Sunday, November 22, 2015

What do elections mean for women?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 22, 2015

In a post-poll survey, The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) said there was no clear correlation between the women’s vote and the Grand Alliance’s dramatic victory.
They were everywhere. Women in colourful saris, smiling broadly, proudly displaying their voter IDs, standing in line to cast their vote. Once the dust settles on Bihar 2015, these images of Bihari women will linger.

But there are many questions. What was behind those smiles? Were they proud to be voters? Were they pleased that the act of voting made them visible? Had they really decided independently on their choice of candidate? Why do elections appear to mean so much to some women who appear otherwise to be virtually invisible to politicians, media, and society?

Many in the media concluded that the high turnout of women voters contributed to the victory of the Grand Alliance in Bihar. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) was more cautious after its post-poll survey, saying there was no clear correlation between the women’s vote and the Grand Alliance’s dramatic victory. In any case, how can we know for certain how many women voted for which party?

What the CSDS survey did conclude was that it was younger women and poor women who were most enthusiastic about voting. And they voted mostly for the Grand Alliance. More than that, by turning out as they did in large numbers on polling day, they reminded us yet again that despite all its problems, democracy is alive and breathing in this country.

How did this happen, this engagement by women in a process from which they had largely been excluded? Politics in most parts of India had been a male game. Of course, there were women but they found their space by virtue of their association with a powerful man and rarely on their own terms.

The change began with the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1992 that devolved power to local governments. It allowed for an increasing number of women to contest for seats in local bodies because one-third was reserved for them. In Bihar, it was Nitish Kumar, now once again the Chief Minister, who set off a trend by increasing reservation for women from one-third to half in 2006.

Even if we presume that half the women who stood for elections and won seats in panchayats and nagar palikas did so as proxies of their husbands, that still leaves a substantial number of women who knew what they were doing. What is also interesting is to see how those who initially accepted being proxies gradually began asserting their own agency. In fact, it was in Bihar that I saw this when I spent time with a woman mukhiya of a panchayat in Nawada district. Unlettered, a widow, and completely new to politics, within one term this woman had grasped the essence of what was expected of her. After her first term, she won again from a general seat.

The sad part of this story is that while women are voting and participating in panchayats and urban local bodies, their numbers are still miserably low in State Assemblies and in Parliament. That is evident in the results of the 2015 Bihar elections. According to data on the Election Commission’s website, only 25 women were elected out of 243 elected representatives. Of these, just under half, or 12 women, are from Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) had only five.

Perhaps one should not read too much into this. It is interesting, however, that while interviews with women during the election campaign suggested that the majority of them rated Nitish Kumar’s rule much higher because he was perceived to have enhanced safety for women, the RJD appears to have done better in choosing women candidates who could win.

Win or lose, the essential point of reservation, or encouraging more women to enter the political fray, is to accept that women have an equal right to participate in governance. If the scales are weighed against women’s participation because society lays down that they remain at home, there has to be active intervention to encourage them. That is why we need reservation. But just greater numbers of women in elected office will have little meaning unless the process of participation accommodates men and women as equal partners.

This is what a photograph of the new Cabinet of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which went viral on social media, demonstrates. It underlines that it is feasible and completely normal to have a Cabinet with an equal number of men and women. When asked by a reporter to explain, Trudeau replied, “Because it is 2015!” Exactly. That is something we need to hear here. Working with women as equals is not a favour that men bestow on women. It is how the world should work. It is how the world can work.

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