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Women of India, unite -- you’ve nothing to lose

The notion of women’s empowerment dictating a vote is a nuance that few care about. But I argue here that they should

india Updated: Apr 07, 2009 15:58 IST

For the vaguely interested, apolitical voter like me, the elections boil down to two questions: Should you vote? If so, for whom? The answer to the first question would seem self-evident. Yet roughly 50% of our electorate does not vote. My own answer to question No. 1 would be: Of course you should vote. Not for the sake of some exalted democratic ideal which, in the current India with its alphabet soup of parties, is getting to be more and more a figment of the feverish mind. Not for the sake of our nation, which will carry on regardless of whether we vote or not. You should vote for one simple reason: To choose your leaders and to nurture the hope that somehow you are contributing to your—and your nation’s—destiny.

The second question is more frustrating. Who do you vote for? For a party or a personality? When I was a little girl, my grandmother voted for the "hand" because her brother had told her to. Even if today’s voters are more savvy, deciding which of the coalitions of convenience are less repulsive is a tricky question, especially since some of these coalitions will coalesce post-election.
So what is the jaded voter to do? To throw up my hands and take a stance by not voting is tempting. Except that nobody will notice or care, advertorial overtures to "stand up and be counted" notwithstanding. Mobilizing the grass roots is a tempting prospect, but for that I need to know who I am voting for, a confusing exercise.
This election is different from previous ones in one significant way: the use of the Internet as a political tool. L.K. Advani has a website, as does Rahul Gandhi. Gandhi’s website even has a "chat" icon which doesn’t work. What our Indian politicians lack, however, is the mastery over technology that Barack Obama’s team showed throughout his campaign, both proactively and in terms of damage control. Even though sitting MP Milind Deora is mobilizing his constituents through SMS updates; even though Advani keeps a blog; even though I received an SMS from the Advani campaign stating that he was going to make every girl child a "lakhpati" (very rich); in the end, we IT-savvy voters are what is called a "niche segment" in India. We count, but not really. It is the rural voters, those teeming masses in the swing states, that have politicians up at night, and cause them to play chess games with regional parties such as the DMK or AIADMK. Because in the end, getting the vote, like predicting the box office, is not an exact science.
How do we decide who we vote for? Sometimes, as with Obama, Kennedy, Omar Abdullah, and to a lesser extent, Nicolas Sarkozy, a good-looking leader can become a symbol for youthful energy and vibrant politics. Okay, I’ll say it: A sexy politician can make all the difference.
Much of rural India bases its vote on tangible promises—for bicycles, gas cylinders, saris, 5kg of rice. It is a very clear balance sheet and the party that delivers the goods it promised before elections gets their votes the next time around. The constituents aren’t going anywhere and neither, for that matter, are the local politicians. Both have long memories and each knows what buttons to push to get what they want.
The stuff I am talking about here has to do with political ideology, and part of me wonders if ideology is even relevant in today’s politics. You see, I want to vote for the party that promises maximum benefits to women. I am leaning towards the Congress for one simple reason: It claims that it will increase the number of women candidates. Advani may promise that each girl child will become a lakhpati but that isn’t good enough for me. Present squabbling notwithstanding, the Congress seems to be more inclusive than the other parties.
In 2007, a national all-women’s party called the United Women’s Front (UWF) was formed. Besides promising a clean government sans nepotism, the UWF committed itself—without much fanfare—to bringing gender equality into politics. Last month, in Hyderabad, UWF president Suman Krishna Kant said the party was ready to contest in the assembly and Parliament elections and would give tickets to interested candidates. This, to me, is a wonderful development—it encourages women to run for office. Will the UWF get my vote? I am not sure.
Let me preface this contradiction by saying that my congenital instinct, against all reason and rationality, is to support the underdog. But a vote is a precious thing; a powerful tool. I want to deploy it towards a party that has a chance of winning, not a brand new party that just so happens to support my core principles. Now, if the UWF lasts a few years, sticks to its manifesto, effects change and fields some electable women, I’ll take another look. My fantasy is that they not only last but form an alliance with a larger party. The Congress-UWF coalition in a few years? Now that would be a dream team.
