Monday, November 21, 2005

Ruling 300 Million!

India is a country of paradoxes — as they will tell you in the geography class. For example, while one part of the country reels under a cold wave in December, another sings carols about Santa Claus and foggy nights without having a clue as to what a foggy night looks like.

But such paradoxes are not confined to geography alone: they extend to politics as well. For example, politicians love to preach about Gandhi but what they practise can put the Mahatma to shame. And of late, another contrast has come to the fore.

On one hand, the bill for reserving 33 percent of seats for women in legislatures has been pending in Parliament for years now. Reason: Everybody agrees in principle that there should be a quota for women, but when it comes to practice, nobody wants to give them so many seats. But on the other hand, nearly 30 percent of the country is ruled by women chief ministers today. And if Mayawati were to come back to power, then nearly half of the country would be ruled by women!

How did this happen? It happened overnight. When the BJP handpicked Uma Bharati and Vasundhara Raje to lead their campaigns in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, it did not do so because they were women: they were the best bets. Ditto for Sheila Dikshit: who else could have led the Congress in Delhi? But once they pulled off stunning victories, the focus instantly shifted to their gender.

Woman power. Stree Shakti. The She Factor. That’s how many papers headlined their stories. One magazine attributed their success to the “decisive women’s vote” and, in its editorial, said: “From now on, it seems the women will, as always, have the last word.” So are these Assembly elections results a turning point for women — a new chapter which will see more and more of them coming up in politics on their own steam? Or is it just a coincidence that all the women chief ministerial candidates happened to win?

Many think that the victory of the trio has thrown open the gates of a male-dominated fortress. “Women seem to be the flavour of the season,” says Yashwant Deshmukh, director of C-voter, the agency that conducts opinion and exit polls. “If you look at the six most populous states (Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan), their politics today is woman-centric. If you add up the number of Lok Sabha seats in these states, it crosses the 272-mark. So if our politicians still don’t sense the mood of the nation and keep stalling the women’s reservation bill, the electorate will take them to task,” he says.

Also, according to Deshmukh, more and more voters seem to be believing that women are better managers than men. “The issue of this elections was good governance, and all the women won. People I think saw them as the traditional housewife: you hand them your salary on the first of the month and sit back, because they know how to run the house,” he says.

Sheila Dikshit epitomises such a housewife: during her five years in power, she has emerged as the symbol of a development-centric chief minister. “I think her image helped in the campaigns of Uma Bharati and Vasundhara,” says Deshmukh. Both, Uma and Vasundhara, when they campaigned in their respective states, single-mindedly talked about power, water and good roads. Hindutva wasn’t mentioned, as the media had expected; and Modi wasn’t the star campaigner, as the media had projected.

Historian and political analyst Dr Mahesh Rangarajan, does not see the victory of the trio as a turning point for women in the democracy but definitely as a “sign of the times.” “The turning point would be when the reservation bill is passed, but this is a sign of the times. This is the first wave. In the next 15 years you will see many more women coming to public life. The three women will be the role models,” says Dr Rangarajan. What is most significant about their victory, according to Dr Rangarajan, is that “none of them derived power from their male kinsmen.”

He is right. Sheila Dikshit’s father-in-law, Uma Shankar Dikshit, was a Congress leader of some standing, but that was a long time ago. Vasundhara Raje, in spite of being Rajmata Scindia’s daughter, always took the backbenches in BJP’s politics and always kept a low-profile: she transformed into a heavyweight leader on her own steam. And Uma Bharati has no political godfather or godmother: she is a mass leader in her own right. Even Mayawati, for that matter, comes from a Dalit family with no political background, but she changed the contours of politics in Uttar Pradesh.

In the success of these women, Dr Rangarajan sees the emergence of ‘women’s politics’ — just like the emergence of ‘Dalit politics’ and ‘backward class politics’ in the past decade. But there are some who feel too much is being read into the victories of Uma Bharati, Vasundhara Raje and Sheila Dikshit.

“The fact that we have five women chief ministers today is extremely significant, but you cannot separate the parties from these women. The vote for them, especially in the case of Uma Bharati and Vasundhara Raje, has also been a vote for the party,” says Professor Zoya Hassan of the Centre for Political Studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “The priority of these women, after all, will be the interest of their party. Uma Bharati is a saffron leader, and you saw the line-up of sadhus at her swearing-in ceremony. So I think we are reading too much into the election results,” she says.

Hassan, however, hopes that their victory will encourage greater participation of women in politics. That’s something even Dr Rangarajan and Deshmukh agree with. Whatever the arguments, one thing is certain: never since Independence did so many women emerge as regional powers — that too in the most populous and male-dominated states. The women of these states will look upto them for what they’ve been looking for all these years — empowerment.

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