Increasingly in elections in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and elsewhere, we hear a great deal of commentary on the importance of the “women’s vote”. But if there is any blind spot in commentary during the jamboree of elections, it is the way women experience and influence elections. And, of course, women are not casteless, classless masses. So ours is equally an ignorance of the way backward-caste, working-class and rural women seek to influence elections. We caught a glimpse of this when Nitish Kumar imposed total prohibition in Bihar after being elected. By his own admission, he made up his mind to implement this decision in April after attending the gatherings of Jeevika, a women’s self-help group spread across the state, and hearing the personal testimonials of a few of its 100,000 members.
On 4 February, the process to elect five new state assemblies began, with Punjab and Goa going to the polls. The Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections, starting today, will take place over seven phases, with the final phase on 8 March. So how can we find out how women, particularly marginalized women, in UP are experiencing and influencing the elections?
A good resource to tap into is the website of Khabar Lahariya, a rural digital news organization. There, videos abound on all kinds of issues, from the unavailability of water to Facebook alerts for the ongoing elections. A separate tab created for the elections takes off from a recent Bollywood blockbuster—it’s called “Chunavi Dangal 2017” (electoral combat). The stories are written by women journalists from marginalized sections of UP, and have a flavour that is at once humorous and tongue-in-cheek, with a flair rarely seen in English national dailies.
Take, for instance, the profile of Bazmi Siddiqui, a cycle-store owner and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP’s) candidate in Ayodhya, a town that is always in focus during elections in UP owing to the Ram Mandir issue.
The 6 February published article, offering fact and flavour in equal measure, states: “A bicycle is never just a bicycle in UP. We met recently a businessman peddling cycles who hasn’t been able to resist the magnetic lure of rajneeti. It’s a lucrative sport after all. And if you ace it, it’s the only sport in the world where you get to make up your own rules as you go along. Sign all kinds of executive orders that take your fancy, if you please. So allow us to introduce you to Bazmi Siddiqui, in the business of bicycles in Faizabad. He’s not with the Samajwadi Party though—an outfit that recently fought tooth and nail for that very symbol—he’s a man of the Bahujan Samaj Party, has been for over a decade and counting, and has now been chosen as the BSP candidate from one of the most watched constituencies this election season, Ayodhya.”
Khabar Lahariya covered the candidature of Sampat Pal, the Congress candidate for the Manikpur seat in Bundelkhand, with some excitement. Pal is the founder of the Gulabi Gang, and if she wins, a big voice on domestic violence against women—among the biggest issues women face, particularly marginalized women who hesitate to access police and legal systems—will be heard in the UP assembly.
Another good resource to know what’s on women voters’ minds is Gender, Media and Election Watch, a blog managed by members of the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI). It also offers insight into how political candidates view women’s issues and the female electorate. Here, one comes to hear of news that doesn’t often hit the headlines. An 8 February post, for instance, talks about the Girls’ Charter of Demands for the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation polls on 21 February. The charter lays out a vision for a girl-friendly city, and lists a number of demands under the “Right to safe and free mobility and freedom from violence”, “Functioning anti-sexual harassment cells in schools”, “Right to safe spaces to learn and grow” and “Right to hygiene, health and well-being”.
These sites serve to remind us of the voices that are usually drowned out during election time. The Sex Talk is a monthly column on gender, sexuality and blind spots.