Saturday, February 28, 2015
A question for Kejriwal
The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 1, 2015
On February 11, a day after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) thundered into power in Delhi, early morning walkers noted something interesting. An elderly man, dressed in kurta pajama, a garland of marigolds around his neck, a Gandhi topi and muffler and holding a jhadoo was walking in the park. He was beaming. Most who saw him smiled, laughed, shook his hand. This was in Mumbai, many miles from Delhi.
The Delhi victory sent out waves of optimism around the country even if this scenario will not be replicated elsewhere, at least not in the immediate future. Most people accept that AAP should be given a fair chance this time to demonstrate how different it is from other parties.
Yet, even as I grant that, I still have a grouse. Thirteen months ago, when AAP came to power for a brief period, I had asked why it did not consider calling itself the Aam Aurat Party, or even the Aam Insaan Party. The point I was trying to make then was that aadmi might mean every person but its use is also a reflection of the automatic assumption that terms like ‘man’ or ‘aadmi’ automatically include women.
Perhaps this question is now redundant. Yet, we must still ask why women continue to be absent in AAP. Where are the women, Arvind Kejriwal? How is it that in your cabinet, even if it is small, you could not find place for even one woman? Is making a woman the deputy speaker an adequate token towards gender balance? I think not.
The need to strive for gender balance — still a very long way off in most institutions — is because it reminds us that one half of humanity deserves representation. AAP could argue that it was so focused on winning as many seats as it could that it gave tickets to people who would win rather than ensuring that enough women got tickets. If that is the argument, then how can we assume that AAP represents ‘alternative politics’ as the wise men of the party continue to proclaim? Is this not the excuse used by most mainstream political parties to deny tickets to women?
In this respect, AAP unfortunately does not represent any kind of alternative as this is virtually the norm. Apart from Delhi, seven other states have no women in their cabinets — Telangana, Puducherry, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Nagaland, Puducherry and Mizoram further distinguish themselves by not having a single woman member of the legislative assembly.
Not surprisingly, the three states with women chief ministers — Rajasthan, West Bengal and Gujarat — have a higher percentage of women in the cabinet. The excuse that there are not enough women to choose from for the cabinet is also not sustainable because even states with a higher percentage of women MLAs do not necessarily have more women in the cabinet.
In the final analysis, does any of this really matter? Is it not more important to ensure that the people we elect — men or women — are not corrupt and are sincere in their commitment to ‘serve the people’, a promise that so ready rolls off their tongues during election campaigns? Yes, and No. Yes, because that is stating the obvious. But No because if we are a representative democracy, then all sections, including women, should play a part in governance. If first time male MLAs, or even MPs, can become cabinet ministers, what stops women from being appointed to such positions? If the attempt to have a caste balance, for instance, ensures that some men get cabinet posts, why not women?
Actually, there are no excuses. The exclusion of women is not always deliberate; it is unthinking. It happens because those who decide, usually men, fail to accept that the inherent disadvantage that the majority of women face in entering politics needs to be compensated by some amount of preferential treatment.
In time, perhaps this kind of preference will not be needed. In many countries around the world, women are now making their way as equal partners and do not need a leg-up. But in many instances, the initial space created did help.
So to come back to Arvind Kejriwal and AAP in Delhi, I accept that the huge mandate they got is a sign of people wanting change, and perhaps even a different type of politics.
Having said that, I still think if AAP really wants to pioneer an ‘alternative politics’ it cannot overlook the importance of gender. Making promises to deal with women’s safety, something that all parties do, does not address the issue. The party needs to acknowledge that a gender perspective is needed in all aspects of governance, that inclusive politics means making an effort to include women in decision-making, and that the perspective such an inclusion facilitates is good in the long run for everybody, women and men.