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Opinion: Why women need a new narrative in politics

When the 16th Lok Sabha elected 61 women in 2014, it was a record. Yet 61 out of 543—or 11.2%—of women MPs is abysmal by any standards

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Photo: Reuters
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Photo: Reuters

Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s surprise entry into the muscular, messy, mostly masculine world of Indian politics last week shines the spotlight on an important issue: women’s representation in Parliament.

One can only surmise that any political party that claims to be “building a new hope filled & compassionate India"—as Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted shortly after the appointment of his sister as party general secretary in eastern Uttar Pradesh—will ensure this dreamy vision is gender inclusive.

Their mother and former Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, said just last year in St Petersburg that “we must work to create a climate where women are given an equal share in the workplace and in public office".

For now, let’s leave aside the fact that while women do make an appearance on its manifesto and publicity committees, the Congress’ important-sounding core group committee for the 2019 election has nine members, all men.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), too, will need to move beyond its 2014 manifesto, which mostly focusses on paternalistic ideas such as saving and securing the safety of Indian girls and women. It’s time the discourse around women and elections moved from protection to power.

It’s easier to make the right noises than break decades of district-level, selection-committee patriarchy. Nobody is expecting a replay of Claire Underwood’s all-woman cabinet or even Ethiopia’s 50:50 division in top ministerial posts.

But as national political parties enter the final stretch of their five-yearly jostling to decide on the coveted list of candidates who will represent them in the 2019 general election—one that might just give us a female prime minister—it seems like the perfect time to start setting the house in order.

When the 16th Lok Sabha elected 61 women in 2014, it was a record. Yet 61 out of 543—or 11.2%—of women MPs is abysmal by any standards. Especially when contrasted with the fact that we make up 50% of the population or that the female voter turnout in that same general election jumped significantly to 65.30%, up from 55.82% in 2009.

These numbers have bothered Tara Krishnaswamy for a while now. In December, the Bengaluru-based employee of a software firm officially launched Shakti, a non-partisan women’s collective dedicated to getting more women elected as MLAs and MPs. Krishnaswamy began believing in the notion of a people’s movement when Citizens for Bengaluru, a group she founded in 2016, managed to stop the planned construction of a 6.7km-long elevated road that was to be known as the VIP steel flyover.

After watching the way women banded together in the #MeToo movement a few months ago, Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Shakti, says she realized the time was right for another kind of group.

“I think governance is really missing the diversity of viewpoints in every issue, whether it’s public transport, health or education. It’s ridiculous having a bunch of men making decisions on everything from surrogacy to the transgender Bill. It’s important that our lived experiences are brought into government," she says.

Shakti is inspired by Emily’s List, the go-to group for female politicians of the Democratic Party in the US. Emily’s List seeks to “put women into office who can make significant contributions to education, healthcare, voting rights, and economic equality". Shakti aims to work across party lines. Think of it as a citizen pressure group to give women more leadership opportunities.

So, last month, 500 volunteers from Shakti called 339 female MLAs to pose two simple questions: Should we have more women candidates in the coming general election? Would you talk to your party to ask them to give 50% of tickets to women candidates? Some 112 politicians answered their phones, 105 said yes to the questions, some of them got irritated that they were receiving multiple calls about the issue.

Former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje’s response was non-committal yet wistful: “No comment. Wishing Shakti a lot of luck to accomplish what you are trying."

“We got the sense that the MLAs feel their own parties are not doing justice to women," says Krishnaswamy. “One of them even suggested Shakti create a WhatsApp group and add all women MLAs to it so they could collaborate on how to increase women’s representation."

Women MPs’ efforts to clear the long-pending women’s reservation bill—which provides 33% reservation to women in Parliament and state legislatures—were forgotten when the Modi government pushed through a quota Bill, providing up to 10% reservation to economically weaker sections from general category, on the last day of the winter session of Parliament. Right now the Trinamool Congress is the only political party that walks the talk. Eleven of its 34 MPs—or 32%—are women.

Shakti has already started making representations to individual political parties to increase the number of women candidates to 50% in the coming election. On 12 February, the collective wants to invite political representatives from all major parties to tell them what they plan to do for women if elected and how many women they plan to field in the coming election. It will be interesting to see who responds seriously.

One 2018 study by the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research quoted by data journalism initiative IndiaSpend found that constituencies which elect women in state legislative assemblies are likely to witness more economic growth than those run by their male counterparts.

And for those who airily dismiss the demand for an equal share with “the only criteria is winnability", Krishnaswamy points to a report by public information portal which used Election Commission data. In 2014, the success rate was 9.4% for women candidates and 6.4% for men.

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