As the desert state of Rajasthan gears up to go to the hustings soon, it is opportune to ask: What is going to be the role of women? Does a fair deal await the fairer sex in the upcoming assembly polls?
For from purdah to politics the road has been rather too long and fraught with many visible and invisible barriers.
At the grassroot-level, the rural women of Rajasthan have shown great leadership traits and immense courage in breaking these barriers, thanks to the 73rd amendment. Women’s active representation in assembly polls, however, has been relatively less.
In the six-decade-long electioneering, there has been no remarkable progress in the number of women getting elected to the state assembly.
In the first elections in 1952, Rajasthan voters rejected all the four women candidates who dared to contest. Celebrated Rajasthani writer Padma Shri Laxmi Kumari Chundawat too lost her first election in 1957. “It was a sharp reaction of voters against women shedding the purdah to join politics,” she had once told this writer during an interview. People also resisted the idea of her joining a party that was responsible for disarming the royalty of its privy purses.
By 1962, people gradually began accepting the change by electing 8 of the 15 contesting women, including Chundawat from Bhim assembly constituency.
But from 1952 to 1967, the number of elected women did not even reach double digits. It touched 13 in 1972 and in 1985, 17 of the 45 contesting women got elected. For four consecutive polls thereafter, despite an increased number of women in the fray, victory eluded the fairer sex. In that respect, the last assembly polls (2008) were significant following election of 28 women in the 200-member Rajasthan assembly 13 each from Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party.
A glimpse at the voters’ inclination shows that the mood is still not in favour of women candidates.
Similarly, the main political parties Congress and BJP too haven’t really paid serious attention towards encouraging women’s participation in state-level politics.
In the apparently male-dominated poll scenario, laden with caste and power equations, women are forced to play second fiddle. Devoid of any backing, it is difficult to survive, let alone, succeed in the highly competitive poll race.
Former speaker of Rajasthan state assembly Dr. Sumitra Singh is a classic example of the resistance women have had to face even within the party circles. Singh, who won for an unprecedented nine out of 12 terms from Jhunjhunu, seven times in a row for Congress, was later forced to leave the party. She won the 1998 election as an Independent before joining BJP and scripting history by becoming the first woman speaker of Rajasthan assembly. Vasundhara Raje has the distinction of being the first woman chief minister of Rajasthan. She is among the few charismatic women leaders who have represented both the Lok Sabha and assembly constituencies with equal ease and command.
Other women leaders who deserve a special mention are Ujala Arora, late Vidya Pathak and Prabha Mishra, and present Gujarat Governor Kamla, all of whom carved out a niche for themselves with their calibre and sheer hard work.
Most of other women who entered the fray had some kind of political backing or family affiliations, as is the case with Indubala Sukhadia, Rama Pilot, Shanti Pahadia, Yasmin Barar, Vijay Laxmi Bishnoi and Mamta Sharma, the present chair person of national women’s commission, barring exceptions being Suryakanta Vyas and Anita Badhel.
Though women’s inadequate participation in politics is not a new phenomena the world over, given the mark Rajasthan women have made in the Panchayati Raj system, the state assembly too should not be devoid of women’s active contribution. All political parties need to make a concerted effort to groom, encourage and support more women to join politics.
Here, it will be interesting to note and compare the presence of active women at the grassroot-level. In the 2010 Panchayat election, a total 4,824 women sarpanchs were elected, out of them 465 on unreserved seats. There are presently 125 pradhans, including 13 from unreserved seats, and 542 zila pramukhs, including 56 on unreserved seats.
This shows women have potential and they can scale great heights even in assembly polls.
Women have shed the veil to enter public life. Now, it is the turn of political parties and voters to shed their prejudices and elect greater number of women to the assembly.
From 1952 to 1967, number of women MLAs didn’t touch double digits until 1972 (13) and 17 in 1985. For four consecutive polls thereafter, despite an increased number of women, victory eluded the fairer sex. But in 2008 the number of women MLAs rose sharply to 28
— 13 each from Congress and BJP
The writer is a senior journalist