International Women’s Day is a time for celebration, to mark the challenges women have overcome in the fight for equality. But it’s also a time for honest stocktaking, and this is particularly relevant in India where women suffer from severe disabilities. The answer may lie less in legislation like the Women’s Reservation Bill and more in women supporting each other, building political bases from the grassroots and fighting those tough battles that need to be fought
The biggest challenge facing Indian women today is the criminalization of India’s polity and its domination by money and muscle power. The governance machinery is heavily criminalized and corruption scams are a product of that criminalization. Any society where violence and crime dominate, women tend to get marginalized. The answer does not lie in demanding reserved quotas in legislatures. The answer lies in decriminalizing the machinery of governance and decriminalizing our polity. A polity in which crime and corruption thrive and is therefore hostile even to honest men cannot possibly be women friendly.
India has taken some baby steps on the road to decriminalizing our polity. For instance, the new rules and regulations about disclosure of assets, etc. are good. But there is no system in place for taking action if the person concerned under reports or under values assets. The system requires a far more thorough overhaul. However, very often in the name of course correction, we add far more problems. Take the example of election expenditure; it’s an accepted fact that the expenditure mandated by the Election Commission is totally unrealistic. These days even Delhi University elections are not fought within that limit.
Now when an unrealistic and impractical law is made, people will find ways of sabotaging that provision and find underhand means of doing it. No one can say that money power is not playing an important role in our elections; no one can say that bribes are not given on election eve, or freebies and all manners of inducements are not offered to buy votes, all this is happening despite a fairly vigilant Election Commission. So the rules of the game need to change far more drastically.
Lack of Political Base
The slower the overhaul and reform of government and governance, the slower will be the pace at which women will come into their own. Take for example the current Cabinet, it’s not that there are no women there but most of them don’t have a political base. They are there because somebody or the other gave them ‘patronized entry’. By contrast, somebody like Sumitra Mahajan is there in her own right. She has won elections time and again on her own strength and therefore her presence has a different kind of meaning than the presence of those who are Rajya Sabha material, don’t have their own political base and who are there only because a powerful male leader patronized them.
It’s only when women with an independent political base start coming into politics, when women are mobilized in the manner our caste leaders mobilize their caste brethren as vote banks that women leaders will carry some weight and clout. But very few women leaders are working in that direction. The few who have cared to mobilize a political base of their own become even more powerful than men. Whatever the flaws in the style of functioning of Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati or Jayalalitha -- all these women are powerful in their own right and even men tremble before them. Why? Because they don’t depend on men, on the contrary male leaders curry favour with them.
They are far from ideal politicians but it goes to their credit that they created their own political base and therefore they actually represent the face of the empowered women. But a notable feature about successful women politicians in India is that most of them have turned out to be very whimsical, vindictive and cranky. There are a few exceptions like Sheila Dikshit and Anandiben Patel—both of whom have maintained a measure of restraint in their behaviour.
However, the tragedy of Indian politics is that the women who succeed, like Mamata Banerjee, Sonia Gandhi, or Mayawati, do so by proving they can outcompete men in the dirt and grime of politics. They can outdo men in all the wheeling and dealing required to win elections. So their presence doesn’t improve the nature and quality of politics. This is quite contrary to the Gandhian vision. Gandhi believed that women would lead the war against war, that women’s entry into politics would cleanse politics, it would rid politics of money and muscle power and it would bring benign feminine qualities into play. But what we are witnessing is the very opposite: women are masculinising themselves rather than feminizing politics. They are proving themselves no less crooked than men and often far more authoritarian and power crazed than men.
These women are remarkable in their own right but have played the game by the rules created by the worst of male politicians. That is why none of them are women friendly because they are not cleansing politics.
Political parties are the prime instruments of democracy. If they are run as personal fiefdoms, if there is no inner party democracy and transparency in their decision making processes, such parties cannot nurture real talent. Only sycophants and manipulators can thrive in such outfits. So you cannot enhance the participation of women in any meaningful way in our polity, if the nature of our political parties and institutions of governance, don’t change radically.
