party was not fielding enough women candidates for the general election, she was just a vent for the volcanic anger of women who are struggling to find political representation in the world’s biggest democracy despite forming half its electorate.

If a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union is to be believed, then India ranks 149th in a list of 193 countries in terms of women’s representation in the lower or single House of Parliament (Lok Sabha) as of July 1, 2017. The average percentage of women’s participation in political processes stands at about 22 per cent globally while in India it is a mere 11.8 per cent. Shockingly, lesser developed countries like Rwanda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Fiji and Ghana rank higher than India. In South Asia, the reports say, we are behind Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh in percentage terms. Even in the Rajya Sabha, women MPs are just 11.1 per cent.

Both the national parties, the BJP and the Congress, despite their existing schemes and promises, have fielded just 12 per cent and 13.5 per cent women candidates this time. And both are equally guilty of shying away from affirmative action and not pushing the Women’s Reservation Bill so far. It must be remembered that when Parliament passed the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments in 1993, reserving one-third of the seats in all local bodies for women, it not only challenged the patriarchal clichés about their ability but empowered them enough to effect a socio-economic change in their circumstance. Their multi-tasking, managerial abilities cascaded into practical and dynamic decision-making in the constituency they served.

Some legislative bodies in Bihar and Delhi have reserved more than one-third of the total seats for women. Meanwhile, the Trinamool Congress, led by Mamata Banerjee, has apportioned 41 per cent of her party’s seats to women candidates while the Biju Janata Dal leader Naveen Patnaik has set aside 33 per cent. Yet winnability is a big concern, with most unsuccessful women candidates losing deposits in past elections, be they national or local.

It is rather ironic that this should happen in a country which has seen many tall women leaders helming parties and had a woman Prime Minister much ahead of its time despite a patriarchal society that is but expected to not yield space in the one place where its power is manifest — in politics, and by extension the law of the land. While women have been able to swell up an emergent tide to renegotiate their space in social, cultural and economic spheres, this is one area where even all-women’s parties have been seen more as an aberration than normal. This is because the women we have grown accustomed to in helming political leadership have almost always assumed that role out of dynastic entitlement and seen as a continuity of a male line rather than as an independent leader. Be it Indira Gandhi, who inherited much of the halo of her father, Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi, to Meira Kumar, who took over the legacy of Babu Jagjivan Ram, or even J Jayalalithaa, who inherited an ideology and was hand-held in her journey by M G Ramachandran, women leaders have been legacy-keepers than forgers. This tokenism and substitution have cost us. Grassroots leaders like Mayawati and Mamata may have bucked the trend and waged their battle ground up but in the process of establishing their credibility and acceptability, they followed the mainstream template set by male predecessors. Given their imperatives of wooing the backwards and minorities, they hardly addressed the women’s question as one meriting attention. To win a game, they played by the rules than bending them. Until now.

Truth is in any political discourse, women have always been looked upon as another votebank to be encashed than empowered. Campaign after campaign pitch talks about how women can change the verdict as they comprise 50 per cent of voters. Survey after survey has shown how women, who have outnumbered men in State poll turnouts, actually vote independently of their family choices and usually act practically, prioritising domestic budgets and the economy as their key concern, going for candidates who matter to their livelihood. But there is no concomitant campaign, not even a social service message, about fielding them as candidates.

Yet every party has schemes which hand out benefits as patronising doles. Apart from States, even the Modi government has factored in women as a constituency, be it through the Ujjwala scheme of distributing free LPG cylinders that revolutionised kitchens and the Uttar Pradesh Assembly verdict of 2017, the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao programme or even the toilet project as part of Swachch Bharat. In fact, this government has gone a few steps ahead of past regimes in prioritising women’s health and normalising taboos of menstrual hygiene in the public discourse. But empowerment figures are nothing to write home about. India’s female labour force participation rate is among the lowest in the south Asian region and if latest estimates are anything to go by, the rate is dropping, the reasons being attributed to supplementary family incomes and their prioritisation of maternal and care-giver roles. Equal opportunities for women could add as much as $770 billion to the country’s GDP, according to McKinsey. But women are still not seen as a productive human resource but an emergency reserve force. In the labour sector, they are seen as a floating rather than a guaranteed presence and schemes enhance their traditional gender roles rather than incentivising them in economic terms. Even “sensitive” steps like extension of maternity leave to 26 weeks from the previous 12 weeks have not worked for the women workforce, who have either been passed over for promotion, let go of projects or simply benched. Such benefits have deterred the new-age competitive sectors like start-ups and small businesses from hiring women. Wage and pay disparity, lack of social security of working women and the glass ceiling continue to be barriers in the face of a more equitable social contract. Violence against women is an ever-gathering brute force what with steady increase in sex-selective abortion, infanticide, sexual harassment and abuse and honour killings. There is no concrete plan or proposal in any manifesto yet to tackle widowhood, old age and disability among the disadvantaged and marginalised classes. And without an increase in health budgets, Indian women continue to be the most anaemic in the world and suffer severe malnutrition. The budget for midday meal schemes and anganwadis are actually down. While India has seen a significant reduction in maternal mortality in recent years, it still figures high on the global burden of maternal deaths with women still lacking access to quality maternity care. And though the allocation for girls’ education was announced at Rs 100 crore, with disparate States expected to share the financial burden, this has clearly floundered too.

The neo-age liberalism in slogans has only entrenched patriarchy and circumscribed all remedial action to the male gaze, which is exclusivist to its concerns. If we do not allow half the population the right to decide what is good for them or what they need, we will never figure respectably in the global polity despite our space age conquests. Yes, women have punched holes in ISRO, too, with their individual merits and ability. But where are the policy-makers and legislators who can raise their collective lot? This selective tagging of “women achievers” is no longer glorious but an easy advertisement. Can any political party afford half the electorate not voting for any of them? If there is a right to vote, give them the right to contest.

(The writer is Associate Editor, The Pioneer)

Writer: Rinku Ghosh

Courtesy: The Pioneer

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