Left-wing groups speak of women's empowerment, but their politics are still dominated by men

Left parties active in campuses such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University often equate Left-wing politics with feminism; according to them, one cannot be a feminist if one doesn't have a Left progressive world view.

These terms are often used interchangeably by many student activists and leaders on these campuses. This rhetoric might lead a student, still in his/her formative years, to believe that the Left parties have indeed played a singular role in women's march towards greater freedom — economic as well as cultural — and greater political participation.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

But let us scratch the surface a little bit and try to analyse these claims, and see how different has been the Left's attitude towards women's participation in politics when compared to other mainstream political parties.

The largest of the Left parties in India is the CPM, the parent party of the Students' Federation of India (SFI), which is a major force in JNU campus politics. The highest executive body of this party is called the politburo. The first woman politician to become a politburo member was Brinda Karat, and it was not until 2005 that this became possible. It would not be out of place here to mention that her husband, Prakash Karat, was a politburo member since 1992, and coincidentally, he was the general secretary of the politburo in 2005 when Brinda Karat was inducted.

On the other hand, the CPI(ML) is the parent party of AISA, the largest political organisation on the JNU campus. Its politburo is a 17-member body, of which only one is female.

In short, there has hardly been any woman controlling these parties, which shows that decision making lies primarily with men, with zero or token representation for women, and it would not be far fetched to call them old patriarchal institutions.

Since the early 1990s, there have been heated debates in Parliament and the public sphere regarding women's reservation bill. The demand was for one-third reservation for women in legislative bodies including Parliament. Greater women's representation in legislative bodies will lead to more women friendly legislation and governance has more or less been established.

Lets look at the performance of CPM on this front. In the 2009 parliamentary election, the Left front fielded just two women candidates (out of 42) in West Bengal, while in the 2014 parliamentary elections, it fielded 11 women candidates across the country, of whom only one could secure her seat. On the other hand, CPI fielded six women candidates, but all of them were defeated.

In contrast, the biggest rival of CPM in West Bengal, All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), fielded five women in 2009 and 13 women in 2014 in West Bengal alone, of whom 11 secured their seats. This contrast is revealing. In the last Assembly elections in Kerala, Left Democratic Front (LDF) fielded 17 women candidates in a 140-member assembly. Out of this, 12 were fielded by CPM and four by CPI.

In West Bengal, where the elected Communist government was in power for 34 years, in the year 2001, only two out of 33 Cabinet members were women, while this number reduced further to just one in 2006. On the other hand, in the current LDF government in Kerala, two out of 19 Cabinet members are women.

It should also be noted that the women have never been elevated to position of chief minister or home minister by these parties, though India had its first woman chief minister way back in 1963, first woman prime minister in 1966, first Dalit woman chief minister in 1995.

The effect of a woman occupying the Chief Minister's Office is not merely contained to issues of legislation and governance; it has a definite effect on the psyche of our society where women are perceived as second class citizens. In this context, the refusal or the inability of the Left parties to evolve strong female leadership reveals a deep seated problem, which these empty slogans attempt to cover up.

These statistics are merely the tip of the iceberg, and reveal the hollowness of the "woman empowerment" rhetoric which has been one of the primary tropes employed by these parties.

Although these parties have cooperated with many women organisations in various movements, there seems to be a clear gender divide in the activists' and leaders' worlds. The women rarely achieved positions of leadership or decision making, and have been largely confined to the struggling world of activism.

The authors are research scholars in Modern and Contemporary History at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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Updated Date: Apr 14, 2017 12:08:36 IST

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