Women have never constituted more than 10 per cent of Parliament and state assemblies, and often their representation is much lower. Mizoram, for instance, has not seen a single woman in its legislature in 20 years although women are coming out in ever larger numbers to vote. Puducherry today has no woman elected representative in its legislature. Women constitute just 5 per cent of the Kerala assembly, despite the state's high human development indices and large base of women voters. Keeping this history in mind, we track the gender footprint on the 16th General Election and its aftermath.
Whoever thinks that women leaders can't survive the rough and tumble of electioneering and bring in the votes hasn't met V. Sugnana Kumari Deo from Odisha. At 77, this veteran BJD legislator from Kabisuryanagar constituency in Ganjam district has the uncommon distinction of being the only woman to have been elected to the state assembly for a record tenth time in the just concluded elections to the Odisha state assembly. Deo calls herself a people's politician and feels that it's her empathetic approach towards the electorate and a stellar track record of development that brings her back to power every five years. But what are the various factors that contribute to a consistently good poll performance by some women leaders, even while others fail to make an impact? And can female politicians in general follow Deo's lead to improve their success rate?
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The votes have been counted. Those who have won have celebrated their victories deliriously, those who have lost have retired, hurt. India will soon have a new government. One of the most striking aspects of India's 16th General Election has been the turnout of women voters. According to the Election Commission the gap between the number of male and female voters has been narrowing since 1962 and these elections too saw the trend remain. This ever growing constituency of women – despite the fact that they come from dissimilar backgrounds, religions, castes, regions and income groups – could well constitute a distinct political constituency by the next general election. How prepared are parties for this denouement? How willing are they to reflect this trend in their politics? Of all the major political players in this searing summer of 2014, it is perhaps only the Aam Aadmi Party that seemed to engage with these questions in its election campaign.
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In the temple town of Varanasi, gripped by the reverberating heat of May, it was impossible to get away from the media machine of BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. Not only had eager television anchors planted him at the very heart of their over-wrought election coverage, large Bollywood-style posters of the candidate bore down on pedestrians, the rickshaw borne and motorists alike, as they made their way through narrow, crowded streets. Even in the relative peace of the Dasaswamedh Ghat on Varanasi's iconic waterfront, there was no getting away from electioneering in the raw. Sometimes out of a heap of coconuts and agarbattis would emerge neat Modi cutouts with fists pumping the air. This, of course, is not to claim that the Congress or Samajwadi Party campaigners in India's most charged political constituency were exactly paragons of quietude. But if sheer ground presence is any indication of electoral victory, Modi had been crowned the winner in Varanasi long before counting day. Amidst all this muscular electioneering there were some who quietly mobilised against Modi, defending constitutional values and traditional ideals and their message did find some resonance in this land of Ravidass, Kabir and Bismillah Khan.
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When it comes to the politicisation of women's issues, leaders across party lines have been found guilty. For instance, in Bengal, chief minister Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress has brazenly dismissed the heinous crimes against women committed during her term as “a conspiracy by her opponents”, while Akhilesh Yadav, the “young and dynamic” chief minister of Uttar Pradesh from the Samajwadi Party, hasn't made any concrete efforts to ensure justice to the minority women raped during the Muzaffarnagar riots. In fact, frivolous, rhetorical statements made by political parties and their representatives have only trivialised incidents that otherwise should have sparked serious debate in the corridors of power. Has any major political outfit addressed issues like women's safety, workforce participation, right to property, health or stake in governance this election season? Even today it's all about making the right noises and not enough action.
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Elections in India are usually full of surprises, be it the choice of candidates, voting patterns or the results. Like most previous parliamentary polls, the 2014 edition has seen its fair share of high drama, action and, of course, plenty of rhetoric. But there has been another significant development this time: the presence of committed social activists in the race for the 16th Lok Sabha. What motivated Ruth Manorama, a champion of Dalit rights and the urban poor, or well-known child rights activist, Nina Nayak, to jump into the fray? The realisation that a stint in Parliament could help them ensure tangible gains in the lives of the very people for whom they have worked as activists. And there's a lot on their agenda - they want to pave the way for younger women to join their ilk, they want to fight corruption, they want to make the society more inclusive and tolerant.
