1989. Five years after India’s first woman prime minister was shot and killed by her own bodyguards, a woman in Tamil Nadu was attacked and nearly disrobed by ruling party members. The attack did not take place in the streets but in the state’s Legislative Assembly.
The woman, then Leader of the Opposition, J. Jayalalithaa, vowed never to return until “until conditions are created under which a woman may attend the Assembly safely”. Two years later, she became the state’s Chief Minister and was re-elected to the post six times in her career.
That same decade, a woman leader from Uttar Pradesh (UP) became the youngest Chief Minister of the country’s most populous state. Mayawati Prabhu Das, a Dalit woman leader, after staging a political coup that would see her take the reins of power with a ‘floor test’, was faced with a mob of 200 party workers from her opposition. She was locked in her room in a guesthouse and humiliated. It was utter mayhem as legislators from the opposing political party cut off the water and power supply, rampaged through the guest state guest house, banging on Mayawati’s door shouting vicious caste abuse. Her then coalition partner, the BJP, took credit for helping her escape. After that dramatic escape, Mayawati has been the Chief Minister of UP on four occasions.
But when the political alliances turned a decade later, a BJP party chief, Keshav Maurya, wished she had been more grateful for not being assaulted or raped.
It was the BJP’s morals that both her life and values were protected. But it now seems that she has forgotten the episode of June 2, 1995.
No woman has entered or left a mark on Indian politics without facing an uphill battle against misogyny and oppressive patriarchal system. Decades ago, India elected a woman to its highest office (a feat the United States is yet to achieve) but still struggles to place a woman in a position of power who did not have the support (or lineage) of powerful men. In Upper House of Indian Parliament, women members have formed less than ten percent of the total number (it is only 12 percent in the Lower House currently). The poor electoral representation of women in state and central legislatures is part of the reason why the country was placed 135th out of 147 nations in a United Nation’s ranking of Women’s Empowerment.
But despite the poor ratios in higher positions, a silent revolution has happened in India’s grassroots. In 1992, two Constitutional Amendments were passed that mandated a third of all seats be reserved for women in local bodies – otherwise known as the Gram Panchayats.
By 2008, up to five million women had contested for one million seats. There are more elected women representatives in India today than the rest of the world put together, according to the Centre for Development and Human Rights.
In some cases, the quotas have increased a woman’s chance of a winning an election by five times. Across India, women have gained important positions in some of the most backward and disadvantaged segments of the country.
But while this has been used as an example to push for wider reservations in Central and State legislatures, there are caveats. Many elected women hold power only on paper – their husbands perform their electoral duties in their stead. It’s a phenomenon with a name – Pradhanpati, where Pradhan means chief, and Pati, husband. India’s ‘chief husbands’ have no electoral mandate, but rule as if they do.
India’s proxy male rulers have virtually ousted what would have been a natural progression to greater women empowerment. The lessons from the villages are much needed in the debate over a national Women’s Reservation Bill.
20 Year Delay
The Women’s Reservation Bill [The Constitution (108th Amendment) Bill, 2008] is one of the most contentious legislations to be stalled in Parliament.
In 2010, India’s government nearly fell after three key coalition parties, the Samajwadi Party (SP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Janata Dal United (JDU) threatened to walk out of the government if the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed. In the corresponding debate in the Rajya Sabha, party members attacked the house speaker and ripped apart copies of the bill – which promised 33 percent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies.
Violence was not uncommon when this bill makes an appearance. Once, a minister had to hide between two women MPs to protect the same bill from being snatched.
Despite the chaos, the bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010 – only to lapse in 2014 after the Lok Sabha failed to pass it in turn. Last year, the bill turned 20 years of age since it was first introduced in 1996. Since then, no parliament has been willing to turn it into an Act, resulting in its lapsing with the fall of each government.
The Bill had a self-destruct mechanism – it would no longer be in effect from 15 years of enacting. But history shows that when women’s reservations quotas are withdrawn, they are five times less likely to win the election – as Rikhil R. Bhavnani’s study demonstrates in the 1997 and 2002 Mumbai municipal elections.
In the long wait, women’s organisations have run out of patience. The National Alliance for Women’s Reservation now demands a 50 percent reservation in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies.
Among the political parties that have at one time supported the bill, include the Indian National Congress, the erstwhile Janata Dal and the BJP. If the INC and BJP put aside their differences, both parties could pass this bill that they have each supported in the past. India’s dismal rankings in gender equality demand a policy solution. In 2012, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality also put its support behind women’s reservations in India.
The disparity in electoral representation of women is not reflected in the exercise of the franchise. In nearly half of India’s states, more women voted than men in the 2014 General Election. Nor does reservation have an impact only within its quotas – in Karnataka, women outperformed men in subsequent elections even outside of their reserved quotas. The state since voluntarily raised its reservation quota from 33 percent to 50 percent. In recent times, the Uttar Pradesh state elections elected the most women MPs in Indian history – 40.
While there is a momentum, India’s politicians are presented with a rare opportunity to redress the gender shortfall in the country’s parliament. No girl should feel as if the prime ministership of the world’s largest democracy is beyond her reach if she does not bear a powerful family name. The challenge will lie in preventing patriarchal forces from hijacking the success of women.
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