Insulting women in politics comes very easily to many of their male counterparts, it would seem. Sharad Yadav, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, Raj Thackeray, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Digvijaya Singh are among those who have not held back on their contempt and ignorance about women politicians. I wonder if they would have been so free and easy with their words had there been more women in their parties to put them on the mat. Of course, women politicians across the spectrum do hit back when these remarks are made, but there are so few of them and, therefore, their voices are not really effective. In fact, few of them occupy real decision-making positions in their parties. Those who do, like Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati, rarely, if ever, take up women’s issues or indeed push to get more women into politics.
This means that the bottom up effect that was to happen when reservations were given to women in local governments in 1994 has not really happened. At that time the belief was that once the participation of women in panchayats reached a critical mass, the gender equations in politics would change. If that had happened, we would not have just 11.23% of women in the Lok Sabha and 11.62% in the Rajya Sabha. At the same time, more and more women seem invested in the electoral process with many states reporting higher turnouts of women than men. In the last election, 65.63% of women turned out to vote, just a little behind the 67.09% of men.
The women’s reservation Bill has been hanging fire for over 19 years after it was introduced by the Deve Gowda government. The Bill has been reintroduced time and again, yet it has united male politicians against it despite all attempts to pass it. In fact, it has often excited more passion than many other issues. I remember an incident when then Union minister Renuka Chowdhury actually pushed a Samajwadi Party member when he tried to grab the Bill from the hands of HR Bhardwaj, then law minister. The hapless Bhardwaj fled and took a seat between two women ministers.
Now that the elections to UP and Punjab, among other states, are upon us, it would be interesting to raise the issue of a complete lack of women in any decision making in most of the parties when it comes to candidate selection or indeed being put forward as candidates by political parties. I don’t meant Sheila Dikshit but grassroots women politicians. The oft-cited reason is lack of winnability. But winnability can be ensured if the party throws its weight behind the candidate irrespective of gender.
Many women panchayat leaders have proved their worth in bringing about significant changes in social development and decreasing corruption in their areas, yet they have not been able to push forward and enter even state governments.
There has been a clever little myth created largely by men that politics is a dirty game and this has indeed influenced many women in choosing to stay away from politics. It is not that women should come into politics more to raise social development issues. No, they should come in and play a part in all aspects of national politics. Why is a woman not ever considered, from even among those who make it to the top, to be a defence minister or a finance minister? Sushma Swaraj was thought to have dented a glass ceiling of sorts in becoming external affairs minister. That she is eminently qualified to take on any portfolio seems to have been overlooked.
Political parties should give more tickets to women. Affirmative action does not seem to have much of a chance at the parliamentary level. In UP, there is nothing to stop Mayawati, who is considered the supremo in her party, from backing some really strong grassroots women candidates. Or for that matter Akhilesh Yadav, whose wife is an MP. If both the big national parties are serious about their development agenda, pushing gender equality in politics would be a good signal. Allocating more seats to women than before would be a good start. It may not effect any major change, but it would be one step up in a field where women really don’t have a foothold yet. The prime minister expressed the right sentiments at a meeting of women legislators when he said, “If a survey is done, then I am sure that women will be more successful than men when given an opportunity to work.” Well, maybe the PM could set the ball rolling by asking his party to give them more tickets to contest elections. That would be real turn up for the books and other parties would have no choice but to follow suit.