Women voters, women politicians and gender concerns
As it turns out, the Lok Sabha battle for Mumbai’s six seats has three women in the fray – Priya Dutt and Urmila Matondkar of the Congress, Poonam Mahajan of the Bharatiya Janata Party – to count the major parties. The Mumbai North Central seat will see a battle between two of them as Dutt takes on Mahajan for the second time in their careers.
Giving nomination to two women allows the Congress to crow that it has implemented the 33% reservation for women in electoral politics in Mumbai. Matondkar’s candidature did not happen organically from within the party. That the former Bollywood star seems to have hit the right notes in her campaign is thanks to her and her family’s political grounding.
The Congress party’s manifesto released earlier this week is exciting. Prime Minister and BJP’s campaigner-in-chief criticised it as having an expiry date, as a manifesto of lies and hypocrisy. This is a bit rich because the BJP is yet to release its own with barely a week left for polling to begin. The manifesto sounds reasonable, progressive and inclusive. What’s not sensible about amending the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, scrapping sedition law and decriminalising libel, and guaranteeing minimum income?
Beyond these headlines, there are nearly a dozen well enunciated promises for women’s rights, equality and empowerment. They include 33% reservation is Lok Sabha and state Assemblies, comprehensive review and expansion of sexual harassment law, 33% reservation in central government posts, reduction of the gender wage gap, working women’s hostels and safe transport facilities for women in Special Economic Zones, night shelters and public restrooms in towns and cities, sanitary napkin vending machines in public places, establishment of a special investigation agency for heinous crimes against women, support for women’s self-help groups, expansion of the Anaganwadi programme, programmes for widowed and abandoned or destitute women. Besides the AFSPA also has a gender implication. Who can forget the rape, torture and murder of Thangjam Manorama?
The breadth and scope of these electoral promises are welcome because gender issues rarely get thoughtful engagement and space in manifestos. If they do, they often carry a subtext of patriarchal approach to women’s issues. The BJP’s Ujjwala scheme is a good example of how Prime Minister Modi has made lives of rural and poor women better by providing cooking gas cylinders. That narrative has come apart with women complaining that refill cylinders are unaffordable.
Political parties which drop their levels of misogyny and patriarchy, which make meaningful space for women in their decision-making structures, which select women candidates to contest elections on merit, which solicit ideas from the bottom up for manifestos will – or should – attract women’s votes. Of course, in cadre-based parties, women will vote for their favoured party irrespective of what it promises – or not – on gender issues. Shiv Sena is an example.
Politicians’ engagement with women’s issues and women voters is particularly important because the number of women voters in Maharashtra have increased; so has their participation in polling. The state’s voter sex ratio – number of women to men voters – stands at 911 women per 1000 men. It was 905 in 2014, and 880 ten years ago. Nearly half of the state’s electorate – also Mumbai’s – are women. All of which is obviously good.
The uptick does not reflect in the structures and dynamics of major political parties. It isn’t merely about how many women occupy top positions; it is about women’s participation and presence in decision-making within the parties. Here, the Congress and BJP are more or less the same.
The history of women’s participation in politics is rich. In pre-independent India, local and progressive women’s groups such as Rashtriya Stree Sangha, Rashtriya Stree Sabha, Devdasis Sangha, Desh Sevikas and others made women and their issues visible. Many district Congress committees of the Indian National Congress had then aligned with these organisations to draw women into politics. Eventually, cutting across caste and language barriers, political organisations such as Women Indian Association (1917), National Council for Indian Women (1925), the All India Women’s Conference (1927) were formed to articulate gender concerns on political platforms. The Congress party’s sessions saw a gradual increase of women delegates.
As electioneering gathers momentum, thousands of women will march on April 4 in various cities including Mumbai under the banner “Still We Rise” to articulate what they want from this election. “Our vote is all the more important because it was hard won,” the statement of 30-plus organisations states, “We march for peace, justice and equality. We march for food, health and education… We march for love”.