An article in Forbes last year had beautifully argued how women leaders across the globe had efficiently and innovatively tackled the global crisis. The crux of the argument was why we need to elect more women to power. In the context of India, when we speak of women leadership as much as we speak of representation and reservation for women, most often we do not speak what roles do we expect these women leaders to play.
It is assumed, that women leaders would most likely further the interests of women and work towards making a more gender equal nation. For example, Jacinda Ardern has enlisted– ‘Lifting wages, closing the gender pay gap, living free from violence, having the choice to be a carer, to have a career, be a mother – those are uppermost on my to-do list.’ But how often have we heard these from our women leaders?
However, it is interesting to note, the not so homogenous category of women are an emerging vote bank; one that has to be appeased and to whom policies have to be sold, in the Indian political context. With assembly elections in several states in India, we have seen how various parties are trying to woo home makers in these states. In Punjab too, we have seen several women-friendly schemes ahead of the elections in 2022. This includes free bus rides, hostels for women and also doubling of widow/old age pension. In Bihar, where the elections were held last year, experts believe that Nitish Kumar owes his victory to women voters towards whom his Cycle Yojana and Kanya Vikas schemes were directed.
It is thus evident, that women are an emerging vote bank; one that has to be appeased and to whom policies have to be sold. Although, women roughly accounted for 50% of the population, they were not considered as a vote bank until recently. Religion, caste, language and sect were strong elements in which vote banks were defined. The primary reason being, in India, generally it is assumed that one would cast votes according to their family. In other words, the male member of the family would determine whom to vote. Although that notion still persists, but increasingly it is being considered that women are having a say in this matter.
So what accounts for this sudden change in the political scenario? The answer is not as simple as the increasing empowerment of women. Definitely, the increasing literacy rate of women and their access to public places are important factors. The increase in the number of women voters could have also been influential. But the growing mobilisation of women and the several women led movements have been a driving force. The women of Shaheen Bagh, the women led farmers’ protest and the Pinjra Tod movement across several universities in India have been instrumental in bringing women issues to the forefront.
However, vote banks are synonymous with the politics of appeasement. Political appeasement will only lead to certain allowances, but are these actually beneficial for women or gender equality? Like mid-day meal policies have encouraged several children towards joining schools, several of these policies do have some positive effects, like the Kanyashree Prakalpa in Bengal which was awarded by UNO for ‘Increased educational attainment, prevention of child marriage and financial inclusion… Kanyashree works towards creating a supportive environment in which girls are encouraged to express their full potential and are free to become architects of their own lives,’
But as this article argues, there are several policies which might not be beneficial or worse, may have adverse effects. Firstly, the ground reality is very different. Most of these allowances do not reach their desired recipient. Faulty execution, corrupt officers, lack of awareness and several factors prevent the schemes from being implemented effectively. They just end up being election gimmicks. Even when they do, in a diverse country like India it is not intelligent to employ the same election strategy everywhere. Policies which might be beneficial to women in Kerala may not be so for Adivasi women in Chattisgarh or the labourers of tea-garden in Assam.
Secondly, women labourers are largely ignored and invisibilised. The multi-dimensional issues women face as they step out of their homes, to work and earn a living are still not acknowledged by the society, which is evident from this study on the suicides of women farm labourers in Punjab. We cannot address issues or form policies about a section of the population unless and until we acknowledge the hardship and the pain that these women undergo. Both of these issues can however be addressed, if we have leaders who are adequately interested in women issues. Or women in power who are vocal about issues pertaining to women- wage gap, abortion rights, violence and discrimination against women.
In India, there’s a huge gap in the representation of women– in Parliament, in Legislatures and even in local government bodies. So, even when the numbers of women voters have surpassed male voters, we have not seen an equally proportionate increase in the number of elected women representatives. The Parliamentary Committee for Empowerment of Women has been reduced to tokenism and the Ministry of Women and Child Development is still not considered a lucrative post for the elected members.
Indians in general and women in particular are still not comfortable with feminist philosophies. Not only do they consider these philosophies western incorporation, they consider it as a threat to the Indian culture. The political domain shows no difference in attitude. We do not see many women politicians who identify themselves as feminists. The reason behind that is to cater to greater number of people these women politicians have to adopt a stand which adheres to more neutral grounds, which in India stands for male-centric policies.
Although studies have showed that women in power have focused on health, education and social services. But in the post-pandemic world, women will need greater cushion than mere allowances; more women have been subjected to domestic violence, more women have lost jobs, and more women were forced to discontinue education and married off at a young age. So, we can see although there is an emerging vote bank for women, it will not be beneficial for women without feminist policy makers. The emerging vote bank is no wonder a ray of hope; that the increasing political visibility has pressured the political parties to take women seriously is noteworthy. But, this should not be mere tokenism or electoral gimmick, as it has been for some time now. Thus, we need more feminists in power and more feminist electorates who are politically literate and are not swayed by appeasement policies.
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