HERE is only one woman for every 13 men in this House. It's unnatural. But then, it's politics. And strange as it may seem, even in this age of quotas, 450 million Indian women were represented by just 39 of their gender in the 10th Lok Sabha whose term has just ended. That's a bare 7.4 per cent. In fact, never in India's 46-year-old history of adult franchise has female representation in Parliament crossed the 10-per cent mark. And the 11th Lok Sabha, slated to see India into the 21st century, is unlikely to be any different.
No, it's not pessimism. It's fact. "An unfortunate fact. Doesn't seem like there will be a significant increase in women's representation this time either. Despite so many years of lip service to the cause. But what else do you expect in a country where Indira Gandhi enjoyed being referred to as the Only Man in the Cabinet," observes political commentator Nikhil Chakravartty. Indeed, the record of India's sole woman prime minister too was dismal. When she was catapulted to power in 1966, there were 34 women in the Lok Sabha. Five years later, as she led her party to a spectacular victory, the number of women MPs dwindled to 22.
"The women's constituency has been least nurtured by women," quips Renuka Chowdhury, Rajya Sabha MP and former TDP insider. An Andhra housewife who made it into politics quite by chance, Chowdhury feels that women leaders who have enjoyed power for years are loath to share it with others of their gender. "Why blame the men alone? Since insecurity won't allow these great women leaders togroom or identify female leadership at the grassroots, the men always get to decide. Naturally, only wives, widows, girlfriends or filmstars get tickets," says an irate Chowdhury. "How else do you explain a whole lot of men fanning Lakshmi Parvathi's aspiration to be chief minister?"
And, at least in politics, when men propose, men themselves dispose. Myths, claims many a woman parliamentarian, are created to keep women out of the House. Says BJP spokeswoman Sushma Swaraj: "Years of post-Independence, male-dominated politics have seen political parties lamenting the apparent lack of eligible, trained and winnable women candidates. An absolute lie." Swaraj, the BJP candidate for the South Delhi seat in this election, claims that her party is going to demand a 33 per cent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha. But she admitsthat part of the onus has to be shouldered by women by overcoming their reluctance and entering the fray. "I suppose, the increasing role of money and mafia in elections keeps most of the women away," she says.
These times of scam-ridden politics, observe veterans, are going to be very hard for women who dare to nurture political ambitions. Naina Sahni's fate is a case in point. Mayawati is maligned for her love of gold jewellery and alleged liaisons, not for her brand of politics. Many a Jayalalitha, predict old-timers, will have to traverse the whole, harsh route—suffer the humiliation of being molested and manhandled for years in the assembly before gaining complete control. Thus, as a defensive mechanism, they tend to assume imperious postures.
"There is more money than ever before in politics now. Hence, the reluctance of men to let women have a share in the spoils is finding manifestation in increasing violence and vulgarity against members of the fairer sex. Which in turn intimidates women, and they stay off politics," says Vimla Farooqui, vice-president of the Federation of Indian Women and member of the CPI national council. Disgusted by the absence of value-based politics in this era, Farooqui, whose political career was born during the freedom struggle, says: "Votes today demand money and muscle. Women have neither."
But they have the grit. And a dogged determination to keep knocking at the doors of that elusive House. For, inside is the power to improve the lot of other women.
Denied a ticket for the second time, the general secretary of Janata Dal's Delhi wing, Husna Subhani, refuses to surrender hope. Next time, she promises, the party will have to relent. "How long will V.P. Singh keep promising women equal representation and hide underground when it's time for ticket-distribution? We won't give up," she swears. Resenting the fact that most women workers are used only as 'showpieces' to flaunt the party's pro-woman image at functions, Subhani says that this facade will have to end soon. "Otherwise they will have half the country's vote bank rebelling against them."
But some prefer evolution to revolution. Gradual change in social attitudes, supported by policy, might see more women in leadership roles, feels Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson Najma Heptulla. "After all, how many women have made it to the top in other professions? It's a struggle for women everywhere. Don't single out politics," she argues. "Nothing changes overnight."
RELEGATED to the dark abyss of illiteracy and economic deprivation, the waiting too long for a dawn that will be hers. The statistics are depressing—the '91 Census puts female literacy at 39.42 per cent compared to 63.86 for males; 80 per cent of the female workforce is in the unorganised sectors where wages are low.
But, women activists swear that this electorate of illiterate and poor women does want to exercise its voting rights. It wants rulers who are approachable and who share their concerns. "Most rural women are extremely keen to discuss their problems with the authorities but never know who to approach," says Neelam Gore of Krantikari Mahila Sangathan, a Pune-based NGO which is working towards raising voters' education and leadership mobilisation among women in Osmanabad, Latur, Akola and Nagpur.
A recent survey conducted by the NGO in Hudaksar, in the hinterland off Pune, revealed that only three among 100 women knew the names of their MP, MLA or corporator. "This is primarily because none of these netas ever bother to reach out to women. They assume, and perhaps rightly so, that the men will decide who the family votes for. A leader of their own gender would make such a difference to the lives of these women," Gore avers.
Having stumbled upon a similar realisation, Renuka Mishra of Nirantar, an NGO which aspires to raise political awareness among women in Uttar Pradesh's Banda district, says: "Rural women are keen to assume leadership roles. It's ridiculous to hear parties complain that women don't want to get into 'dirty politics'. I say, give them a chance and they will clean it up."
The chance will have to be snatched, feel many. According to the National Commission for Women (NCW), reservations could be the only way out. The Commission's 1996 manifesto urges all parties to 'ensure' that no less than 50 per cent of the contestants are women. And a charged Mohini Giri, NCW chairwoman, plans to lobby in the first session of the new Parliament for a bill reserving 33 per cent Lok Sabha seats for women: "We'll form pressure groups. Reservations were the only way we managed participation at the panchayat level and are the only way to access Lok Sabha. The next polls will be different."
Meanwhile, Women's Political Watch (WPW), an NGO committed to mainstreaming women in public policy and political leadership, is pressing for 33 per cent representation of women in the Central and state legislatures. And a further 33 per cent representation in all policy-making inner structures of political parties. "This can happen only if women organise themselves as an electoral force. And pledge not to vote for parties that do not give adequate representation to women," says WPW president Veena Nayyar. "The common woman has to do it herself. After all, her counterparts in Parliament have done little for her."
Mrinal Pande, joint editor of Hindi Hindustan , agrees. According to her, male-dominated selection criterion during ticket distribution leads to ineffective women leaders getting into Parliament. "If you select dumb dolls, they'll behave like dumb dolls," she reasons. Pande observes that the male politician is averse to having aggressive female colleagues. "So, usually gentle, soft-spoken women who smile well into the camera are bestowed with ministerial responsibilities. Informally, they whine about being sidelined, but the lack of the support from the old boys' network keeps them from challenging or quitting the party and causing embarrassment."
But how long can embarrassment be kept at bay? Half of India's vote bank is eager to ask awkward questions. And the 39 women parliamentarians might not be able to answer those queries.