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Engaging in formal politics is basically about engaging in making a claim for power, or for access to it. This power can, of course, be used in ways that are enabling to the groups that the elected politician represents. Given this, we could ask how far reservation of seats in Parliament and legislative councils for women could enable them to gain the power to negotiate the issues and concerns that impact their lives. Reservation for women in legislative councils does not necessarily mean that women's voice and justice will get represented - that is, reservation does not necessarily lead to representation. The question remains, how are we to ensure that the women who will enter Parliament and state assemblies, actually "represent" women. In our opinion, this can only happen with the help of both reservations and the mobilisation of women voters, so that they can bargain as a block with potential representatives.
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2014 is proving to be a year of significant victories for the transgender community in India. While the Supreme Court has recently given a landmark judgment formally identifying them as the third gender and effectively making their rights to vote, own property and marry “more meaningful”, a handful of transgender candidates across the country have made their presence felt on the political landscape in the General Election. Among them is Uttam Sapan Senapati, 32, the first transgender person from Nagpur, Maharashtra, to stand for the Lok Sabha polls. This independent candidate fielded by the Bhartiya Kinnar Sarva Samaj Sewa Samiti, dresses in bold colours but her loud exterior belies the serious intent reflected in her kohl-rimmed eyes: she wants to be an agent of change, not just for her community but for ordinary citizens, too, who she says are reeling under the effects of poverty and unemployment today. Elected or not, Uttam ‘baba’, as she is popularly known among her ‘chelas’ (followers), is all charged up to work with people to help build a more just and safe society.
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In the region where the three states of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand meet, the threat of Maoist violence is real. All three states had reported casualties to Maoist-driven violence in 2013. While Jharkhand saw 383 such incidents in which 150 civilians and security personnel were killed, there were 353 such cases in Chhattisgarh leading to 110 deaths, while Odisha witnessed 101 cases of violence in which 35 people lost their lives. This disturbed situation has dissuaded many candidates from campaigning in the areas where the Maoists have a presence, but two courageous women did not allow such fear to come in the way of their electioneering. While Soni Sori contested from Chhattisgarh's Bastar Lok Sabha seat this time, Dayamani Barla stood from Jharkhand's Khunti Lok Sabha. Both were Aam Aadmi Party candidates and both have been driven by a fierce determination to help the marginalised tribal community of which they are a part.
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In India's eastern state of Odisha, the presence of women in the political arena is not a new phenomenon. The state saw its first women chief minister, Nandini Satpathy, come to power in June 1972 and she ruled until the end of 1976. It has also seen many prominent women legislators - both at the parliamentary and state levels. Sadly, however, the state seems to have regressed. Today, although there are a number of female politicians in all the major parties in the state, each one of them has had to contend with deeply patriarchal biases. Male chauvinism marks all aspects of the election process, from the selection of electoral candidates to electing women office-bearers and, unsurprisingly, it is the men who corner the lion's share of the posts and tickets. Elections to Parliament and the Assembly will be taking place simultaneously this year in Odisha - comprising 21 Lok Sabha and 147 assembly constituencies. The three major parties, the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the BJD, have together fielded only 32 women candidates for these seats, in comparison to 441 male candidates.
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One has a lifetime of activism to her credit, while the other is well known in corporate India as the former CEO of a major international bank. One chucked a teaching job and left behind a half-completed PhD to spent 30 years criss-crossing the country, exposing corruption, protesting against large dams and land grabs, agitating for the rights of the displaced and the marginalised; the other, a Harvard alumnus with astute economic sensibilities, has had considerable experience in policy formulation. This election, the Aam Aadmi Party has given the poll scene in maximum city Mumbai two contrasting, yet powerful, women. Medha Patkar, 59, and Meera Sanyal, 55, are candidates from North East Mumbai and South Mumbai, respectively. But while the development trajectories envisioned by the two women look quite different, both believe that for inclusive growth, all opinions must be taken into account.