I know that I am being selfish with my vote. Politics, after all, is the art of the possible; and part of me thinks I should support an incipient party that holds the promise of great things. The only way I can explain my thoughts is by offering the Obama parallel. For years, African-Americans in America were saddled with stereotypes about race and crime; and a succession of corrupt African-American mayors only added to this stereotype. Then along came an Obama and blew the stereotypes away. Obama was elected for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was anti-Bush sentiment. The weird part was how little a role race played in the election. The fact that Obama was African-American was almost a non-issue. The fact that he was simply a better candidate took over. Similarly, we Indian women are saddled with stereotypes. I am still waiting for the Bharatiya nari equivalent of an Obama to show up and sway the nation. Okay, I can hear it: What about Indira Gandhi, you say. Yes, but she inherited the political mantle, unlike Obama, who came out of nowhere—a self-made and fully-formed political force.
I am not going to vote for a party simply because it will only field women candidates. I want them to be exceptional women candidates with proven track records and the ability to win. I want possibilities, not just principles.
Political ideology is an intellectual’s game; the electorate only cares about the broad swathes: Is the BJP becoming more saffron? Is the Congress trying to be all things to all people (pro-youth, pro-seniors, pro-rich, pro-poor, pro-urban, pro-rural)? Is it still wedded to dynasty politics—and not just because it has amateurs such as Rahul Gandhi as mascots? The notion of women’s empowerment dictating a vote is a nuance that few care about.
But I argue here that they should. Recently, Congress veteran C.K. Jaffer Sharief of Bangalore announced that he was quitting the party because his grandson had been denied a ticket. Sharief reportedly retracted his resignation after a "cordial" meeting with Sonia Gandhi and his views may still change closer to the election date. But the point is that if blood can dictate long-standing political affiliations (as it so often does in India, and indeed globally), why can’t a simple political gesture like increasing the number of women candidates dictate my vote? Perhaps Sharief’s granddaughter (if he has one) can get a UWF ticket and forge an alliance between her grandfather’s party and her own? Just a thought.
An interesting thing happened at the Bangalore Wine Club. It is in the process of being governed by an all-woman committee, a process that brought to the fore rumblings of protest—from men—over the competence of women. One of the women standing for election delivered an impassioned email response (that was leaked to me) about why an all-woman committee would be just as good as one led by mostly or all men.
The dust and grit of national politics are a far cry from the rarefied realm of wine clubs. But a women-led wine club is a first; the UWF party is a first. All that remains is for a mainstream party to smell the magnolias and make a shift in stance. Just as an all-woman’s committee will make (for the first time) the Bangalore Wine Club relevant to feminist oenophiles like me, the possibility of women leaders will make a national coalition relevant to my life as a voter.
We women of India are a huge force (cliché, I know. Sorry). Pity we haven’t forced our politicians to take our views into account when they field candidates. That can only happen if we coalesce—just like the villagers—into a unified voice and demand specific things. I know that rice and gas cylinders are used to appease and induce. Cynics argue that rural voters should demand roads, safety and jobs rather than being bribed with bicycles. Again, let me just say that we are not talking ideals here; just what’s possible.
A trip through interior Tamil Nadu a few years ago showed me that the roads have come; more girls are being educated; and yet, the village women I met were thrilled with the saris and TV sets that J. Jayalalithaa gave. They didn’t think they were being taken for a ride. They thought these were being given as freebies on top of the usual education and employment rhetoric…and reality. Just as savvy villagers demand bicycles or 5kg of rice on top of the Veeranam water canal in Tamil Nadu, we can tell the Congress or the BJP: Show me the numbers; show me the number of women you are backing as candidates. Then you’ll get my vote.
Shoba Narayan’s vote goes to the party with more electable women candidates. Or the UWF in a few years

First Published: Apr 07, 2009 15:52 IST