A week back an incumbent Chief Minister in the state of West Bengal alleged she was pushed by unknown assailants and suffered serious bone injuries in her leg. The President of the Women’s Wing of the Congress in Kerala, Lathika Subhash tonsures her head in public protesting against the Party denying her a ticket and subsequently resigns. With such gory developments, women’s participation in the ongoing Assembly polls in 4 states and a Union Territory has begun on an ominous note.
Except in Assam, in all other states and in Puducherry, women voters far outnumber men. Moreover, these states are mostly marked by bipolarity, where the majority of voters are already politically polarised between the two main contending political formations. So, women voters often play a decisive role, can tilt the balance and thus hold the key to the electoral outcome. Naturally, parties offer freebies to woo women voters. The Southern states are leading in framing pro-women policies and schemes in the country. Also, all major parties, including the DMK, AIADMK, Left, TMC, Congress and even the BJP have, at least in words, supported the demand for 33% reservation for women in Parliament and Assemblies. The ongoing Assembly polls are a touchstone to check how close, or how far women are from the magic figure of 33%.
Political parties may shower freebies on women to garner votes, but to what extent they really want to politically empower them is the million dollar question.
Far from the magic number of 33%
Looking at the state of women’s participation in West Bengal, the last elections saw the maximum number of women MLAs-40 or 15 % in the WB Assembly. This time the list of TMC candidates contains 18 % or 50 women, which is the highest so far but far below the decisive 33%. The BJP has nominated 10.5% women and the Congress 15% so far. The Left has fielded only 5 women candidates, majority of them being Young Turks like 25-year old Aishe Ghosh, Ex-President, JNUSU, 27-year old Dipshita Dhar, All India Joint Secretary of the SFI, 38-year old Minakshi Mukherjee, State Secretary of the DYFI and 2 others.
Not only is the number of women voters in Kerala more than that of men, the State boasts of a definite bias in favour of women when it comes to gender-parity indicators. Yet this time there are only 38 women candidates among a total of 420, which is a measly 9%. In 2016, there were only 8 women among 140 in the Assembly, all belonging to the LDF.
The worst probably is Puducherry, where the last Assembly elections saw only 4 women legislators being elected after a gap of 20 years, though all the 30 constituencies of the UT have more women voters than men, and, so far only 2 women candidates from Kamal Hassan’s Makkal Needhi Maiyyam and 14 from the radical Tamil nationalist outfit Naam Tamizhar Katchi are in the fray.
Tamil Nadu was a state where Jayalalitha held the reins of power for 6 terms, yet the number of women MLAs remained at 21 in the last elections, belying the ‘Amma’ wave. The largest number of women MLAs, 32, could enter the Assembly only when Jayalalitha became the Chief Minister. It is widely believed that the AIADMK Chief became the head of the state half a dozen times because of her extraordinary empathy for women, especially the Dalit and downtrodden sections. 18 of her ‘Amma’ Schemes including the Baby Cradle scheme, became extremely popular. This could be witnessed in the outpouring of grief by women when she passed away. But the situation is changing fast and this time it is worse with the AIADMK nominating just 14 women candidates in a list of 171 candidates and the DMK being satisfied with a lesser number of 12 in a list of 173. All said and done, Tamil Nadu may never see another woman Chief Minister.
Assam seems to be the only state among the four where the number of women voters is less, 49.35 %. Out of the 223 candidates declared so far, the names of only 19 figure in the lists, Congress with 6 out of 43, BJP 4 out of 70, AGP 1 out of 8, Assam Jatiya Parishad 6 out of 67, AIUDF 1 in 16 and Raijor Dal 1 in 19. It is an irony that though Assam is known to be a matriarchal society, women’s participation remains dismal, to say the least.
Since 1996, when the Deve Gowda government introduced Women’s Reservation Bill, 25 long years have passed, yet the Bill could not become an Act for lack of political consensus. The Women’s movement too has remained divided on the issue and has almost left it to fate. The most vociferous protagonists of 33% women’s reservation, the Left parties and their women’s wings, almost seem to have surrendered to the patriarchal mind-set of the Indian voter. While some protests here and there like that of Lathika catapult the issue to the mainstream political discourse, women’s political empowerment seems to have taken a backseat. Surprisingly, a little known outfit in Kerala, Sthree Koottayma has taken the social media by storm after it suggested 150 names of prominent women to be included as candidates. But that’s as much.