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Bikash, 10, is the son of daily wage labourers and lives in a slum in Bhubaneswar, the state capital of Odisha. On most days, he has to skip school and work with his parents on construction sites to supplement the family income. This election, although he is not yet a voter, he wants political leaders to promise they will tackle child labour and ensure that children like him get a fair chance of schooling. Similarly, Jasin, 12, wants her elected representative to provide safe drinking water near her 'basti' so that she doesn't have to stand in line for hours at a tap a long distance away from her home and end up being late for her classes. Then there is Sasmita Mohanty, who is demanding safety for girls, having heard about the rising number of molestation and harassment incidents in her slum. Over 100 child leaders, representing 15,000 children from across the three cities of Bhubaneswar, Behrampur and Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh, have joined hands under the Hamara Bachpan Campaign to create a Children's Manifesto. Recently, they interacted with leaders from major political parties to talk about making schemes like the Rajiv Awas Yojana and Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission more child-friendly.
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It is business as usual for the women workers of the Shiv Sena, even as preparations for the 2014 general elections in Maharashtra are in full swing. In a state that sends the second largest number of MPs to Parliament, women members of the Shiv Sena and its women's wing, the Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi, are not vying for tickets. Instead they are busy nurturing their constituencies to ramp up support for their male counterparts. Historically, Shiv Sena women representatives have constituted a very modest presence in the state assembly and in Parliament. Bhavna Gawli happened to be the only female MP from the party in the last Lok Sabha, and is the only female candidate to be given a ticket this time as well. At the state level, Dr Neelam Gorhe, a medical doctor turned women's rights activist, is the only woman from the party who has made it to the state legislative council. So here is the irony: while Shiv Sena women are a force to reckon with at the municipal levels, they are still to make it to the state and national stage.
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The seven states of northeast India collectively send 25 members to the 545-member Lok Sabha, while the 250 member-strong Rajya Sabha has 14 members from there. Of these, how many women have made it to the Parliament? At last count, just three each in the Lower and Upper House. Their numbers in the state legislative assemblies are even worse. This, despite the fact that the region is home to strong feminist groups like the Meira Paibis of Manipur, the Naga Mothers Association and the Mizo Women's Federation that have effectively tackled issues like alcoholism, gender rights and conflict. Moreover, women's participation in socio-economic activities is not only visible but is, in fact, one of the most distinctive features of local societies. What then is the reason behind this resistance to women entering mainstream politics? Scholars and regional experts believe that, like elsewhere in India, northeast women, too, are bound by deep-rooted patriarchal traditions.
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In this election season, where political parties are trying to find novel ways to gain voters, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, leader of the AIADMK, has figured out that the way to a voter's heart is through his or her stomach. The government has been setting up subsidised eateries called Amma Unavagam, or Mother Restaurant, across the state since early last year. Today, Chennai alone has 200 outlets, where self help group women are cooking up three sumptuous meals every day. From steaming pongal to fluffy idlis to spicy sambar-rice, the wide variety of items on offer at a fraction of their real cost have lakhs of below poverty line citizens queuing up to have their fill. Of all the ideas that Jayalalithaa has had in these past years to attract voters - be it doling out free mixers, grinders and fans; handing over cows, goats and even promising marriage assistance - these canteens may prove the biggest hit of all, going by the buzz they have created. But political analysts wonder for how long the state corporations that are providing rations for this scheme will be able to absorb the huge expenditure entailed.
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Mainstream Indian politics has always been a male monopoly. There are several reasons for this, including conservatism and the fact that men have always acted as gate-keepers in a traditional society like India's. Then there are two separate but overlapping phenomena - the criminalisation of Indian politics that has only got accentuated in recent years, and the huge sums of money required to contest elections today. Dr Zoya Hasan, the well-known political scientist and author, looks at the structural framework of Indian politics and comes up with an important multi-layered assessment on the eve of an important General Election, of why there are so few women in India's Parliament and state assemblies. Her analysis takes into consideration the impact of the national movement, legislation like the 73rd and 74th amendments reserving 33 per cent seats in local bodies for women, and the manner in which the Women's Reservation Bill - mandating quotas for women in state assemblies and Parliament - has been systematically stymied by male parliamentarians. She also finds it paradoxical that so few women make it to decision-making posts within political parties, despite the fact that many of them are headed by women.
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