The election to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation next month will be the second one to have half of its 227 seats, or 114 seats, reserved for women. These are not the same seats from which women corporators were elected five years ago. The recent delimitation of the electoral wards and the lottery to decide reserved seats means they are different seats.
That election saw a majority of women corporators in the BMC House: 121 to 106 men. Of them, 114 women had won from reserved seats. The Shiv Sena had the highest number with 42, the Congress had 29, the BJP and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena had 14 each and the Nationalist Congress Party 8. The reservation has thrown up a number of issues.
The over-riding one is about the women being proxy for men. You can dislike the “Rabri Devi formula” but it is the only way out, several men politicians snigger. In the 2012 BMC election, some women’s names and photos were not even on campaign material; many did not address a single meeting but were voted in. The men — often husband, sometimes father or brother — whose political turf it was ran the show, attended to constituents, decided allocation and contracts, did everything; women attended the House and signed at appropriate places. There was no doubt who held the reins of power.
But then there were also feisty and purposeful women who learned the ropes, worked hard in their constituencies and shone. Despite the laggards and proxies, the average performance of women corporators was better than that of their male counterparts, according to the Praja Foundation report last August. Graded on parameters such as attendance, number of questions asked in the House, the importance and quality of questions, women corporators scored nearly 63 on 100 while the men managed 61.
When the toppers were compared, women fared much better as corporators; they asked better questions, focussed on key issues of daily life, and were accessible. But most of them may not even contest this election. For example, Hemangi Chemburkar from Parel was consistently ranked in the top ten corporators but her ward is now an open category one. Her party, the Shiv Sena, may allot it to a man. She has requested candidature if a suitable male candidate is not found. There are dozens like Chemburkar.
What a pity, indeed, that women are not yet considered as fit candidates for open seats. Conversely, the reserved constituencies in this election are seeing political parties scrambling to find women candidates. The proxy system will loom large but a few eager women will learn the system and work.
At the macro level, this means more women are being initiated into the political participation. As studies show, some political participation is preferable to none. But it is time to ask if the reservation should be for two terms instead of one so that women’s political careers are not cut short. Or should political parties be mandated to field 50% women candidates every election instead of reserving seats?
Then, there are the nay-sayers who complain that governance is affected when there are a large number of new women corporators. This is a cop-out argument. It is true that the bureaucracy takes advantage of the inexperience of newly-elected women representatives but it does so with newly-elected men too. This is where the Kalyan Dombivli Municipal Corporation effort is worthy of emulation: Most new women corporators in 2015 took a one-year course in political representation and leadership from the SNDT University.
In the BMC, women corporators raised a smorgasbord of issues — the absurd one of banning lingerie-clad mannequins outside shops because they “titillate and excite men which poses danger to women” to critical ones of bringing piped water and sanitation facilities to slums that did not have them. Most important, dozens of women found their voice and political space. This, after all, is the rationale behind reservation.