Women’s Issues take a backseat
Women’s issues too do not seem to figure prominently in the poll campaign in any of the states including the UT of Puducherry. The most important campaign issue should have been women’s safety and security, but surprisingly, it is only being used by the BJP only to counter Mamata Banerjee’s war cry “Bangla nijer meyekei chai” which means “Bengal wants her own daughter”. The BJP, whose slogan “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” has become the subject of ridicule in the last few years owing to increasing crime on women, is out to malign the 10 years of TMC rule as being responsible for the increasing incidence of crime against women. But while BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh recorded 59,445 cases of crime against women according to 2018 NCRB report, topping the list, West Bengal remained third with 30,394 cases. The TMC seems clear that women are going to be the focus of its poll campaign since the West Bengal Chief Minister is being portrayed as India’s Draupadi fighting the Kauravas (right wing) and Pandavas (the renegades) single-handedly. In one of her recent election meetings at Kalna, Mamata appealed to the sentiments of women, “Mothers and sisters, you are my biggest asset. The woman is the guardian of the family. Let me bow down and touch the feet of my mothers and sisters who came here”. Some of the popular schemes started by Mamata are the Kanyashree Scheme for unmarried school-going girls, the Swasthya Sathi Scheme, an insurance scheme for the household matriarch and the Rupashree Scheme, a one-time aid of Rs.25,000 for the wedding of a girl belonging to a poor family. It is yet to be seen whether they have impacted the woman voter and can cancel out the impact of the BJP’s silent communal propaganda at the grassroots level.
In Tamil Nadu, the DMK enunciates a host of promises for women in its poll manifesto, prominent among which are 40% reservation for women in government jobs, establishing cyber police stations to eradicate cyber-crimes against women, declaring mid-day meal and Anganwadi workers as government employees, 12 months paid maternity leave, creation of co-operatives of rural educated women with 12th class pass certificate, working women’s hostels and special courts on sexual crimes to be established in all districts, and free sanitary napkins for all school and college-going girls. On the eve of women’s day, the DMK promised to give Rs. 1000 for women heads of households, but this was bettered by the AIADMK on 8 March, as it promised to provide for Rs. 1,500 for women heads of households as well as 6 free LPG cylinders per year and a washing machine too! But will these sops help AIADMK this time, without the ‘Amma’ effect remains to be seen.
In Assam, the registration of women voters has seen an increase of 17.6 % from 2014 to 2019. But according to Ms. Anju Borkataky, ex-member, State Women’s Commission and one of the leaders of the Left-democratic women’s movement in Assam, who spoke to 1st News, “women’s issues do not figure in the election campaign. Neither is there any talk of the Women’s Bill nor of the increasing crime against women and minor girls in this poll-bound state.” But the leader of IAUDF and MP from Dhubri, Maulana Badruddin Ajmal has expressed the apprehension that once BJP comes to power, women will not be allowed to come out in burqua, building a fear psychosis among Muslims. The AIUDF being part of the anti-BJP Mahagathbandhan, let’s see how this impacts the poll outcome. Some novel initiatives have also been seen ahead of the polls. The Congress held a video contest on 19 February, where voters could post short videos on problems plaguing the state on social media platforms; iPhones and cash prizes have been announced for the same. Will the issues raised be addressed in the future? Last year, 4000 children had also submitted a 10-point charter of demands including educational infrastructure during the pandemic, affordable and accessible healthcare, nutritious food, protection from all forms of violence and discrimination. According to 2019 figures, 5 cases of child rape occur every day in Assam. However, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi has made several promises targeting the women electorate. She has promised that if the Grand Alliance came to power, Rs. 2000 monthly allowance for housewives as well as a wage of Rs. 365/day for tea workers as well as a law against the CAA would be implemented. 50% reservation for women in Government jobs is also one of the attractive promises. But she too has not yet spoken the about increasing crime on women and girls as well as the Women’s Bill.
Whatever be the tactics of the various political parties to woo women voters, it is distressing to see that the right wing upsurge has led to a general paralysis in the activities of many organisations. Hence, the elections offer a great opportunity for women’s organisations to highlight the issues of women and even educate women voters on the value of their vote vs. the performance of various political outfits in the poll-bound states. On the other hand, women’s organisations as well as women politicians must remember that negative pragmatism on the question of getting the Women’s Reservation Bill passed will only prove counter-productive. As Anju Borkataky aptly puts it, “There can be no empowerment of women worth the name only through sops, without adequate representation of women”.