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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Women Scorned, But Indian Politicians See No Hell's Fury

By Prajit Saxena (Guest Writer)

Another Women’s Day has come and gone, but India, the world’s largest democracy, is yet to resolve the vexing issue of the Women’s Reservation Bill, the one instrument that was expected to set the benchmark in terms of giving a political voice to the women of this country. This, even as both the outgoing government and Opposition kept taking turns to claim that they are keen to see more women in Parliament. For some unexplained reason, there has been no resolute move from either side even as undue haste has been shown, at least from the side of the government, to get the likes of Lokpal Bill passed.
It is not as if the passing of the bill will get India to join an elite club that allows membership to only a clutch of members. In fact, if the rite de passage were to be made, India would become the 41st country to have enacted such a bill and in the process improve on its rather abysmal record of 11 per cent representation in Lok Sabha. With Sonia Gandhi at the helm of UPA, Sushma Swaraj as the Opposition leader and Meira Kumar as the Speaker, all the ingredients were ripe for an early passing of the bill. All that has come to nought and it’s now up to the next government to go through the motions, all over again.

Having let go the golden opportunity of three women law-makers at the helm last time, it is anybody’s guess whether the 16th Lok Sabha will have a floor representation of women at the top. And even if such a scenario were to emerge, there is no guarantee that the moment will be seized.

Taking this line of argument forward is fraught with uncertainty as many variables come under the realm of speculation. Hence, one way out would be to try and undertake an analysis of the history of various political parties while fielding women candidates to see if they anywhere near approximate the benchmark of 33 per cent.

The number of women MPs in Lok Sabha, it may be argued, has been steadily rising ever since 22 women were voted into the House out of 499 members in 1952, which accounted for only 4.4 per cent representation. All of 58 years or 14 terms later, there were 58 women MPs out of the 543 elected to the lower house in 2009, the first instance when elected women members in percentile terms entered the double digits.

In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, six national parties between them fielded 1,351 candidates, of which 110 were women, accounting for a mere 8 per cent representation, but in terms of seats won, the figures were more in line with the aspiration of one-third representation as 30 out of 110 women fielded entered Parliament. Party-wise, for Congress, 45 out of 417 candidates were women and for BJP it was 30 out of 364. Seen from a larger context, including independent and other candidates, 355 out of 5,435 candidates fielded were women—a little over 6 per cent.

Move to Lok Sabha Elections 2009 and the picture remains equally murky, with the national parties putting up 134 women out of the total 1,623 fielded candidates, which works to about 8 per cent. Add to the list the state parties and unrecognised ones as well as independents and one arrives at 556 women out of 8,070 candidates which is less than 7 per cent. The outlook begins to appear a little rosier once you start considering the ‘winnability’ factor of women. With 43 out of 134 women candidates fielded by national parties coming through, the case gets stronger for better representation as that translates to over 32 per cent, pretty much in line with what the Women’s Reservation Bill is expected to achieve.

So far, the candidate lists released for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls does not tell a dramatically different story.

The Congress, between its two lists, has managed to name 265 candidates of which only 39 are women, which is less than 15 per cent representation. For a party that made a song and dance about its steely resolve to introduce the Women’s Bill, this speaks loud about the yawning gap that still exists between what it preaches and practices. The BJP comes off much worse with only 14 women candidates in its list of 203 candidates. And the Aam Aadmi Party does not fare too well either, with a 12 per cent representation as only 23 women have been named in its list of 187 candidates announced till date.

Little wonder then why India is ranked 105 in the comparative data released by Inter-Parliamentary Union, with neighbours like Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China way ahead in terms of women representation in Parliament.

With the script reading pretty much the same in the Rajya Sabha also, the writing is pretty much on the wall, reading loud and clear for all to see. India will not allow an extra inch of political space to women as the entrenched players consider this to be too precious a space to be surrendered in the name of ideology. And this is the truth, cutting across party lines. Some leaders may want to appear more equal than others but they are happy mouthing platitudes for public consumption while embracing double standards with gusto in the name of realpolitik when elections come knocking at the doors.

Perhaps it is time for those who care to look beyond women reservation for which the required bill keeps getting obfuscated under myriad reasons and start women’s movements for guaranteed gender balance. That women have a relatively healthy 30 per cent chance of winning the elections once they get nominated being a reality nobody can deny, it is up to women to build pressure groups within each party in a bid to empower themselves politically.

Clearly, if the promised manna does not get showered from heaven, it is time for the Indian women to produce it indigenously, as that may be the only way they will get to the promised land of political empowerment. 
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