Thus far BJP has attracted far more women workers than most other parties. It has even more women spokespersons than any other party and yet not many women leaders in the BJP can be said to be powerful in their own right. Even a senior like Sushma Swaraj depends on CM of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Chauhan to provide her a "safe" seat.
Ironically, we now have several women headed political parties - Sonia Gandhi leads the Congress, Jayalalitha heads AIADMK, Mamata Banerjee is the unquestioned leader of Trinamool Congress, Mehbooba Mufti of PDP and Mayawati of BSP. But that hasn't really brought forth women as a powerful bloc within these parties. At best, they are brought in for street demonstrations and electioneering. But they haven't emerged as strong satraps with ground support.
The case of AAP, the newest entrant on the political scene is the most interesting. Though this party has adopted the most politically correct position on women's rights, and has a couple of effective female spokespersons, not many women got or won on AAP tickets. And there is not a single woman in Kejriwal's new cabinet. No one is complaining that Rakhi Bidlan has been dropped because she was quite a joke as Women and Child Development Minister during Kejriwal’s first stint as CM.
Today, women are taking more interest in politics. In drawing room conversations earlier men would herd together on one side discussing politics while women would be discussing family affairs. But now at least educated women are engaged in political discussions, they are taking an independent stand, they are more engaged in public affairs. But that has not translated into women being organised as a steadfast vote bank. This despite the fact that issues of women's safety, mobility, access to education and jobs are fairly high in public discourse and almost every party swears by the need to strengthen women's rights.
Taking Short Cuts
This situation has arisen because women in politics themselves are taking shortcuts and want to continue their dependence on men. Women in India have a distinct history in comparison say with women from Western countries, where they had to fight fierce battles to find a space for themselves in public life and politics. The right of women to vote in America and Europe came after very prolonged and bitter struggle. Right to equality, equal pay for equal work, took long battles which women waged on their own strength. So they came to organize themselves as a viable vote bank. They mobilized women qua women to take charge of their own affairs, instead of merely waiting for men to give them their due
In India, starting from the 19th century reform movements to the Gandhi-led freedom movement we have witnessed male reformers take up women's issues. These men faced the brunt of social criticism for challenging discriminatory and oppressive social norms vis a vis women. They protected women from direct attacks. Numerous male reformers in different regions of India dedicated their entire lives to removing crippling restrictions and social disabilities imposed on women. As a result of tireless efforts of men like Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar in Bengal, Justice Ranade and Mahatma Phule in Maharashtra, Veeransalingam in Andhra, Lala Devraj in Punjab and a host of others in different parts of India, women could begin to reclaim their lost rights in the public domain, including the right to education and jobs in the "Modern" sectors of the economy.
During the freedom movement, especially after it came to be led by Mahatma Gandhi, women's rights movement received even greater strength and support. It is noteworthy that as early as 1919, the Congress party elected Annie Besant as its president. In 1925, Sarojini Naidu became the president of the Congress and by 1930, the Congress Party formally passed a resolution that in free India, women would be guaranteed constitutional equality. Thus the right to vote, the right to hold political office, the right to equal pay for equal work, etc. came to Indian women much before many of the European countries were ready for it. What is more it came without having to beg, grovel or fight against men. By contrast, women in western countries had to face enormous hostility and humiliation including violent attacks in their struggle for these rights.
But this spontaneous support Indian women got from men also led to a culture of dependence unlike in the West where women learnt to fight largely on their own steam. It also means men can draw the line—thus far and no more any time they decide to do so. In India women did not need to wage a gender war against men to claim their due. Mahatma Gandhi in particular worked hard to create a respect worthy space for women in public life. He wanted women to be leaders of men and not come mainly to add numbers in the movement. He reiterated time and again that his choice of non-violence as a weapon of struggle had a lot to do with wanting to see women play a leading role in the freedom movement. It’s well established that whenever violence dominates social life women get pushed to the margins but when non-violence is adopted as a dharma, women don’t have much difficulty in proving themselves equal or even better than men. That is why during the Gandhi led freedom movement numerous women like Kamladevi Chattopadhyaya and Hansa Mehta emerged in different parts of India and they were not just confined to the women's wing of the Congress party but became leaders of men as well. In those days, Congress had committed party workers in every city, town, district and even at the village level.
