Thirty-something Sushma Devi clears her throat nervously. The diminutive Dalit woman from Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district has travelled 89 kilometres to reach Lucknow. “Two years ago, when I wanted to attend a meeting in the village, my husband retorted, ‘who will cook, and take care of the children’? Today, I have managed to come here to become a neta,” says Sushma, her voice barely audible.
At the cramped hall of the Women’s Studies Centre at Lucknow University, a class is in progress, very different from the ones usually held here. It’s a class where women are being ‘trained’ to become politicians, and in attendance are 30-odd women from towns and villages across UP. It’s no small feat for these women, considering how ugly politics can be in the state, and the fact that for many of them, even answering back their menfolk is difficult. Not to speak of discouraging statistics which say that only three out of 33 Indian cabinet ministers, and barely 58 of the 542 members in the 15th Lok Sabha, are women.
“Politics in India is governed by the three Ms — Money, Muscle and Men. We want to change that,” says Anju Dubey, who heads the gender-training section at the Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Social Research (CSR). Funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund, CSR has been holding these classes since February. Over the year, it plans to train 1,000 women from diverse backgrounds across the country.
The women’s reservation bill may still await discussion, but these women are taking lessons to fill those seats — lessons
in what makes a good neta, how to make vaade (promises) and deal with the media.
Pushpa Yadav, a community health worker from Hardoi district, is very optimist. “Villagers trust me with their women,”
she says, patting her four-year-old to sleep. “They will also vote for me tomorrow.” Kushma Devi of Lalamau village, also in Hardoi, has a simple ambition. “When I become neta, I want to build toilets in the village,” says the 35-year-old health worker who wants to try her luck at the panchayat polls next year.
Birla Mishra, 35, also of Lalamau, has a long-cherished dream to make it to ‘Dilli’ one day. Birla once contested for pradhan, but lost because her contender “had the backing of her husband”. “They bought all local support,” says Birla, who’s a block-level worker of the Congress. “The pradhan in my village is just a rubber stamp, the pradhan pati (husband) rules. I want to change that,” she says.
But ask the women how they’ll manage tickets, and you draw a blank. Birla has been lucky to get into a party — her father was a Congress-man — for the others, it’s a tough deal. “I am too poor to afford a ticket,” says Jamuna Devi, 35, a social worker from Orai district.
Agrees Rita Bahuguna Joshi, president of the state Congress unit, “It’s a slow process. Women here are not mentally strong to rough it out. Reservations have brought out the aspirations of many, but they should learn their rights first.”
And then, there’s the all-too-familiar rant of the ‘dirt’ in politics. A fact that comes across tellingly in one of the lectures, where Nishi Pandey, a professor and activist exhorts the class, “Be tough. Don’t be shy of abusing back. And when you hit, use your chappal (slippers)!”