And Political Power
By Gail Omvedt
22 May, 2003
The drive for women's political
power had its beginnings in the rural areas. Even in 1975, when we had
the first major feminist rally, a ``Samyukta Stri-Mukti Sangarsh Parishad''
in Pune, a group of rural women afterwards went back to their village
and decided, with the help of some young male activists, to put up women
for the village elections. Ten years later in 1985, women of Indoli
village in Satara district in Maharashtra decided to organise an ``all-
woman'' panel for the elections - a decision perhaps influenced by the
``liberationist'' atmosphere around them, but by no means thought of
by the more widely known feminist activists they knew. A similar attempt
was made by women from a nomadic community in another Satara district
village. Finally, a year later, in 1986, at the founding conference
of the Shetkari Mahila Aghadi, women's front of the Shetkari Sanghatana,
a resolution was passed to sponsor all women candidates for the upcoming
Zilla Parishad elections - and to call on all progressive political
parties to participate.
The road to empowerment is
not easy. In a literal sense, all the above attempts were failures.
The isolated village attempts lost; were in fact met by derision and
open hostility. ``Why don't you put on bangles?'' was the way Congress
party bosses in Indoli taunted the husbands of the women candidates,
as they exerted all kinds of pressure, including near- kidnapping, to
force them to withdraw. The ``all-women panels'' for the Zilla Parishads
never really got off the ground. The Shetkari Sanghatana itself in a
major campaign, confronting in the process the prejudice of male activists,
succeeded in collecting an impressive number of women. None of the other
political parties - Dalit-based, Left or whatever - gave a favourable
``Where will we find the
women?'' was a common refrain, as if in all their lakhs of membership
no qualified women were to be found. ``You're splitting the left and
democratic vote'', was another accusation. In the end, the elections
were postponed so long that the reserved seats for local government
bodies intervened, and the Shetkari Mahila Aghadi put up candidates
only for these, with some modest success in several constituencies.
Yet none of the women participating in these campaigns felt they were
failures. ``We stood and so we won,'' has been the general refrain.
There was an exhilarating sense, especially among the women of the farmers'
movement, some of whom were moving outside their homes for the first
time, that they were breaking new ground. And, though the parties generally
mocked the idea of ``all-women panels'', some kind of process was set
off in Maharashtra. By the early 1990s at least ten villages could be
found, five of them in Shetkari Sanghatana areas, in which women had
gotten the support of their men to campaign and win for all- women gram
This ``push from below''
of women for political power has been met by efforts to give legal support
through reserved seats. As a result hundreds of thousands of women throughout
India are becoming members and sarpanches and even mayors, and a new
kind of political process is taking place. Women's organisations have
by and large given up the drive to independently organise for power,
and have focussed on constitutional change to guarantee representation.
And so the last several years have been spent pushing for the ``Women's
Bill'' in Parliament, to guarantee reserved constituencies for women.
This is, as the Dalit-Bahujan activist, Mr. Kancha Ilaiah, has pointed
out, a unique ``Indian'' response to the oppression of women. ``Everywhere
in the world,'' he notes, ``women are subordinate, but nowhere else
have they turned to reservations as a way out. It is an imitation of
the caste situation.''
Fair enough. It can be added
that in some Scandinavian countries political parties are required to
put up a certain proportion of women candidates, but it is true that
no country reserves a fixed quota of seats for women in parliamentary
bodies. However, this apparently pioneering effort in India to give
women political representation is also not very successful. The Women's
Bill has been stalled several times, almost always accompanied by the
worst kind of parliamentary brawling. The issue has taken on the colour
of women versus OBCs - because the mainly rural ``backward caste'' politicians
who have been gaining representation in the Lok Sabha in the last couple
of decades fear that they will lose their seats to sophisticated, urbanised
upper-caste women. The lack of education among Dalit-Bahujan women makes
this a genuine danger.
But ``quotas within quotas''
is not the answer. What most women's organisations have stubbornly refused
to recognise is that the Women's Bill in its present form is a very
bad bill. It is based on a system of rotating constituencies - at each
election, constituencies reserved for women candidates would be chosen
by lottery, with those that have just been reserved excluded. In other
words, reserved seats held by women at each subsequent election would
be declared open, and the reservation would ``rotate'' to a different
constituency. This would have several consequences, damaging both to
women themselves and to parliamentary stability. For women, the fixed
reserved constituencies would mean a kind of ghettoisation: they would
forever be campaigning only against other women. They would not have
a chance to build much of an ongoing political career, since once the
seat is made open in a new election, the possibilities are overwhelming
that it will revert to a male candidate. With one-third constituencies
reserved for women, the other two- thirds will be clung to with even
greater obstinacy: ``keep to your own seats'' would be the general attitude.
A woman MP also will not be able to move when her constituency rotates;
she would have to wait a full two terms to have another chance as she
had before. Rotation would also mean an even greater destabilisation
of Parliament, with a minimum of two-thirds of the sitting members due
to change at every election. Many might feel that ``an infusion of new
blood'' will help Parliament; but the fact is that it takes time to
build up the experience to be a useful contributor to legislating and
ruling; a majority of seasoned legislators is a better guarantee of
In fact there is no need
to accept the inept rotation system of reservation. There is a new proposal,
originally proposed by the Samajwadi Party's Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav,
endorsed by many leading citizens and now backed by the Chief Election
Commissioner, Dr. M. S. Gill. This would require political parties to
give one-third of their ticket to women. It would have to be in a continuous
geographical area - for instance, the Samajwadi Party would not be able
to give all the ticket to women in Tamil Nadu, it would have to give
one-third of those in Uttar Pradesh itself. This innovation would avoid
all the flaws of the rotation system. Women will stand against both
women and men; they will not be in danger of losing a seat simply because
the reservation rotates away from them; and men MPs in turn would not
be thrown out of their seats simply because their constituency is declared
reserved in the lottery. It will produce a much more stabilised Parliament.
And it would not require a Constitutional amendment, only a simple amendment
to the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
Most significantly, the alternative
proposal would hit at the heart of women's exclusion from political
power. In all general elections until 1998, 17.16 per cent of all women
candidates were elected to the Lok Sabha but only 10.32 per cent of
male candidates; of candidates of recognised parties 32.53 per cent
of the women were elected as compared to 26.5 per cent of the men. In
other words, voters - rural and urban alike - are quite ready to elect
a women; it is in the power-hungry competitiveness of party politics
that they are excluded. The backwardness of the political parties has
also been a major lesson of the earlier campaigns for women's empowerment.
The need then is to tackle the parties, not to give women reserved constituencies
which they don't need. It is time to give women the support they need
for their ongoing aspirations to empowerment, not through a badly- thought-out
Constitutional Amendment, but through direct legal pressure on political