No new deal for women this coming election

In Hindustan Times, I look at the bleak prospects for women in the forthcoming 2019 general election. Although women are exercising their franchise in larger numbers as voters, their presence in Parliament and the assemblies remains dismal. 

It is early days but already a troika of powerful women — Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and, now, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra — is dominating the headlines. In a country that has been notoriously stingy in fielding women candidates as MLAs and MPs, this is a pleasant blip but nobody is counting on a New Deal for women with Elections 2019.

When women do manage to crack the glass ceiling it is often, such as Gandhi, on the strength of family ties. The depressing reality is that women comprised only 8% of all candidates in the 2014 general election and, as a result, the new Parliament had the old men’s room stamp with just 11% women MPs — substantially lower than the already low global average of 23%.

Two interesting trends have taken place since the last election. The first is the emergence of the female voter. The gender gap in voter turnout in national elections in India is now down from 16.71% in 1962 to 1.55% in 2014. Women voters have outnumbered men in several recent elections, including significant constituencies in Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and even Mizoram where of the 209 candidates who contested the recent elections, only 16 were women, none of whom won.

The second follows the first: In a nod to the power of the emerging female voter, male politicians have sought to take ownership of so-called women’s issues whether by way of the Beti Bachao campaign or the imposition of prohibition, a demand made by women self-help groups in Bihar.

Why does this lopsided representation matter? Parliament and the assemblies hold a “mirror to what society looks like,” says Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Shakti, a non-partisan, citizen action group dedicated to enabling the election of more women as MLAs and MPs.

Since its founding in December 2018, the group has organised two rounds of calls: the first to MPs in the last session, asking them to support the Women’s Reservation Bill; and the second to women MLAs across the country, asking them to tell their parties to give women half of all tickets for the 2019 general election.

The group has also begun meeting party leaders such DMK’s MK Stalin and Karnataka Pradesh Congress president, D Gundu Rao, asking them to field more women. Most politicians have agreed in principle, says Krishnaswamy, but adds realistically, “We are here to stay but nothing is going to change overnight.” At the very least, the politicians are being made aware that women are watching, and counting.

Women and politics are no longer strangers. Not only are women exercising their franchise in larger numbers, but over the past 25 years, an estimated one million women have been elected at the village, block and district level in panchayati raj institutions where 33% of seats are reserved for them. Almost none graduate to Parliament or even the assemblies.

“When citizens come together in a sustained fashion,” says Krishnaswamy, whose day job is with an IT multinational, “miracles happen.”

Read the column in Hindustan Times here.



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