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Monday, Nov 18, 2019

In Haryana, women’s issues at forefront, but few candidates

The gender divide is so stark that even those women who are running for election acknowledge just how unfair the system is.

india Updated: Oct 17, 2019 03:38 IST
Sunetra Choudhury
Sunetra Choudhury
Jhajjhar/ Rohtak/Hisar
Monica Devi (left) and her mother-in-law Phoolo, residents of Kheri village in Jhajjhar, who work as farm labourers.
Monica Devi (left) and her mother-in-law Phoolo, residents of Kheri village in Jhajjhar, who work as farm labourers. (Sunetra Choudhury/HT)

What Nitasha Nihar Sihag can’t get over, so many days after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced its candidates’ list for the Haryana assembly elections, is why she was overlooked for a party nomination. At 33, she thought she had exactly the kind of profile her party was looking for-- young, educated, with an MBA degree, who had proved herself by winning local elections along the way.

“I won the panchayat elections with a record margin in 2016,’’ said Sihag, who is from Kishanpura . “I am also the district head of the BJP’s mahila morcha [women’s cell] and so I really thought I should have been given a chance.’’ In her CV, Sihag also addresses realpolitik by pointing out that her success in the local body elections was because she has the support of the Aggarwal community. And yet, when the BJP’s list of candidates came out, her name was not on it.

“It was like the election I fought to become chairperson of the block samiti. I lost that by one vote because of manipulation,’’ she told HT. She believes she lost out because of her gender.

Dalit woman candidate Rina Birat was seeking a Congress nomination from the Kalam Wali constituency. Even though she lost out, she doesn’t think it’s her gender which is at the root of the problem; it’s just that the person who got the ticket was more privileged. “My name was recommended by Mahila Congress as the top choice among eight other women,’’ she said. “But they chose someone whose grandfather was a minister. My grandfather used to be a cobbler, so how can I compete with him?’’

There are disappointed women like Sihag and Birat in every party because that’s one thing all parties have in common-- a lack of adequate women’s representation. In the 90 assembly constituencies, the BJP has fielded only 12 women. The Congress has fielded even fewer, only 10. The Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) has fielded the maximum number of women candidates, 15. The number of independent women candidates is just 23 out of 343, a mere 9.1% of the total. Men make up 90.9% of candidates.

Women’s issues at the front

The gender divide is so stark that even those women who are running for election acknowledge just how unfair the system is. “The reason why women are not given enough tickets is because winnability is a big factor,’’ said Geeta Bhukkal, a former Congress minister and now candidate for Jhajjhar. “I think there is a flawed system. The party shouldn’t be looking for winnable candidates just during elections. They should be looking for them throughout and grooming people.’’

And yet, if you look at party manifestos, it’s all about women and women’s issues, all eyeing the dividend that the women’s vote bank promises. The Congress has promised free travel for women. The party may not be generous in fielding women candidates, but it does promise that it will offer a quota of 50% for women in panchayats and 33% in government jobs.

The BJP is also offering women-oriented promises like special buses and sanitary napkin vending machines. It acknowledges the growing crimes against women and promises fast-track courts to deal with them.

So what really matters to women voters in a state that has the lowest sex ratio in the country (832 women for every 1,000 men)? For women in Rewari, Jhajjhar, Rohtak and Hisar, it turns out that their concerns aren’t so different from those of the men-- they all want to improve their lives and those of their families.

Rewari had traditionally been with the Congress until the last election in 2014 ,when the voters, like their Member of Parliament, Rao Inderjit Singh, switched to the BJP. Rewari is a part of the Gurugram Lok Sabha constituency.

HT spoke to a group of women in Dahina village just as the local health worker was visiting them. The group of half a dozen womenseemed to be fans of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“I feel the BJP is more honest,’’ said Mamta Rani. “They say clearly what they are going to do, and they have schemes for all.’’

Her neighbour, Renu Devi,has lost her husband. She’s confident that she will get a job. “We don’t have to pay for jobs any more in Haryana,” she said. “If I work hard, even I can get a job.’’

This is what chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar has been propagating. At a recent rally, he proudly claimed that he’d gotten rid of the Congress’s “3 J problem “which was jaati (caste), jila (own area or district) and paise ka jhola (bribe). ``We said that this 3 J’s won’t work, we have 2 J’s of our own. First, we pack their 3 J’s and throw it in the `jal’ (water). Second, we have a J for jid (demand) that we give jobs only on merit,’’ he said.

In a state that has seen many dynastic families like the Bhajan Lals, Chautalas and Hoodas wield power in the past, Khattar’s claim to have provided government jobs on merit has overtaken ground realities of employment or unemployment.

Political churn

To be sure, some women who have not yet benefited from the PM Kisan yojana,which offers income support of Rs.6,000 per year in three equal instalments to small and marginal farmers, or the Ujjwala scheme of free cooking gas connections to poor women are resentful.

“We voted for the BJP last time,’’ said Monica Devi from the Kheri village in Jhajjhar.

Working as a farm labourer with her mother-in-law, Phoolo Devi, she can’t hide the disappointment she feels about the distribution of the benefits of these schemes. ``We haven’t got the benefit of any scheme. We haven’t even got our BPL [below poverty line] card and we see those that are better off than us get houses from the government. The Congress was of no use to us but even the BJP hasn’t been that much better.’’

What is evident as we travel through these districts is that there is a churn. Many women said that they may not vote along with their families or that their families were traditional Congress voters but that they personally liked Modi.

“My family and husband usually vote for the Congress,’’ said Meera Jainarayan, one in a group of Dalit women who HT spoke to. “But I will vote for who I want.’’

“We like Modi,’’ said her friend Pinky Singh. “But I will vote for whoever has done enough work.’’

While all of them said they had voted for Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, they couldn’t be sure if they would vote along the same lines in the assembly polls as well.

Meanwhile, Nitasha Sihag says she’s not giving up on her electoral dreams. She believes that very soon, she too will cross over from being a woman voter to one who is seeking votes.