Last week’s state assembly election results have been welcomed as a vote for democracy. Absolutely. It has, once again, demonstrated voter power and, most importantly, further expanded our political lexicon: the likes of Didi and Amma are now rapidly becoming a permanent part of our political vocabulary; that they happened together makes the point about the growing importance of gender in Indian polity that much more emphatically.
Also Read | Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns
Growing up I was obviously aware of Indira Gandhi (given her long tenure at the helm that coincided with my formative years as a child, I naively, till the emergency shattered the dream, came to believe that only she could be the prime minister) and Nandini Satpathy, the chief minister of Orissa. But they were exceptions that proved the unfortunate rule: the hustle and bustle of India’s politics could only accommodate a man.
The message from the latest elections is that this cliche is history. For the first time, we have so many women chief ministers together. The two victors by outstanding margins, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal and J. Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, join incumbent chief ministers Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and Sheila Dikshit in Delhi—each with her own imprimatur. And then we have Sushma Swaraj, who is the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sonia Gandhi, who is the chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition, and Vasundhara Raje, the opposition leader in the Rajasthan assembly.
Yes, gender balance in politics in general is skewed towards men, but it is changing—and rapidly at that. What makes it compelling is the fact that this is happening despite the odds that are stacked against women in this country, not the least from the time they are born.
The first round of data released after Census 2011 reveals that our worst fears still hold true, though there are niggling signals of coming change. It showed that child sex ratio for the category of 0-6 years was up to 927 girls per 1,000 boys in the latest census, compared with 914 previous in 2001. Perusal of state-level data suggests that this trend of missing daughters is not confined to north India any longer; it is now a way of life in most parts of India.
Demographers attribute this to two reasons. One, the terrible practice of pre-natal sex selection (with the spread of technology, this has not only made it easier but also cheaper to administer). Second, there is relatively high mortality rate for female children. While the mortality rate for male children is 64 per 1,000, it is 73 for female children.
The overall male-female sex ratio has improved. It rose from 927 females per 1,000 men in 1991 to 940 in 2011. This is because women have, following international trends, begun to outlive men.
However, the positive is that the imbalance in literacy rates is narrowing. The 2011 census shows that while 82.14% of males are literate, it was 65.46% for females. The gap of 16.68 percentage points is the lowest in the last four decades. It was as much as 26.62 percentage points in the 1981 census.
Female representation in politics could change faster if the UPA will gather its nerve and bring in the women’s reservation Bill, which has already been approved by the Rajya Sabha. The matter was first considered 15 years ago, but has been stalled in Parliament following fierce resistance, which interestingly cuts across party lines. The last time there was a confrontation, it actually led to a bonding of female parliamentarians despite their otherwise deep political differences. Capital Calculus had argued previously on 15 March 2010 that it may be delayed, but can’t be put off. It was an idea whose time has come.
The proposal is to provide 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies; 50% reservation has already been made mandatory in panchayats (village-level governing bodies). The effects are already apparent. Once in place, the legislation will ensure that one-third of every assembly and the Lok Sabha will be made up of women members.
It would, as pointed out, then challenge status quo, because an entirely new set of stakeholders would represent the people. Whether that change is for good or bad, no one can hazard a guess. At the least we will be able to change the present, which is certainly not desirable.
It is clear then that there is a visible change at the top with so many women together breaking the glass ceiling in Indian politics. Going forward, gradual social and economic empowerment will only accelerate this trend. Like they say, anything well begun is half done.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
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