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Women in Indian politics

Print edition : Sep 25, 1999 T+T-

Women are as ever underrepresented in the election fray and in party structures, but in many ways, most of them qualitative, they have never been as important as they are today.

IT is scarcely news that women are underrepresented in Indian politics. The issue has come sharply into focus for some years now, partly because of the thwarted moves towards providing one-third reservation for women in legislative bodies including Parli ament, along with the more successful moves to enforce such reservation in elections to rural panchayats. Of course such an issue naturally becomes more apparent during a period of elections as well.

What has emerged quite clearly in the current very long drawn out election process is how little has changed at one level since Independence. The candidates fielded by the various political parties are still dominantly male: women account for only five t o ten per cent of all candidates across parties and regions. This is the same broad pattern that has been observed in virtually the 12 previous general elections in the country.

This is the case despite the hullabaloo made over the Constitution (84th Amendment) Bill relating to women's reservation even last year. The very parties that were most explicitly in favour of pushing for such reservation have put up the same proportion of women as always, and certainly not more than other parties that had opposed the Bill. The Congress party, led by a woman and supposedly pushing for reservation for women, has only 10 per cent of women among the candidates announced so far. For the BJP the proportion of women candidates is even lower at 7 per cent. Even in the case of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), only 7 per cent of the candidates are women.

What may be more significant in terms of political power than the proportion of women fighting the Lok Sabha polls is the importance of women in inner party structures. Here women are by and large even less represented, in all parties. Only in the All In dia Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has there been a conscious move to bring many more women into decision-making levels and posts within the party.

In most parties, the women members are by and large thin on the ground if not invisible in the actual decision-making bodies and rarely influence the more significant party policies. Most often, indeed, they are relegated to the "women's wing" of the par ty, and made to concentrate on what are seen as specifically "women's issues" such as dowry and rape cases, and occasionally on more general concerns like price rise which are seen to affect especially "housewives".

Despite all this, only the foolhardy would suggest that women are unimportant in Indian politics today. In many ways, most of them qualitative, they have never been as important as they are today. This is most evident in the proliferation of women leader s and in the fact that, even though some of them may head parties that are relatively small in the national context, they simply cannot be ignored.

WHAT is even more significant is that in many cases these women leaders have not emerged through the familiar South Asian paradigm of dynastic advantage. Sonia Gandhi, obviously, is a clear example of a dynastic leader, with an almost iconic relevance, b ut in fact in this respect she is in the minority among women leaders today. Thus, Jayalalitha and Mayawati may have originally based their rise in politics on their proximity to particular male leaders, but they are clearly now significant leaders in th eir own right, who can influence not only the decisions of their own parties but even the course of national politics. Mamata Banerjee, despite or indeed because of her controversial nature, is the leader of a party who can claim to have got where she is on her own, without male assistance in any of the more obvious ways.

Of course, one myth that is easily exploded by the role played by such women leaders is that political leadership by women is dramatically different from that by men. Nor is it necessarily more colourful, as some of the more extravagant male politicians like Laloo Prasad Yadav can establish.

Indeed, the truth is that most of our women political leaders are no better or worse than men, and in fact a bit of reflection would indicate that this is only to be expected. In fact, nor have women leaders been typically anxious to give greater represe ntation to other women within their own organisations or in the political process generally. Of course, the most prominent woman to have been in post-Independence politics - Indira Gandhi - was an especially clear example of this.

BUT there is one interesting question that is thrown up by this relatively new development in Indian politics. What is it that makes the political system receptive to the emergence and even dominance of certain women leaders, even as it continues to supp ress the voices of ordinary women as party workers and citizens? Why is it that in terms of qualitative impact and media prominence women leaders are suddenly up front as never before? Clearly, the answer is not to be found in any dilution of the male ch auvinism which runs deep in Indian politics. If anything, the campaign process so far has indicated a resurgence of patriarchy which has been exploited by those arguing both in favour of and against particular women candidates. Thus, for example, men hav e castigated women candidates (and one in particular) for being no more than housewives and doing no more for the country than bearing children. Such remarks are breathtaking both in their ignorance of the many complex demands of household management, ch ild-bearing and child-rearing, and in their implicit assumption that male public activities necessarily do a lot "for the country". But several women candidates have just as eagerly presented themselves as "bahus" or "betis", therefore relying quite as much on traditional patriarchal notions of femininity and what criteria make women fit for political life.

What does seem to be the case is that - barring striking exceptions where dynastic charisma is seen to matter more than anything else - most women politicians have found it difficult to rise within party hierarchies, and have managed to achieve clear lea dership only when they have effectively broken out and set up parties on their own. Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee are clear examples of this, but there are other less well-known instances as well. Yet once these women become established as leaders, ano ther peculiarly Indian characteristic seems to dominate - that is the unquestioning acceptance by the (largely male) party rank and file of the leader's decisions.

What all this suggests, therefore, is that the political empowerment of women not only still has a long way to go, but finally may not have all that much to do with the periodic carnivals of Indian electoral democracy. This is not to say that the elector al representation of women is unimportant, but rather that it needs to be both deeper and wider than its current manifestation in the form of the prominence of a few conspicuous women leaders.