At a time when crimes and hostility against women are being plotted on a disquietingly rising graph, the special manifesto for women released by the Congress ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections is a landmark. That it comes on top of the party’s move to field 40% women candidates in these polls provides cautious hope.
A bold move
While cynics could dismiss this as Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, whose brainchild it is, clutching at the one electoral constituency she can claim in the absence of obvious religious or caste affiliations, what it could mean for women in politics as a whole cannot be underestimated. Given that the Women’s Reservation Bill remains firmly buried, Ms. Vadra’s decision to reserve 40% seats for women candidates is a bold one. The party has been criticised for not extending the move to other States but to make a tentative beginning in U.P. might not be a bad idea.
Interesting also is the direction of thought that is apparent in the manifesto. For instance, there is a promise to reserve 40% of 20 lakh new jobs for women, but it goes beyond Anganwadi and ASHA jobs to talk of training women as bus drivers, of reserving 50% ration shops to be run by women, 40% reservation in MGNREGA jobs, and of constructing mahila chaupals in villages where women can gather and organise. The manifesto also promises mandatory creches in government offices and waiving of fees for land registered in women’s names.
These are not new ideas but there is attention to detail from a woman’s point of view and to see this in a political manifesto is significant. In fact, explaining the need for such a manifesto, Ms. Vadra has spoken of the hyper-masculine and hyper-aggressive political discourse in vogue today and has called for countering it with hyper-femininity, with compassion, with constructive debate. Similarly, she has spoken of replacing the language of victimhood with that of agency — of women not asking for justice but shouldering political roles to seize justice.
One does not often hear this strongly feminist tenor in India’s populist political corridors, where women either receive a passing pat or have internalised the patriarchy. It’s a gap she seems to have identified. Aware of the disingenuity in the “free gas cylinder” and “ma-beti” model of women-friendly policies, she appears willing to go beyond such pigeonholing. Thus, even the manifesto promise of a scooter for college girls and a smartphone for girls in Class 12 comes with a nuanced qualification that this is not for safety or education alone, but because many families allow only boys these amenities. The scooter or phone, therefore, becomes as much about women’s personal freedoms.
Similarly, along with promises of 25% placements for women in the police and the suspension of personnel who don’t register complaints within 10 days, there is mention of a special commission to fight victim-shaming. One has little faith in commissions, but the acknowledgment of victim-shaming as a problem is quite remarkable in the misogynistic cesspool that is Indian politics today.
Raising the bar
The move, launched late and with little groundwork in the last five years, may not become a game-changer in U.P. But at the very least it will raise the bar.Across the world, and certainly in India, women are relegated to the margins of political life, despite the Mayawatis, Mamatas and Jayalalithaas who occasionally blaze across the firmament. Everyday realities don’t change, polls are not won or lost on women’s issues, chauvinism remains rampant. Even campaigns ostensibly meant to uphold women’s rights do the opposite. A 2019 poster in BJP-ruled Haryana for the Beti Bachao (save daughters) campaign featured a girl child making rotis and asked, ‘How will you eat rotis made by her if you don’t save her life?’ On a sweet box one recently saw online, ‘beti bachao’ was followed by ‘vansh bachao’ (save lineage). Women must be saved not because they are valuable individual entities but because they make rotis or bear progeny. In fact, so little have women mattered in Indian politics that they are expected to, and mostly do, vote along caste, community and family lines and only seldom for their own issues or beliefs.
The need for such a manifesto thus becomes immediately apparent — unless women participate in, and are considered during, political decision-making, their interests will not be taken into account. It is in this context that the document assumes importance. Regardless of how the Congress performs in the polls, the manifesto will have performed one vital role — that of recognising the electoral value of women and, in turn, helping women recognise it. Who knows, it might even one day result in women consolidating as a vote bank.