"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. Her Bahujan Samaj Party's four women MPs (all first-timers) make up an impressive 19 per cent of the BSP's strength in the 15th Lok Sabha, almost double the all-India average for women's representation in the House—not surprising, you would say, for a party headed by a woman.
What is a revelation, though, is the kind of women this fiery, feisty self-made woman politician has catapulted to Parliament: political wives, all of them, riding piggyback on a powerful husband. Raj Kumari Chauhan, the one described memorably as a "houselady" by my informant, is the politically untried wife of state minister Jaiveer Singh; Seema Upadhyay, who felled actor Raj Babbar in Fatehpur Sikri, the spouse of another Mayawati minister, Ramveer Upadhyay; and Tabassum Begum, the widow of a powerful Muslim BSP MP. And the new MP from Sitapur, Kaiser Jahan, is (how convenient is that) the wife of Sitapur's sitting BSP MLA.
It is facts like these, lurking behind nice-sounding statistics, that take the shine out of the rah-rah stories on the representation of women in the new Lok Sabha having, for the first time, crossed the 10 per cent mark. Some cynical old habits die hard when it comes to sending women to Parliament—and parties headed by women are clearly no exception. Even within a broader culture of 'dynastic politics', as the shorthand phrase goes, political scientists reckon that women MPs are more likely to be from political families than their male counterparts, and clearly, more than one dynamic is at work here. You reward a lieutenant by giving a seat to his appendage, as Mayawati has done, and at the same time ensure he pours in the money, manpower and clout needed for her success. For a political player, it means consolidating power in safer ways than most—who, for instance, would you trust more than your wife? "It's about keeping the circle of power limited and controllable, and this happens much more in the case of women," says Prof Niraja Gopal Jayal of the Centre for Law and Governance at Delhi's JNU. Another important criterion, Jayal points out, is 'winnability'—women from political families or elite backgrounds are considered more 'winnable' than the rest. "Class trumps every other identity when it comes to women—it is the most important criterion in their selection as MPs," says Jayal. (And as ministers too, it seems, given that a majority of the female appointees to the new council of ministers are 'wives' or 'daughters'.)
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?