Urban women can be a powerful constituency

Urban women can be a powerful constituency
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First Published: Tue, Feb 03 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Updated: Tue, Feb 03 2009. 11 13 AM IST
The pub culture debate with new votaries jumping into the fray with each passing day—health minister Anbumani Ramadoss being the latest—refuses to die down. So, here’s my take for what it’s worth.
First, my first reaction to outfits such as Shri Ram Sene and people such as Pramod Muthalik is to dismiss them as a bunch of right-wing crazies. There’s no shortage of this breed that sees itself as the custodian of Indian culture—at least its vision of what that culture should be. You cannot engage this creature in any sort of meaningful debate in civil society. And to give it any sort of publicity is to play into its hands.
Yet, the Mangalore pub assault on women deserves exemplary punishment. In another few days, we’ll be dealing with Valentine’s Day hoodlums who will vandalize card shops and terrorize young boys and girls. This is why I am worried that the Ram Sene thugs are already out on bail. I hope it doesn’t send out wrong signals to other goons of this persuasion.
Second comes pub culture itself. What is this alien beast? And if it exists in Indian urban society, then isn’t it already part of our culture, whether we like it or not? Is Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot suggesting that we close down malls that have sprouted in our cities and towns? And even if we do, won’t boys and girls continue to hold hands in movie halls, cafes and parks? Should we shut them down, too?
Third, prohibition is a political hot potato. But there is also a class divide here. At one end is the constituency of mainly women that welcomes prohibition in order to mitigate the damage to their husbands’ health and household finances. This constituency is so powerful that the Telugu Desam Party swept an election in Andhra Pradesh in 1994 by promising prohibition (and subsidized rice). But making things illegal seldom makes them disappear as anyone who has ever visited Gujarat will tell you. Illegal hooch shops thrive, causing loss to life and health.
At the other end is the pub culture now thriving in urban areas. The fact that women—many of them economically independent, mobile, free-to-exercise personal choice—also visit them does not violate any law of this country. But these urban, elite women do not form a political constituency. In fact, their detractors, those who believe that they should remain in the kitchen, seem to have a fair amount of political patronage.
I am dismayed that none of our male political leaders chose to stand up and speak up against the Mangalore attack other than the usual sound bites of “cannot take the law in their own hands”. Ironically, two chief ministers (B.S. Yeddyurappa and Gehlot) and one Union minister (Ramadoss) have been rather alarmingly echoing each other despite the fact that they belong to different parties and ideologies.
To give Ramadoss a few grace marks: He has touched on health and claims that a large number of road accidents are caused by drunken driving, but then he fails to establish whether these drivers became drunk at pubs, their homes or even in their vehicles.
Regardless of the differences you find in each man’s argument, they are saying the same thing. Worse, not a single politician except for Brinda Karat, Renuka Chowdhury and Sheila Dikshit—all women—has thought it fit to contradict them. And that brings me to my fourth point. Underlying this whole sorry Mangalore episode and the statements that have emanated from it, there is a strong stink of patriarchy that has managed the seemingly impossible: to unite disparate politicians.
Politicians and sociologists talk about the youth demographic as a powerful constituency being assiduously wooed by various political parties. Congress party general secretary Rahul Gandhi reportedly plans to earmark 30% of his party’s tickets to young people, and in Jammu and Kashmir a generational shift is seen as a sign of hope. Even the octogenarian L.K. Advani, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s putative prime minister, recently launched his own blog, apparently in a bid to reach out to young, net-savvy voters.
If the youth of this country can become a powerful constituency, why not urban women? Have we failed to register our significance to the electoral process? I’m not talking about seat reservation or a women’s quota in Parliament. I’m talking about having leaders who will stand up for us and protect our interests.
In the US, Hillary Clinton was able to reach where she did partly because of a strong women lobby determined to put one of their own in the White House. In India, Indira Gandhi evoked strong sentiment among women voters who banked their own aspirations on her. But I’m not sure if a Mayawati or a J. Jayalalithaa or even a Mamata Banerjee cuts any appeal among urban women voters. This constituency is up for grabs primarily because no politician believes it is important enough to cater to.
My vote is undecided, as yet. But I’m ready to cast it for anyone who will step forward and say: I care about women. I care about your issues. Someone? Anyone?
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to lookingglass@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Feb 03 2009. 01 15 AM IST