This election season, there are two women’s charters on the table. The first is the Women’s Charter for the 16th Lok Sabha Elections compiled by the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, the All India Democratic Women’s Association, the National Federation of Indian Women, the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, the Guild of Service, the Joint Women’s Programme, the Muslim Women’s Forum, the Young Women’s Christian Association and the All India Women’s Conference – all formidable actors in the women’s movement with long histories. The second is the Womanifesto, which younger feminists have taken the lead to draft and which women and men across the country have endorsed. It has been endorsed by prominent politicians and some political parties as well. Read together, they are a wish-list of changes we’d all like to see.
That women’s groups took the trouble to draft these charters, and that politicians feel it is now necessary to take cognisance of them is a big change. But as all of us acknowledge, it is only a small beginning. We need endorsements to be followed by action, and we need a protection and security orientation to women’s rights to be replaced by fuller acceptance and inclusion of women as citizens. So, how do we get there from here? What is a good road-map for the next five years, for political parties and for civil society? People like me who pontificate should also try to come up with simple practical answers.
Election campaigning is underway; candidates have been announced and manifestos released. There is nothing we can do about those two. But I would be very happy to see an end to misogynistic and sexist speech by candidates and their supporters. And, at the minimum, ready and palpable condemnation and action by party leaders of such speech would reassure me that the political class is trying sincerely to change. But I am beginning to think about what should happen after the elections. What are some easy-to-adopt, low-cost, high-yield changes that political parties can make in the coming five years?
Right after the elections, government formation offers an opportunity to the majority party and its coalition partners. Most obviously, they should give equal representation to women in cabinet, minister of state and deputy minister ranks. But, as important, the allocation of portfolios should go beyond the “home and world” stereotyping – in both directions. Why not a woman defence minister and a man as the women and child development minister?
MPs facing charges relating to violence against women and those who have made sexist and derogatory remarks about women should not be considered for any posts in Parliament or in the Council of Ministers – coalition dharma notwithstanding. If we had a system of forming shadow cabinets, the same measures would apply to parties in opposition. If political parties are sincere about women’s rights, these are straightforward actions they can take immediately. Well-begun is half-done.
In the first six months of their tenure, MPs could return to their constituencies to survey how best to spend their money to benefit women, men and everyone else in their constituency. This could be done by a door-to-door survey, through neighbourhood meetings or in consultation with local women’s groups. The point is not that MP’s funds should only be spent on “women’s projects”. Rather, the point is that however MPs spend their funds, it should be in ways that do not exclude women or marginalise them further. This understanding can only come from listening, discussing and seeking information. There are lessons to be learned from the development sector which has been talking about inclusive and participatory change for a long time.
The connections built with local women and women’s groups during the survey process should be reinforced through the five years. I would say to MPs: Be available to listen. All too often, the only way that you can get a politician to do something is to promise a photo-op or a speech. That is also the surest way to empty your programme of substance. MPs should be prepared to come to listen to what people are saying, without even needing to say something. When civil society invites you, it is offering you a chance for direct contact with your constituents and for listening and learning. That is your reward, not the ponnaadai, not the speech and not the press coverage. If an MP’s schedule does not permit, they should depute a staff member or volunteer to come and take notes. They should also take the time to be debriefed by that person.
For both MPs and party workers outside Parliament, it would be wonderful for parties to create and support a culture of continuous education. By this, I do not mean the accumulation of degrees and diplomas. Parties should organise, at every level, opportunities for workers to hear and talk to people with expertise and experience on a variety of subjects. Cadre-based parties are particularly well-placed to arrange this, but there is no reason why all parties cannot and should not. It could be as simple as having speakers come by or arranging interactive sessions with local professors. The introduction of new ideas, the habit of analytical discussion, a comfort level with dissenting opinions and the confidence to speak up – would be happy consequences for the political parties that would also benefit the larger political arena.
Indian women are too often raised to efface themselves in any situation. I think in-house study sessions, discussion groups and workshops can create places where they become comfortable sharing their opinions and gain experience in engaging with others constructively and confidently. From here to being able to stake a claim to participate publicly in policy debate would be a small step.
A few years ago, women MPs came together across party lines in support of the Women’s Reservation Bill. These were senior women and this was in Delhi, where perhaps the political elite are also part of elite social circles. In state capitals and district headquarters, women politicians do not have the same autonomy. To get them together across party lines for a seminar or a workshop or even just a low-key discussion group without any media present, is virtually impossible. Any outside activity requires permission and any interaction is suspect. How can we improve political discourse if we are only talking to each other within closed party circles? Today, neither Parliament nor state legislatures are allowed to function as debating chambers. Where will this democracy find its spaces for discussion and will participation be confined to only those who are nationally prominent and on prime-time television? These questions about the working of our multi-party democracy are key questions about the ways in which we create more political spaces so more people can participate.
The next five years are also a time for parties to nominate more and more women as candidates to the state and local elections that will take place in this period. More critically, especially for those parties who are well-structured and for those who are trying to rebuild their internal democracy, can we see a 50-50 representation for women at every level within the party? Assuming a five-year term for the upcoming Lok Sabha, that will mean that in five years, there will be a ready pool of women candidates to choose from. No need to ask where the women are, they will be in your mohalla committees and district committees, and they will be experienced. Already, in this election, while far short of the numbers we would like to see, we have seen that political parties have been able to find women with excellent track records in public life to contest. With more women active in each party, this should get even easier next time.
We expect from women political leaders that they will mentor other women (and espouse women’s rights); perhaps this is as unfair as it is unrealistic. All of us will benefit from the full citizenship of women, and so all of us share responsibility for facilitating their full inclusion.
So much to do, so little time! Five years are a very short period, historically speaking, but a long time in which to introduce the small shifts and reforms that will add up to big change. We need to be thinking of those shifts even as election campaigning is underway. It will take patience, perseverance and a focus on processes, but change will come. We see the signs already. Let the coming five years be a time when political parties undertake the quiet, background work to make that happen, inside and outside Parliament.
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist and the founder of Prajnya.