More women voters in Bastar, but meagre representation

The ruling Congress and the main Opposition BJP have fielded only one candidate each out of the 12 Assembly constituencies in Bastar  

Published - October 27, 2023 10:16 pm IST - JAGDALPUR:

Women, waiting in a queue for their turn to vote, outside a polling booth in Chhattisgarh. File

Women, waiting in a queue for their turn to vote, outside a polling booth in Chhattisgarh. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

In Chhattisgarh’s Bastar, a region said to be holding the key to power in the poll-bound State, the number of registered women voters at 10.4 lakh outnumber the 9.97 lakh men eligible to vote. Yet, between them the two major political parties, the ruling Congress and the main Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, have fielded only one candidate each out of the 12 Assembly constituencies in Bastar.  

The Congress’ Savitri Mandavi who is contesting from Bhanupratapur in Kanker and the BJP’s Lata Usendi from Kondagaon are two of the women candidates out of a possible 24. All except one of these seats are reserved for tribals and will go to polls on November 7, when voting for the first phase of the two-phase Assembly elections will be held. 

Ms. Usendi — a national vice-president of the BJP apart from being a former three-time MLA and a former Minister in the State — is not convinced that women are not given adequate representation in her party and points out that the relative socio-political status of women is better in Bastar and tribal societies in general. 

“The issue of candidates is a different one, but there are no problems whatsoever as far as developing women leadership in the State is concerned. We have women in zila panchayats and janpad panchayats. Even at an organisational level, we have many women holding key posts in Bastar. In the tribal societies, women get equal rights and perform a key role in running families as well within the community set up,” Ms. Usendi, who is in the fray for the fifth time, adds. 

Congress’s State media in-charge Sushil Anand Shukla also agrees that participation of women in the social structure is significant, but acknowledges that it needs to be reflected in electoral politics as well. “It was our endeavour to field more and more women but winnability is also a factor. Overall, in the State, 20% of our candidates are women,” he says. 

However, there are other factors that make the issue of representation, or lack thereof, for Bastar women an anomaly and pose a question if it is apathy at the grassroots that is preventing women from rising up in the hierarchy. 

Many initiatives

First, since undivided Madhya Pradesh days and the years thereafter, a series of initiatives have been taken to empower women socially and politically in the Chhattisgarh, key among them is a 50% reservation for them in local bodies introduced in 2008, raising it from the 33% since 1991. 

Second, the run-up to the elections saw a vigorous debate on the representation of women in elected legislatures with the Parliament passing the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam that seeks to reserve 33% seats for women in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies. 

Third, in the poll-bound State, the outgoing Assembly had the distinction of having the maximum share of women legislators (16 out of 90 or 17.7%) anywhere in the country (Ms. Mandavi and two others were elected in by-elections later). In 2023, both parties have fielded more women candidates than they had the last time, with the Congress taking up the number from 14 (pre-by election that is) to 18 and the BJP from 13 to 14. 

However, in Bastar that number of one each remains unchanged from five years ago. And even the political careers of even the two women candidates from the two parties is rooted in family legacy. 

Till last year, Ms. Savitri Mandavi was a school teacher whose husband Manoj Singh Mandavi, the then sitting MLA of Bhanupratapur passed away in November 2022 and she was fielded by the party from the same seat in the by-elections necessitated thereafter. Following her successful debut in that by-election, the Congress has reposed its faith in Ms. Mandavi for the 2023 elections as well. 

Ms. Usendi’s father, too, had contested from the same seat in the past and one of the criticism the BJP faced from party workers and other claimants for the party ticket was allegations of continuously favouring the members of the Usendi family in selections.  

In 2018, all 12 elected MLAs in the region were men. However, in the by-election that followed after Dantewada BJP MLA Bhima Mandavi was killed by Maoists in 2019, Bhima Mandavi’s wife Ojaswi contested on a BJP ticket. 

The Congress fielded Devti Karma, the wife of Mahendra Karma, against her. Mahendra Karma, like Bhima Mandavi, too, was slain by Maoists in 2013.

This time, however, Ms. Karma was dropped in favour of her son while Ms. Ojaswi Mandavi was denied the ticket despite applying for the same. 

“I do not know why was I dropped. I was never given a reason. The impression I had was that I had a good chance of winning. I may have entered the politics after the death of my husband but I worked actively. But as it turned out the surveys said otherwise,” she says. 

Booth-level workers from both parties in Jagdalpur toe the official lines in giving credit to their party’s respective government tenures as doing more for the women. Privately, they acknowledge there are not enough women claimants for tickets. 

For the State elections, says Lata Markam, a BJP corporator in the Dantewada municipal corporation who is also associated with a women’s self-help group (SHG), security, liquor prohibition and the Bhupesh government’s inability to “deliver on the promise of a loan waiver for SHGs” are key issues for women in the Bastar region. 

Manikuntala Bose — the chief editor of Dandakaranya Samachar, a Dantewada-based daily run by her family for the past 65 years — says that despite all the claims of better representation of women at a social level, in seldom reflects in elected bodies and even when women get elected, men run the show like elsewhere in India. However, she is hopeful that the scenario might change and attributes this to a rise in the educational profile of Dantewada and the entire Bastar region. 

“Many government schools and colleges have come up in recent years and girls are enrolling in those in large numbers. In some of them residential facilities are available while in some others, the medium of education is English. So, by the next elections, this rising level of awareness may reflect in the legislative arena too. There is hope,” says the veteran journalist whose career spans 50 years.  

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