I am a woman. When I vote, I do not cast my ballot because my husband tells me to vote for a particular candidate or because my father-in-law wants me to vote for a certain party. I vote as an independent woman who asks her candidate: how are you going to make my constituency, my state, my country a better place for me and my daughters?
That is what my vote is worth.
I am one voice among half a billion voices of women who inhabit this country, guaranteed equal rights by the Constitution.
It’s a collective voice that is getting louder, questioning established norms, taking on entrenched patriarchy, asking politicians what are you doing for us and why should we vote for you?
We ask: If we make up 48.46% of the population, why are there only 11% women in the Lok Sabha? Why has Mizoram not had a single woman in its assembly for the past 10 years? Why has the number of women legislators in Delhi plunged from seven in 2003 to a paltry three in 2008?
A study done by Saumya Tewari for Indiaspend finds that more women participated in the recently-held elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Delhi NCT and Mizoram. Yet, it is not enough. Women legislators in these states average no more than 10% — less than even their representation in Parliament.
Women have the same ‘win rate’ as men, finds Tewari’s study. In other words, put up more women candidates and you will get more women in the assemblies. Madhya Pradesh, for instance, had 199 women contestants in 2003; 19 won. In 2008 when that number went up to 226, 25 were elected.
But women don’t contest because parties don’t support them. It’s nearly impossible to win as an independent. There is not a single independent woman MLA in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi or Mizoram and just two in Rajasthan.
Vasundhara Raje’s tenure as Rajasthan chief minister from 2003 to 2008 saw the number of women MLAs more than double, but at 7% it still remained below the national average.
In contrast, in Sheila Dikshit’s Delhi, the number of women contestants has remained more or less the same — 78 in 2003; 81 in 2008.
Yet, gender sensitivity is the flavour of the season and in states like Chhattisgarh and Delhi, more women than men turned up to vote. Parties are slowly realising that women constitute the largest vote-bank — larger than any caste or minority group — and they need to at least look concerned.
So, manifestos now come dressed up with gender concerns even if these are pathetically inadequate — more toilets, special security, even subsidised sanitary napkins. Women point out that these seek to protect rather than empower and in Delhi forwarded their own six-point ‘womanifesto’ which includes more fast-track courts and a massive sensitisation drive.
Only the Congress signed up.
Nationally too, politicians seem to be waking up to the power of the woman voter. Speaking in Jammu, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi said there was need to debate Article 370 which ‘discriminated against women’.
Meanwhile, the Congress has pledged to re-introduce the Women’s Reservation Bill, passed by the Upper House in May 2008, and pending in Parliament for 17 years.
These concerns belie an underlying misogyny as male politicians plod along with their dented-painted statements. Male-dominated parties find rare unanimity when it comes to keeping women out and the Samajwadi Party has already declared that it will oppose the Women’s Reservation Bill, if introduced.
There is a huge disconnect between what parties say and what they actually do. If parties are serious about getting the woman vote, they have to demonstrate that seriousness with a greater willingness to share power.
Dressed-up manifestos and sops like saris and pressure cookers won’t cut it any longer. There is a new dialogue, new awareness, new concern. What’s in it for me?
In 2014, I will, for the first time, be voting as a woman. I’m looking for a new deal. Who is going to deliver?
The views expressed by the author are personal