One of the never-ending socio-political debates in India relates to the proposed legislation providing 33 percent reservation to women in both the Lok Sabha and state assemblies. The assumption, to put it simply, is that more women in politics would mean more women-friendly policies and a more conducive environment and structure for women’s empowerment. However, political parties have failed to evolve a consensus on the configuration of the proposed legislation and its nuances, resulting in the bill hanging fire for many years.
The question, however, is whether a definite reservation for women in Parliament would mean anything for the bulk of women politicians as well as for women as a community in general. And for this, it is pertinent to look at the current structure of Indian politics, the women in power and what their status has meant for gender equations in the polity and within their respective parties.
On a quick cursory glance, some of the most powerful political names would be those of women—Congress president Sonia Gandhi, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit and senior BJP leader (also leader of the opposition in Lok Saha) Sushma Swaraj, to name a few. Of these, the first four are not merely popular and veteran politicians but also immensely powerful given they lead their respective political outfits, are crucial national players and have redefined some aspect of the country’s politics. However, has their presence and power meant anything for gender politics or empowerment in the country?
The first point is about gender being an aspect of ‘identity politics’ in India. Have these women politicians ever looked at, or been allowed to look at, gender as their political ‘identity’? With a rapidly expanding polity and a fragmented political structure, identity today has become a more fundamental element of politics than ever before. Sonia Gandhi’s identity as a ‘Nehru-Gandhi’ brought her into politics and till date, remains her greatest identity card. Mayawati built her entire political campaign around caste-based identity and brought in an unprecedented sense of power, dignity and political clout for Dalits in Uttar Pradesh. Mamata Banerjee based her political crusade on an anti-Left platform and promised to bring in the much-needed change in West Bengal. Jayalalithaa, meanwhile, is nothing less than a legend in Tamil Nadu and the power and sway she holds is mind boggling.
But none of these women, in their power struggles and post their accession to power, have ever played around with gender and identity. They do not go to the electorate using gender as their identity to rally support from other women, unlike Mayawati does using her Dalit identity and Sonia Gandhi by flaunting her family name. They also rarely promote women empowerment as their primary or key socio-political agenda after gaining power. While Sonia Gandhi pushes for the 33 percent women reservation bill and Jayalalithaa did introduce the ‘Cradle Baby Scheme’ for the girl child in the early 1990s, none have brought in any sweeping gender-related reforms or policies.
Jayalalithaa and Banerjee’s political agendas have centered on being vehemently anti their respective state opponents, Mayawati has focused exclusively on Dalit empowerment and Gandhi has given Congress a very ‘pro poor’ and reformist focal point with marquee legislations like the Employment Guarantee Act, the Right to Information Act, the proposed food security bill and various other health and educational schemes. Gender, however, has never been an overt agenda, though Gandhi did manage to bring in a woman president and a woman speaker during her government’s tenure.
Two, within their respective parties and despite the clout they possess, these women politicians seem to have done precious little to promote other women and increase their proportions in the top echelons of power. Consider this, the current Lok Sabha has only 59 women MPs, i.e. 11 percent of the total strength. However, the political parties headed by these four women together have 254 MPs in the lower house, which comes to almost half the strength. They had numbers in the Parliament to bring about significant changes in women’s representation, with or without the legislation.
Even among these women MPs, most come from privileged backgrounds which shows how political empowerment may have failed to reach the truly disempowered. Of the 59 women, nearly 70 percent have assets of over Rs. One crore and 41 of them are well educated holding graduate and above degrees.
Further, within their parties, very few women have been nurtured, encouraged or promoted to the highest echelons of power; and while some may have close aides who are women, the ones who actually hold power and determine changes are men.
The tragedy of gender politics in India or in fact most of South Asia, however, is not that these powerful women have failed to or have been reluctant to do much for women’s social and political empowerment, but that our societal and electoral structure is such that even such influential women leaders are unable to challenge and break the patriarchal order. The reason these women use forms of identity other than gender is because it is electorally risky to make gender an issue and subvert other more ‘electorally lucrative’ identities like caste, family names or lineage.
Our society, and hence, electorate is such that women—particularly in rural areas—will rarely challenge male decisions in their households and vote for a woman because she is a woman and men are still not secure enough to allow a woman to rule them because she is a woman. So a common man will vote for Mayawati because she is a Dalit, for Gandhi because of her legacy or her pro-rural stance, for Sheila Dixit because of her development image and for Mamata Banerjee because they want ‘freedom’ from Left rule, but will perhaps withdraw their support if these women shed their other identities and agendas and assert their gender identity. This is, thus, not a top down problem as much as it is a bottom-up weakness.
Similarly, within their respective parties, the men are happy and submissive as long as they are powerful and reap enough benefits from the multiple identities of their women leaders, but may dissent if gender is made a key point for intra-party considerations.
Have we ever wondered why women politicians are labeled and branded so easily, almost with a patriarchal and condescending tinge? So Sonia Gandhi is ‘shrewd’ and is called ‘Madam’, Mamata Banerjee is ‘didi’ and is branded as being ‘mercurial’, Mayawati is ‘behenji’ and is a ‘megalomaniac’, much like Jayalalithaa who becomes ‘Amma’. Rarely would you see male politicians being given such generalized traits and nomenclatures.
The problem lies in the larger societal psyche and set-up and despite having touched the peaks of power, the ability of these women to bring about any substantial transformation is seriously curtailed. Will allowing for 33 percent reservation in Parliament be able to bring any significant change to the existing dynamic is anybody’s guess. The legislation providing 50 percent reservation for women in Panchayats has slowly and in a limited way, but definitely helped bring about some level of empowerment and emancipation at the grassroots. However, for this to translate into something meaningful and revolutionary nationally, much more than just a legislation will need to be ushered in.