Given the increasing participation of women in self-government, why are they so miserably under-represented in assemblies, Parliament and upper echelons of political parties? And even among those who are in senior positions, why is the vast majority of them there because of family connections and male patronage, not grassroot political work?
At first glance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet boasts a splendid array of women: Sushma Swaraj, Uma Bharti, Najma Heptullah, Smriti Irani, Harsimrat Kaur Badal, Maneka Gandhi. Six of the 26 Union ministers are women, so that’s almost 25 per cent representation. Now, why is that not good news (other than the fact that it isn’t 50 per cent)?
A closer look brings the identities of these ministers into sharper focus. Of the five BJP ministers (Badal is with the Akali Dal, a BJP ally), four were inducted into the BJP from outside. Bharti is the sole exception, but as a sadhvi, she falls into a special category. Two of the six—Badal and Gandhi—owe their political careers to family. None of the women fit the profile of a self-made leader, a grassroots political worker who has risen through the ranks of the party organization without the benefit of male patronage.
If we consider the Council of Ministers as a whole, the percentage of women members dips sharply; only one of 12 Ministers of State with independent charge, and one of 26 Ministers of State, is a woman. Both follow the pattern of their Cabinet colleagues; Commerce Minister Nirmala Seetharaman is an inductee, while Food Processing Minister Niranjan Jyoti is a sadhvi. It must be pointed out that the BJP’s lone woman Chief Minister, Vasundhara Raje, is a product of dynasty.
The BJP’s women MPs, similarly, for the most part, gain easy access to party tickets through family, or are inductees, like Kiron Kher (from showbiz), Rama Devi (from the RJD) and Bijoya Chakravarty (from the AGP). Young Heena Gavit inherits Nandurbar from her father, who has represented the constituency four times, while Meenakshi Lekhi’s father-in-law was one of the founding members of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Perhaps the only significant self-made woman leader thrown up by the Right is Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan. “Tai”, as she is popularly known, was a social worker in Indore; in 1982, she parleyed her popularity into a municipal coporator’s seat. Two years later, she became Deputy Mayor and five years after that, an MP. She won by a thumping margin to secure the Indore Lok Sabha seat. Some of the younger women MPs have followed her example and taken the hard way up, but they are all too few.
So it’s clear that there is a disconnect between political mobilization of women at the ground level through the RSS affiliates, and their participation in electoral politics. The Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Sewa Bharti, etc have not thrown up women politicians of note—that is, those who occupy leadership/ decision-making roles—barring a few notable exceptions. As Tanika Sarkar, in The Gender Predicament of the Hindu Right, observed: “The sangh parivar...proudly forefronts elected women members in the higher legislative and executive bodies...(but) the women thus exalted do not come from women’s organizations, nor do they have prominent bases among the women of their own political clusters.”
Is this true only of the political right, or is it common to all parties? Lalita Kumaramangalam, chairperson of the National Commission for Women, feels it is true for all parties; politics is and always has been, a male-dominated profession. “The BJP, having implemented 33 per cent reservation for women in organizational posts, is actually better off. The impact of quotas in party posts is now being felt. In the last few years, there have been more women coming up from the grassroots.” It may be recalled that in two successive amendments to its constitution, in 2007 and 2010, the BJP reserved 33 per cent of all cadre posts for women.
The Indian National Congress, which has often declared its commitment to a 33 per cent quota for women in party posts but done precious little, has boasted a woman President, Prime Minister and party president. This is hardly cause for celebration; both Indira Gandhi and her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, were products of dynasty while Pratibha Patil , former President of our republic, was clearly a nominee who fulfilled only two criteria: gender and loyalty to the Congress first family.
The Left’s track record in accommodating women is even worse than that of the Right. For instance, the CPI(M) did not have a woman in its politburo until 2005—and then, it opted for Brinda Karat, wife of party General Secretary Prakash Karat. Former Speaker Somnath Chatterjee opposed a quota for women in the party, while supporting one in Parliament.
Dr J.K. Bajaj, of the Centre for Policy Studies, who analyzed the 15th Lok Sabha, said: “I found that most of the women members came from political families. Very few came on their own.” He feels that a quota for women in legislatures will not help, because it will be cornered by wives or daughters of incumbent politicians.
As for the 15 women Chief Ministers in India since Independence, most were products of some form of male patronage. Rabri Devi, who served three terms, was clearly a substitute for her husband, RJD chief Laloo Yadav. Janaki Ramachandran, wife of MGR, barely spent three weeks in office before being supplanted by his protegee, J. Jayalalithaa, who has since served five terms. Mayawati, with four terms under her belt, was a protegee of Kanshi Ram. Sheila Dikshit and Vasundhara Raje are both products of family. Gujarat’s Anandiben Patel is clearly a nominee of her predecessor.
Naturally, there are exceptions to every rule, in this case Punjab’s Rajinder Kaur Bhattal and Assam’s Syeda Anwara Taimur, both of whom served truncated terms (perhaps male MLAs were unhappy with the Congress High Command’s choice of women CMs!).
The only one who stands out as a true grassroots leader, capable of building up a political party and sweeping to power on her own steam, is West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Marginalized in the partriarchal Congress and unwilling to play second fiddle to dynasty, she chose to strike out on her own. Her spectacular success is a beacon for women political activists the world over.
