A slim optimism lies in the start to a conversation of a changed India, an India where women outnumbered men as voters in all five of the recently held assembly elections.
A strange thing happened this week. The BJP’s Karnataka unit announced that it was admitting Pramod Muthalik, self-proclaimed protector of Hindu culture and leader of a mob that beat up women in a Mangalore pub in 2009. The announcement was followed by a torrent of outrage on the social and mainstream media.
Memories and images of Muthalik’s Sri Ram Sene henchmen dragging women by their hair were dredged up. And in five quick hours, the BJP, reading the public mood correctly, had withdrawn its invitation, conceding that it had been a ‘mistake’. “The state unit didn’t realise that India has changed,” senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley told NDTV’s Sreenivasan Jain.
Jaitley didn’t define this change. But certainly, the social media has empowered a new generation of argumentative Indians. Certainly, there is a new conversation around gender. And certainly, there is less public tolerance to obvious misogyny: ‘painted-dented’ statements, rape ‘jokes’ and victim-blaming episodes are more likely than ever to result in an outcry. This is a huge change from the days when grumpy men in politics could dismiss ‘short-haired’ women (par-kati aurat), and get away with it.
The change is visible this election where political parties from the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party to the more seasoned CPI(M) and Congress favour the decriminalisation of homosexual activity. It’s not that gay people are, to the best of anybody’s knowledge, a sizeable vote bank. It’s just that political parties are, post-December 2012, trying to project a more liberal, inclusive image. So Rahul Gandhi will repeat ‘women’s empowerment’ like a magic mantra during his first television interview to TimesNow, and Narendra Modi will speak about women as ‘nation-builders’ during his Women’s Day chai pe charcha.
Officially the BJP has not come out in support of gay rights, but within the party there has been a conscious effort to get on to the right side of the changed gender awareness. On television, the party’s spokespeople are often bright, articulate, professionally qualified women — a Nirmala Sitharaman, a former doctoral student from JNU, or a Pinky Anand, a successful advocate — who serve to dispel the image of a patriarchal party dominated by grey, old men out of sync with modern India.
And yet, this deference to a new public mood has its limitations and parties seem unable to move beyond symbolism. The final numbers are not yet in, but there are indications that women comprise only 15% of the Congress’s candidates despite the fact that its manifesto pledges to push for the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which guarantees 33%. Mamata Banerjee’s TMCs has given ticket to 11 women for the 42 seats it is contesting in West Bengal; the Left Front has only six women candidates.
Even the Aam Aadmi Party, which promises to be a ‘game-changer’, has given just 17% of its 46 constituencies in Maharashtra to women for contesting from — and of course its leadership remains resolutely defiant about both its praise of khap panchayats and defence of former Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti, who led a vigilante-style raid on Ugandan women at Khirki village.
While the ‘power of 49’ is this year’s catchy, new slogan as a nod to the rising power of women voters, no party has quite figured out how to turn this into a vote-catcher. There is an acknowledgement of the issues that affect women — safety, legislative rights, greater workforce participation — but no substantial ideas on how to properly confront them. Perhaps parties are aware that women don’t, as yet, vote as a bloc and are as heterogeneously distributed as men.
It is evident that the national elections will not immediately usher in a new deal for women. But a slim optimism lies in the start to a conversation of a changed India, an India where women outnumbered men as voters in all five of the recently held assembly elections. It is, at least, a beginning. For change is always incremental, built one tiny stepping stone at a time.
The views expressed by the author are personal