Biwi Beti Girl Friend Brigade of Indian politics
However in post independence India as money and muscle power came to slowly dominate our political life, women started falling behind. This is because Nehru did not care to democratize the machinery of governance. He let the same old colonial system of administration continue unchecked. Since lack of accountability is inherent in the system that the British left behind, corruption and tyranny are its inevitable products. In this system, holding a political office is as good as holding a loot license. Hence politics too became a game of plunder. In such a situation even honest men find it difficult to survive in politics. It is noteworthy that most eminent Gandhians withdrew themselves from the electoral arena and confined themselves to social work. Therefore, the only kind of women who found a place in politics were those who could be as ruthless and unscrupulous as men or those who got a patronized entry into politics through familial connections with powerful political satraps. Today, most women politicians fall in the category of Biwi Beti Brigade. The reservation of women at panchayat and zila parishad level has strengthened this tendency. Men who are asked to vacate their seat for a term because its reserved for women, manage to convince the party bosses that the seat should be assigned to their wife or some other female relative so it remains a safe citadel for the family.
Barring exceptions, such women are there to safeguard their family interests not to safeguard the interests of women or their constituents. They are willing to play by the same foul rules of the game that men play. That’s why their presence in politics does not work to empower women as a group.
But things have gotten far worse in the last decade and a half. If earlier, the Biwi Beti Brigade cornered whatever little space was available to women in politics, now girlfriends and mistresses are also claiming that space. The earlier generations of politicians too had their 'aiyyashi' but they kept that side of their life under cover. But today, the "casting couch" phenomenon has raised its ugly head in virtually every political party. One hears horrid accounts of how young women who are not connected to any powerful male leader through family ties have to oblige male leaders in demeaning ways. Sexual exploitation in political parties is no less rampant than in the film or fashion industry.
Earlier, the girl friends and mistresses of politicians were kept in the background. Now these women are flaunting themselves openly and demanding not just party tickets to fight elections but also ministerial berths. So if we introduce reserved quota for women in our legislature, this new breed is likely to corner a large chunk of the quota along with the Biwi Beti Brigade. At least, the wives and daughters commanded a measure of respect from male politicians because they maintained a degree of dignity in their conduct with men. But women who use powerful men to climb up are treated with utter disdain by their party colleagues. They also have a very demoralising effect on other young women seeking a foothold in politics. The message is clear - your work doesn't but ability to manipulate men or willingness to be subservient to men's needs is what takes you forward. This is an important factor why ordinary women who value their dignity and don’t wish to use sex for climbing up, shun politics. Since ordinary women are averse to joining politics because of such adverse conditions, every party is short of women workers. This is an important reason why not enough women get tickets.
Those who feel concerned about the inadequacy of female representation in our politics need to address these issues. Without cleansing politics of crime and corruption, without ensuring a dignified environment for women, without genuine inner party democracy you cannot attract large numbers of female political workers. In such a situation, it is unrealistic to expect political parties to field enough women candidates.