This is not to argue that male patronage alone ensures political success. Mayawati may have inherited Kanshi Ram’s legacy, just as Jayalalithaa was heir to MGR, but both have earned their spurs and enjoy grassroots support as individual leaders rather than party nominees. Likewise, Vasundhara Raje has proved herself a capable Chief Minister; she could not have survived politically otherwise. Anandiben was in no way unqualified for the post of Chief Minister, with a track record in social activism and government. Uma Bharti is a charismatic mass leader, Sushma Swaraj is a competent minister and Maneka Gandhi has twice won a Lok Sabha seat as an independent candidate (seven terms in all).
But the fact remains that these competent, brilliant women needed either lineage or a godfather to gain access to the patriarchal political set-up. Almost seven decades after Independence and over a century after women first entered the public sphere, through social reform movements aimed at ending sati and child marriage, women still feel the need to ride piggyback on their families, or party leaders.
Why has it taken so long for women to achieve even a 12 per cent representation in Parliament? Gandhi mobilized women during the freedom struggle, bringing them out of their homes and into the streets. Yet, in state assemblies, representation of women stands at 9 per cent! Small wonder, India is 111th out of 189 countries in terms of representation in Parliaments, according to a survey by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).
Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal with 20, 19 and 30 per cent women members are better off, but as former diplomat Veena Sikri pointed out, that has largely to do with nomination/election of women to reserved seats. “Female representation in the Lok Sabha is...lower than the ‘critical mass’ required to introduce gender parity in political decision-making and legislation,” wrote Praveen Rai of CSDS (Centre for Study of Developing Societies) in a paper on electoral participation of women.
Political analyst and BJP Vice-President Vinay Sahasrabudhhe speculates that a true feminist movement evolved slowly in India as compared to the West, where women mobilized politically to demand suffrage as early as the 19th century—in fact, Olympes de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female Citizens in the 18th century (and was executed for her pains). But women in India received the right to vote at the very outset.
Political scientist Zoya Hasan explains the glacial pace of women in politics in a 2012 article: “Women more or less went into retreat after Independence, in part because of the nationalist ideology and in part because the Congress Party, in the first two decades, focused on the role of the State, believing that State intervention would bring about social change and contribute to the overall improvement of all vulnerable and disadvantaged groups within the country, including women.”
Left historians tend to see “Hindu nationalism” as inimical to women’s participation in politics. In the RSS worldview, they point out, the woman is celebrated as wife and mother of warriors rather than a warrior herself. There’s little doubt that the political right is fundamentally patriarchal; in the RSS family, institutionalized exclusion of women gives them limited say in decision-making. Rashmi Das, a former ABVP activist and JNU students’ union office-bearer, admits that upward mobility in the party requires patronage, regardless of merit. Those unwilling to seek it cannot aspire to leadership roles.
While it is true that the BJP took the lead in reserving party posts for women and is the only party to boast a training module on gender parity, quotas have been applied in a lopsided manner. Appointing women to the National Executive of the party does not give them any say in decision-making. That power lies with the general secretaries and to a lesser extent, with the vice-presidents. Only one of eight general secretaries and one of 10 vice-presidents, is a woman.
In terms of political mobilization of women, the Great Leap Forward was undoubtedly the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments of 1993, which gave them a 33 per cent reservation in local self-government. Women, whose identities had thus far been shaped by caste and family before gender, suddenly had access to power. “India has the world’s largest number of elected women representatives in local government: 1.2 million,” Karen O’ Connor points out in Gender and Women’s Leadership.
Initially, the women representatives were the wives of outgoing male members who lost their seats to reservation. As Sahasrabudhhe observes, “Reservation for women (in panchayats) created a sudden vacuum in the bottle...it sucked in whatever was available in the immediate political environment, that is, the wives, sisters and daughters of established political players”. But over the next couple of decades, there was a qualitative change, says O’Connor: “The percentage of such members is on the decline and thousands of women are emerging as dynamic leaders in their own right.”
These quotas, she adds, have brought about a phenomenal change in Indian society: “The impact on the average indian woman is greater than the impact of having a woman Prime Minister.” And that raises the question of why, even when they occupy positions of power, women leaders do not impact the lives of ordinary women significantly. Far less, in any event, than sarpanches like Chhavi Rajawat of Rajasthan or Neelam of Haryana.
“The need to field women candidates is obvious, given a steadily growing women’s constituency...The interesting thing is the careful insulation of such candidates from women’s issues and organizations,” writes Sarkar, in the context of the Right. But this is true across the political spectrum, where “parachute” candidates are preferred to grassroots workers. Naturally, the top-down approach ensures that women electees are disconnected from the core concerns of their constituents. Even their performance and participation in legislative debates is below par.
Acknowledging the success of quotas in empowering women, NDA governments in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan increased panchayat reservation from 33 per cent to 50 per cent. So, given the increasing participation of women in self-government, why are they so miserably under-represented in assemblies, Parliament and upper echelons of political parties? Particularly when so many parties are headed by women?
Kumaramangalam puts it succintly: “We need reservation.” The Women’s Reservation Bill, providing 33 per cent quotas for women in legislative bodies, is now two decades old. The Upper House cleared it in 2010 and there the matter stands. Sahasrabudhhe agrees that the Bill is desirable but adds that to be truly effective, quotas must be accompanied by a change in the patriarchal mindset. Men are simply not prepared to share power with women, he feels.
So, while women voters participate enthusiastically in every election and a distinct women’s constituency has taken shape—to the advantage of both Narendra Modi and Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, in 2014 and 2015 respectively—they continue to be excluded from the higher echelons of the power structure.