"Woh to houselady hai, madam, houselady," said the Uttar Pradesh bureaucrat over the phone, clarifying the background of a woman MP from his state, fielded by none other than UP's First Behenji, Mayawati, in the just-ended elections.
Annu tandon, Unnao. Wife of a top Reliance exec with a well-endowed trust
Outlook's background checks on the 58 women MPs who have made it to the new House bear that out. At least 36 of them—that's close to a depressing two-thirds—are close relatives of male politicians ranging from national leaders and chief ministers to lower-level politicos like MLAs and RSS pracharaks; and of personages described colourfully as "cooperative mafia leader" and "mining baron's political aide". This is a Lok Sabha with many new female faces and younger ones, too, but a dismaying 17 of the 29 "fresh faces" are in the hallowed-by-proxy, biwi-beti-bahu-behen category. But even these figures don't tell the whole tale—a few other women MPs have more convoluted family connections, like Helen Davidson from Tamil Nadu who is related to the DMK clan through Azhagiri's daughter. Or they come with backing from influential male patrons not related to them.
UP is a good case study. It may want to pat itself on the back for having got the largest number of women into the House—12—but who are they? Three political widows, two bahus, three wives, one daughter. Of the remaining three, one is a film star (Jaya Prada) with the rock-solid support of the redoubtable Amar Singh, the other Annu Tandon, a high-profile wife of a top Reliance executive with a well-endowed family trust that has spread largesse in the Unnao area, and who had the clout to have film stars like Salman Khan campaign for her. That leaves just one MP, the Samajwadi Party's Sushila Saroj, and alas, one discovers with a bit of digging that she too is not free of connections (despite her party's noisy protests against the Women's Reservation Bill on the grounds that more elite women would come into politics). Saroj is the wife of an ex-IPS officer close to Mulayam Singh Yadav. The same patterns have played out across several states, pre-eminently Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and even Maharashtra.
Helen Davidson, Kanyakumari. Distantly related to the DMK clan
It can't be anyone's case that all these women are ciphers or puppets; after all, who would call Sonia Gandhi just a political widow now, even if she first rode to power on the mantle of her dead husband and political dynasty? A Lok Sabha election is a baptism by fire, and even a high-flier like Annu Tandon, who won with a record margin, a political daughter or a film star has to work very hard to win it (ask Jaya Prada). And perhaps it can be argued, the elite, educated woman MP brings competence to the parliamentary table (though statistics on her participation suggests there's nothing much to distinguish her performance from that of her male counterparts; and that she tends to get ghettoised in the "softer" committees).
J. Shantha, Bellary. The only woman MP from Karnataka is the sister of a state minister
What's really worrying is the continuing rarity in parliamentary circles of the self-made woman from a nondescript background—a woman like Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, or to cite one of the relatively few new faces in the current Lok Sabha who fits this bill, Meenakshi Natarajan. This rarity is, sadly, a recurring pattern. Prof Shirin Rai from the UK's University of Warwick, who extensively interviewed women MPs of the 14th Lok Sabha for a research project, found "that a large proportion came through family connections, some came through social movements, and very few through the party in terms of working their way up. Many were parachuted into MP seats." (However, she did find that cadre-based parties like the Left and the BJP—even though the latter's women do not, as she put it, "challenge patriarchy" in their political behaviour and stances—had a better record in putting women through the political mill.)
The other reason why the female composition of the new House is no champagne moment is the virtual absence of women MPs from the south, barring Andhra Pradesh—despite the higher social and educational indicators for women. As Jayal points out, Karnataka has performed very well with respect to the representation of women in panchayati raj institutions where it has exceeded the 30 per cent quota, with women also coming in from the open category. The same Karnataka has sent just one woman to the Lok Sabha, J. Shantha, the sister of a state minister. Kerala has sent none. Indeed, over 15 Lok Sabha elections it has sent only 11 women MPs to the House, a record that demonstrates development has not translated into equity at the political level. The 2009 no-show is not surprising—the CPI(M) fielded just two women from Kerala, and the Congress one. In Tamil Nadu, the female-headed AIADMK and the patriarch-headed DMK were united in keeping women largely out of electoral politics by fielding only two each—out of which the DMK's Davidson won, becoming the lone woman from her state in the House. The reason for these dismal trends, seems, in one word, to be "patriarchy". As Tamil writer Vaasanthi puts it: "The male contenders are very strong, and women candidates are simply not allowed to go forward. Tamil Nadu politics, for example, is a sexist and male-centred politics. A Jayalalitha is very rare, and after all she too was initially promoted by a man, mgr. Women, though socially alive, are not able to come up politically." Of women in Kerala politics, social critic Sadanand Menon says: "There were many women in Kerala politics a couple of decades ago, but they don't come into the political arena now, because of bloody battles between the left- and right-wing parties. There are more women social activists than politicians." That poses a tough question: what's worse, 'houseladies' or no ladies in the House?
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
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