By Poojil Tiwari
Politics has traditionally been regarded as a masculine field and the recent state elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh have certainly gone a long way in reinforcing this belief. The lack of women representation in the political process as a whole is alarming. Only 19 out of the 338 candidates contesting the Himachal Pradesh elections were women. The situation in Gujarat wasn’t much better, with only 122 women contesting the elections out of a total of 1834 candidates.
Numbers tell a discouraging story
In Gujarat, only 13 women were elected to the assembly. These dismal numbers were carried forward by Himachal Pradesh, where only 4 women were elected to the legislative assembly. In Himachal Pradesh, these numbers definitely come as a shock, given that almost 1 lakh more women polled their votes in the state. Most political parties highlight women empowerment amongst their key agendas in elections. However, when it comes to fielding women candidates, these national level parties are a no-show. While the BJP has given women 33% reservation within the party, it has barely translated into giving them party tickets. In the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections, the BJP gave tickets to 12 and 6 women respectively out of the 182 and 68 candidates fielded in both states. The Congress didn’t fare any better, giving tickets to only 10 and 3 women candidates in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh respectively. The fact that India’s biggest national parties are disinclined towards pushing women candidates goes a long way in setting a precedence for representation of women in politics as a whole.
Women not the target in candidature
The principle on which elections are fought is one of appeasement. Women have never been able to present themselves as a ‘vote bank’, which has led to the largely apathetic attitudes of parties towards them. Caste and religious identities have conventionally superseded gender-based identities. Women, as a whole, have never appealed to politics as a substantial vote bank. Therefore, while political parties do ideate concepts of women upliftment in their manifestos, it is never extended to granting them sizable representation when it comes to candidature.
Another problem that remains is one of an inherently patriarchal mindset. Parties don’t perceive women as “winnable” candidates. A woman candidate, especially in the rural areas, has to fight a number of internal battles with her own family and surroundings who are often reluctant to let them step out into the public eye. On a larger level, a prevalent sexist sentiment hinders the growth of women in organised structures. Parties, more often than not, are unwilling to shoulder the baggage of pushing a woman candidate. BJP President Amit Shah admitted as much when he said in a television interview, “We have given more seats than the Congress but when the issue of ticket distribution comes up then winnability becomes a key issue.”
Reservation in local bodies
The long-lasting and inherent barriers to women representation have substantiated the need for affirmative action. As per the 73rd and the 74th Amendment Act of the Constitution, one-third of the seats are already reserved for women in all local and urban governing bodies. The Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) of approximately 20 states have already reserved 50% of their seats for women. While both the UPA and the NDA government have tried to mandate 50% reservation for women in Panchayats, the PRIs of states such as Uttar Pradesh are resistant to such an idea. In the past few years, there has also been an increase in reservation for women in urban governing bodies. States such as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Kerela and more recently Punjab, have already reserved 50% of the seats in municipal bodies for women. Highlighting the need for reservation for women in local and urban bodies, the then Minister of Urban Development and Housing M.Venkaiah Naidu had said in 2014, “Women are more vulnerable to the harshness of urban inequities and they struggle more in terms of job security, pay parity, access to credit, suitability of working conditions, access to safe water, education and healthcare, housing etc.”
The Women’s Reservation Bill
In 2008, the UPA government introduced proposed the Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill, more commonly known as the Women’s Reservation Bill. The bill proposed for 33% reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies. The bill, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha was never voted upon by the Lok Sabha, as a result of which it lapsed after the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha in 2014. However, this wasn’t the first time the Women’s Reservation Bill had been introduced. The bill was first introduced in 1996 by Janata Dal Leader H. D. Deve Gowda. The bill failed to get the approval of the house and was referred to a Joint Parliamentary committee. Ever since then, the bill has lapsed and been reintroduced in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2003 by both—the NDA and the UPA government.
The bill has primarily faced opposition from parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party. The bill has also been opposed on grounds of unequal status of women, as they would not be perceived to have contested on equal merit. However, the antipathy that has been shown to the bill, especially in the Lok Sabha simply points towards a lack of political will when it comes to passing the bill.
Reservation definitely doesn’t solve all problems. Most ground level surveys of PRIs have found that men still control the working, even in PRIs where 50% seats are reserved for women. However, what cannot be denied is the fact that in a scenario where political parties are barely doing anything to push for women candidates, a women’s reservation bill has become the need of the hour.
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