Why are more leaders talking about “empowering women” and offering them a wide range of enticements in these elections? The writer looks at the emerging power of the women’s vote.
There is a mocking bird at the heart of Indian parliamentary democracy but its teasing call is lost amid the high-voltage electoral rhetoric with its distinct masculinist overtones. Asks the mockingbird: How gender equal is a polity where articulations of women’s concerns are framed in the most misogynist and cynical ways? How democratic is a system that witnesses a rise in the number of voting women, even as the presence of female candidates declines?
As Election 2014 unspools, phase by phase, many of the scenarios it throws up recall Elections Past. Here again we have the same unequal distribution of seats to women; the same disgustingly sexualised treatment accorded by election crowds and party functionaries to women candidates; the same disproportionately large number of women making it to the candidates’ list because of their supposed “glamour quotient”; the same blasé fielding of male candidates with serious charges of crime, including that of rape.
The one important difference in 2014 is that for the first time in India’s electoral history — possibly because of the electric charge of popular outrage following the Delhi gang rape — women have become a major subject of electionspeak. But why is it that a development we have long waited for, and which should have enthused us, tastes like ashes?
There is opportunism in the manner the thread of violence has been teased out and spun. The amazing variations expressed on the theme of rape provide a clue to why India remains one of the most women-hostile societies. Perhaps we should thank Mulayam Singh Yadav for revealing the truth behind the impunity with which rapists have been allowed a free rein and which would explain the appallingly low level of convictions. His ‘boys will be boys’ theory has become the common sense of the times, internalised by every section of the criminal justice system from policemen to administrators to judges.
Those serious about addressing violence against women perceive it against a backdrop of structured inequalities. While they recognise that “women” as a category is not homogenous, they also see the commonalities that bind them. These include missed educational opportunities, seriously declining employment possibilities, oppressive family structures, economic growth patterns that reinforce hierarchies, urban development that create gender unequal public spaces, declining sex ratios and lack of voice and political representation. None of this has got much traction in current election debates. Instead we have patriarchal promises of ‘protection’, pledges to dilute inconvenient laws and exhortations to avenge those who attack “our women”. The same Mulayam Singh Yadav, who professes extraordinary sympathy for gang rapists, fought against the Women’s Reservation Bill doggedly over the years. Narendra Modi has no qualms in projecting himself as a great champion of women despite presiding over a state with a steadily declining sex ratio and a steadily increasing number of rapes; and whose party does not support the decriminalisation of Section 377 which is essentially about sexual autonomy.
But why is Modi, once content to peddle lines like ‘hum paanch, hamare pachees’, now urging us to “empower women”. Rahul Gandhi, on his part, is keen that women get 12 cylinders of cooking gas a year. Why should cooking gas be seen as a bonanza for women rather than the entire family? Stances of this kind testify to the emerging power of the women’s vote. Once perceived as an undifferentiated mass of sari-draped/burqa-clad appendixes of the significant other, women are now being increasingly courted as a distinct constituency and offered a wide range of enticements, including ‘free’ mehendi sessions!
Several reasons could be cited for this unprecedented acknowledgement of presence but I will confine myself to two. The first is that while the male voting segment has remained more or less stable, and despite a significant under-enumeration of female voters, there is evidence to suggest that the number of women among today’s voters is rising.
This is a trend confirmed by eyewitness accounts. Media persons who covered the 2012 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections recounted the carnivalesque mood among women voters who dressed up for their tryst with the pinging machine as if they were going to a local mela.
What this indicates, possibly, is the demystification of the election process once seen as a male preserve that could only be negotiated under male guidance. One need only recall the emotional appeal of a Sarojini Naidu nearly 100 years ago to understand how many layers of patriarchal control had to be unpeeled to arrive at the present moment. Speaking at the special session of the Congress in 1918, Naidu had pleaded: “We ask for the vote not that we might interfere with you in your official functions, your civic duties, your public place and power, but rather that we might lay the foundation of national character in the souls of the children we hold upon our laps, and instill into them the ideals of national life.”
Rising literacy, the burgeoning of media presence and 20 years of panchayati raj — resulting in 2.5 lakh institutions of local government and 1.30 million women grassroots representatives — may have “let in daylight upon magic”. Today, women are participating in electoral democracy, not just by the mere act of voting but by attending election meetings, participating in rallies, distributing party materials and door-to-door canvassing. Praveen Rai, using data compiled by the Centre of the Study of Developing Societies, estimated that such involvement increased from 13 per cent to 20 per cent from the 1999 to the 2004 general elections.
Political parties, while they encouraged such involvement and benefited from it, drew the line when it came to fielding women. Sarojini Naidu’s timorous assurances never to challenge male authority have proved prophetic with party establishments ruling that a woman’s place is in the polling booth, not on the podium. The number of female candidates in proportion to the total number actually came down over the last three elections.
But the picture is not entirely monochromatic. When women members of the Aam Aadmi Party came out firmly against party leaders’ nebulous stand on khap panchayats; when women’s groups recently petitioned that parties field at least 33 per cent women candidates in winnable seats; when a ‘womenifesto’ with a six-point agenda for change emerges; when songs burst out urging women to raise questions during these elections, they spell a new-sprung recognition of the unjustifiable asymmetries of power and the will to resist a masculinist, money-fuelled and criminalised electoral order.
The writer is editor-in-chief, Women’s Feature Service.
A study of the “sex ratio” of Indian voters by commentators Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi published in the Economic and Political Weekly found that the number of female voters for every 1,000 male voters rose from 715 in 1960s to 883 in 2000s, even while the male voting participation remained the same.
Citing data from 20 State Assembly elections from 2010 onwards, the Election Commission found that women voters outnumbered men in 16. The gap between male and female voters has been narrowing since 1962 but the most dramatic evidence of such tapering occurred between 2004 and 2009.
In the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections, 60.29 per cent of women voters came to the polling booths, while the corresponding figure for men was 58.82 per cent.
Similar scenes are being enacted in General Election 2014 too.
The 13th Lok Sabha elections, in 1999, saw 284 women in the contest out of a total of 4,648 candidates.
In 2004, during the 14th Lok Sabha polls, there were 355 women contestants out of 5,435 candidates.
In the 15th Lok Sabha elections of 2009, there were 556 women contestants out of a total of 8,070.
The early phases of this election do not suggest any major alteration of the pattern.