New Delhi: Who would have imagined that the roar of the angry crowds at India Gate in December 2012 would echo all the way to the general elections 18 months later? Who could have predicted the ferocity of raw emotion spilling over Rajpath right up to the grand vistas that lead up to Parliament House?
Looking back at that winter, it’s hard to say exactly what that raw emotion was all about. Justice, said the slogans, but underlying it was a young, restless India’s articulation against mismanagement of the economy and a lack of avenues for growth. Hang rapists, said the placards but there was equal anger against a non-responsive government struggling under the weight of scams. A defensive Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) locked down India Gate, making it out of bounds for the protesters. And slowly, as a commission was set up and promises of stricter laws made, the protest petered out.
What didn’t was the discourse on gender.
Somewhere a young journalist accused her editor of rape. Elsewhere, a young intern spoke about sexual harassment by a retired judge. Stories once relegated to measly column centimetres lost in the folds of the newspaper now stayed on front pages for days. Each charge renewed the debate, stirring ideas of empowerment, fanning old resentments, fuelling new desires.
Days before the first phase of polling began, a sessions court in Mumbai pronounced judgment on the first rape case to be tried under the new law. Death, ruled the judge for three repeat offenders who were finally arrested after a journalist was raped at Shakti Mills. It’s too early to see whether political parties will sniff out the opportunity to score brownie points against each other. Will the Congress use this to validate legislation that it brought under its watch? Will the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whip fear over deteriorating crime statistics?
The power of 49—the numeral itself is a rebuke—and what women want, run like a subterranean theme to this election (women make up 49% of the population of India). No party is prepared to take a stand against the new mood. “All parties have realized that there is need to address women as a section mostly for the fear of losing power,” says lawyer and BJP spokesperson Pinky Anand.
Yet what women want is not very different from what men want—better law and order, safer cities and towns, the right to go to school, a curb on inflation and price rise, job opportunities. An overwhelming 91% voters, across genders, want a government that will prioritize ending violence against women, finds a recent poll by Marketing and Development Research Associates and online petition site Avaaz.
A survey conducted by Daksh, a Bangalore-based not-for-profit society working to promote governance accountability through providing constituency level data, and the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) found that security and empowerment of women was tenth most important in a list of 30 election issues. The two top election issues, according to the survey, were improving employment opportunities and provision of better roads and drinking water.
Gender politics and the need for women’s security has “entered the imagination”, says Shiv Visvanathan, a professor at the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, Sonepat. “It has entered our vocabulary but it hasn’t entered our habits.”
Nowhere is the harsh terrain of patriarchy more in evidence than in the electoral landscape, dominated by men. Thumping the podium as he speaks, Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, peppers his speeches with metaphors of war: lions, honour and crown princes—not to mention 56-inch chests. The frequently unshaven Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is no less pugnacious as he addresses election rallies (with largely male audiences), sleeves rolled up even as he talks of social inclusion and women’s empowerment.
It takes an intrepid woman to enter such an environment. If she’s not backed by a powerful family—writer Patrick French estimates that 70% of all women members of Parliament (MPs) have family connections—then she’s fair game, open to verbal and physical assault as debutante candidates like Nagma (Congress, Meerut) and the more seasoned Hema Malini (BJP, Mathura) are discovering on the campaign trail. The Election Commission has had to step in to ask district authorities to ramp up security for them.
“Politics is about muscle and money power,” says Congress spokesperson Shobha Oza. “Women candidates have to be very strong because they are exposed to all sorts of problems.”
With just 11.4% representation in the 15th Lok Sabha, well below the global average of 21.8% and even the Asian average of 18.4%, women are conspicuously absent as participants in the political poll process. This is not likely to change.
Parties such as the Congress and the BJP say they are committed to the women’s reservation Bill, now pending in Parliament through successive governments for 18 years and passed by the Rajya Sabha in March 2010. In fact, the Congress manifesto of 2009 promised that elections to the 16th Lok Sabha would be fought on the basis of one-third reservation to women. Yet, women, including independents, are contesting just 7% of the seats going to polls, according to nominations analysed till 9 April by ADR. Ironically, the share of candidates with criminal charges, including such serious charges as attempt to murder and rape, is higher at 10%. At least 10 of the 156 candidates are charged with crimes against women.
The need for greater representation is underscored at a time when women voters are turning out in larger numbers than men to cast their ballot. Women outvoted men in each of the last five state assembly elections. While male voter participation has remained unchanged over time, the sex ratio of voters—the number of women voters to every 1,000 men voters—has increased from 715 in the 1960s to 883 in the 2000s, finds a recent Brookings India report.
Women are increasingly voting as independent citizens rather than as adjuncts to the male heads of their family, as traditionally believed. An NDTV poll found a significant divide between male and female voter preference. While more men said they preferred the BJP, the Congress had a 2% advantage with women.
Parties recognize these subtle shifts and don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of the empowerment debate—except perhaps Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, which has opposed the new anti-rape law. Yet, gender doesn’t seem to have moved much beyond the symbolic one paragraph in most manifestos of 2014.
The Congress highlights the UPA government’s legislative achievements including the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act (2013) and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013. It pledges to ensure women feel safe and protected by setting up one-stop crisis centres for women in hospitals, increasing the number of women employed in the police force and so on.
The Aam Aadmi Party, already facing flak from feminist groups for refusing to condemn former Delhi law minister Somnath Bharti’s midnight raid on Ugandan women and choosing to support khap panchayats, also talks of setting up crisis centres as well as fast-track courts.
A reduction in the gender gap in the judiciary and women’s security as a precondition to empowerment is the BJP’s pledge.
But women’s groups are unimpressed. They want empowerment more than protection and have come up with a six-point “womanifesto” of their own that includes public education programmes, legal and social rehabilitation of victims and dignified and remunerative employment of women.
“There isn’t a lot of patience left in the public,” says Karuna Nundy, a lawyer and one of the co-founders of the womanifesto. “Political parties have to step up and show they are worthy of their voters.”
The economic cost of gender inequality worldwide is under examination. At 478 million people, India is home to the world’s second largest workforce but women made up just 29% of this workforce in 2012, according to the World Bank. In the period when the Indian economy grew at its fastest, the proportion of working women declined the most, finds Pramit Bhattacharya in a story for Mint (bit.ly/1keYhAh ). India is now 10th from the bottom in a list of 214 nations ranked according to their female labour force participation rate, based on latest available data from National Sample Survey Office and World Bank.
How will the new government address this gap? Will it see empowerment as a separate silo or will it link it to economic growth? If it’s a BJP-led government—as predicted by opinion polls—how will it marry women’s rights with economic development and job creation? While its manifesto mentions the uniform civil code, will a new government actually take steps to implement it, and what impact might this have on the social fabric of the country?
“Political parties know they cannot afford to ignore what is happening in the country. But we shouldn’t forget that manifestos are one thing and political action in Parliament is another,” says Shail Mayaram, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
Every election brings with it a promise of change—change not just of governments and power coalitions, but a change that reflects the country’s newer aspirations and hopes. Across India it is evident that women want to be a part of the new India script. It is equally evident that India’s male-dominated political parties recognize this. Yet, this election will matter for women only when those they vote into power move beyond a mere nod to security and protection to ensure real empowerment and participation.
Eighteen months after a horrific crime shook the nation, there is a new discourse. The tragedy is that it is still, in many ways, only words.
Mint’s Kirthi V. Rao contributed to this story.