Paradoxically, the ladies in India seem to be, in most situations, at extreme ends of the pole — at the top and also at the bottom. Where they seem to be in command, in essence, they have little importance, numerically as well as actually. Politically, in the Congress, Sonia Gandhi is known as the high command. Yet, prospects of her ever being considered for the most important political position — that of the prime minister or even as the country’s constitutional head — are non-existent. Yes, this is primarily due to her being foreign-born.
But then, it is rather amusing that this hard reality has played little importance in her being accepted as head of the United Progressive Alliance. Sonia is very much in command of the country’s political reins yet her name figures nowhere when it comes to formally taking over charge.
Give a thought to Sushma Swaraj, leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha. She has been holding this position since December 2009. Compared to speculation voiced earlier over her predecessor LK Advani’s prospects of becoming prime minister, little attention has been paid to Swaraj’s chances of taking up the top job. The alacrity with which recent months have witnessed drama raised over Narendra Modi’s political ambitions cannot be missed. Has Swaraj been deliberately sidelined only because she happens to be a woman? Modi’s recent comments about women’s malnutrition in Gujarat only partly reflect his limited and confused understanding about them. He has tried to dismiss the problem of their malnutrition to their being too “figure-conscious” to eat well.
So, does he view them only as fashion-dolls and gives little importance to their political potential? This attitude may also be responsible for his ambitions in Delhi as he apparently is not inclined to let a woman party member nurture the same dreams.
The 542-member Lok Sabha has only 60 women legislators. The Congress has 205 members of which just two dozen are women.
Only a dozen of BJP’s 114 legislators are women. Despite women constituting around 50 per cent of the country’s voters, it is pathetic that their representation in the Lok Sabha is so low. Virtually the same status is reflected in state assemblies. Yet, women hold sway in a quite a few important parties. Mamata Bannerjee heads the Trinamool Congress, Mayawati the Bahujan Samaj Party and J Jayalalithaa is in command of the AIADMK.
Should it be assumed, with India still being a male-dominated society, that practical political sense has guided women leaders in not making too much noise about pushing more women into politics? So it seems. Not surprisingly, there has been, of late, a dead silence on demanding reservation for women in politics.
Perhaps, if the scheduled parliamentary elections were not so close (2014), politicians concerned about this sensitive issue may have been expected to raise their voice on the issue. But at present, they just cannot afford to. None of the parties is expected to even consider ensuring 50 per cent of its tickets for women contestants. Thus, at present, expressing “commitment” towards reservation for women in the Lok Sabha is viewed as equivalent to throwing a banana peel on the political field to ensure one’s own fall.
The political field is just a minor display of women being considered secondary as compared to men. What else do continuance of practices such as dowry deaths and female infanticide suggest? What is indicated by a shift in the sex ratio under age of seven which was 104 males per 100 females in 1981 and 109.4 in 2011? Around 2,000 girls are illegally aborted daily in India because of which up to 50 million girls and women are missing from the country’s population. Who is responsible for millions of women, the unwanted ones, being killed? And yet, India is also a country, where the maximum number of women are revered and worshipped as deities or gods.
It is ironical that while self-claimed leaders have displayed little hesitation in undertaking fasts, holding demonstrations and even courting arrest regarding corruption, they have practically ignored socio-political discrimination faced by women. Are they apprehensive of touching issues which are socially relevant but devoid of political importance? Perhaps, this is true. And this is one issue, on which, cutting across political differences, most politicians have kept their lips virtually sealed. Whatsoever be the political heights commanded by Sonia and other women politicians, the bitter truth is that the political importance of women in general remains confined to the ballot box. Demand for women on the bigger political stage shall probably remain severely restricted as long as silence is preferred on millions missing from the population!
The writer is a freelance journalist