On The Plus Side
But the situation is not all grim. The most hopeful aspect of Indian politics is that ordinary voters are not at all averse to electing women or seeing them in positions of power. The data from the very first election onward clearly shows that the success rate of women candidates is far higher than that of male candidates. This indicates that if a credible woman candidate appears on the scene, voters tend to prefer her over men. Feminists keep crying discrimination. Yes, party bosses discriminate against women but we should draw strength from the fact that voters are not biased against women. If anything they show a distinct bias in favour of women. Look at the way Indira Gandhi came to be lionized as Durga incarnate as she grew more domineering. Her emergence as a political leader who created fear among her male colleagues was celebrated, not ridiculed. She was admiringly called "the only man" in her cabinet. Such a woman wouldn’t fare so well in the West, or become a loved icon the way Indira became, till she turned despotic and became marred with charges of corruption and nepotism. A Durga-like woman does not easily get such admiration among men in the West leave alone command reverence and awe. But in India, all those women who assume the role of powerful matriarchs and learn to command men, do very well. But those who keep whining about equality or operate under male patronage don’t reach too far.
It’s to do with the all pervasive mother complex in our society. Even grown up men are expected to and are respected for being reverential towards their mothers. Unconditional obedience to a mother's commands are held up as a cultural ideal. Such a man in the West would be sent to a psychiatrist for Oedipal complex and treated as an infantile creature. But in our culture, feminine as Shakti is treated as worship worthy. Smart women use it well to their advantage.
It is not a coincidence that all the powerful women politicians in recent decades have either been single or widows. Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati never married. Sonia Gandhi came into her own only after she became a widow.
Jayalalitha too acquired real clout and aura only after MGR’s death. Sheila Dikshit may have gained entry into politics as a daughter-in law –but she came to be counted only after her husband and father-in law passed away.
On the Women’s Reservation Bill
I have serious reservations about the women’s reservation bill even though I do wish to see serious enhancement in women’s participation in politics. The Bill is highly flawed in its present form and needs serious reformulation. We had presented an Alternative Bill which was adopted by the Election Commission of India as a far more viable proposal. (for detail description http://manushi.in/articles.php?articleId=1100#.VQgPstKUeGN)
I am of the firm belief that cleansing politics of crime and corruption of eliminating the role of muscle is far more important at this point in time than ensuring quotas for women. If women were to lead the battle for far reaching political reforms and succeed in the task, that will automatically create a respect worthy place for them in electoral politics.
There is no substitute for creating an independent political base through solid work. Can the Quota Brigade claim in all honesty that they have done the required ground work and are yet denied tickets? Women weaken themselves by seeking patronized entry. That prevents the emergence of an effective women’s lobby in our politics. They see each other as competitors rather than comrades and colleagues. It is noteworthy that most women leaders don’t get along with women within their own parties; instead of promoting each other, they try and under cut each other. A Minakshi Lekhi would see a Nirmala Sitharaman as a threatening rival rather than rejoice in the other’s elevation. Likewise Jayanti Natarajan won’t be pleased at Ambika Soni’s elevation. But they all play rhetorical tribute to women’s empowerment. Women as a group remain weak because each one vies for male patronage rather than bond with other women. In the West, women gained strength as a group because they had to bond with each other in the face of a hostile male dominated establishment. In India, women have instead sought patronized entry which can help individual women but not women as a group.
But we must remember that women have made a mark for themselves in European democracies mainly because the rules of the game were already relatively clean. Take the case of Scandinavian countries where women have even crossed the 50% mark without reserved seats. They could do so because there is genuine inner party democracy with a high degree of transparency in their functioning. There women mobilized bottom up – starting from neighborhood politics. That’s how they built a solid political base for their participation. The trouble with my feminist sisters in India is that they don’t want to start at mohalla level and fight municipal corporation elections. They want to get MLA and MP tickets straight away simply because they come from elite backgrounds, are articulate and have access to media. You can’t get your due place in politics by going and shouting in TV studios, making statements in press or raving and ranting against male politicians. If you want to be served parosi thali by men, then you have to accept a secondary status.
For all their rhetorical radicalism, the pro reservation lobby of feminists can’t mobilize even 20,000 women to come and demonstrate in Delhi, leave alone display a massive support base in the way a Mamata Banerjee or Narendra Modi can do. That is why they are not taken seriously.
First published in Parliamentarian, March 2015
Posted on March 17, 2015