Representation, resistance, solidarity: What I learnt from attending a women's caucus
Once Indian women get their foot in in politics, everything changes for them — and for women voters who are usually ignored by male politicians
By Nisha Susan
Last Saturday, I met and listened to more politicians than I have in my whole life and ended the day smiling. And you know, I like to think if you had come, you’d have felt the same way.
A few weeks ago I went to a meeting of a new group in Bengaluru with a huge, one-point agenda: To get more women into political office. Any women from any party. The convenor was a stranger to me, Tara Krishnaswamy, a woman with a dayjob in a Bengaluru tech company and a full second life in civic and political organising. I left the meeting impressed by many details, but mostly by her ability to conduct a meeting which set out its agenda, long term plan and assigned tasks for an event a month away, all in two hours. The meeting was relaxed though very few of us knew each other. Now that the first national event of the platform – since then named Shakti – is over, I still don’t know too many personal details of the rest of the volunteers. I do know that a volunteer who was feeling extremely unwell came in and did a speedy and elegant round of decorations of the venue, a hall in Hotel Chalukya where Bengaluru’s politicians like to meet. I know two other volunteers woke up early to make lunch for all the volunteers. I know one young volunteer, who did a hefty amount of translation, had stood for local government elections recently. On a crowd-funded budget of a little over a lakh on Saturday volunteers ensured a daylong event with politicians from across the political spectrum, from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress, Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S)), and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). A full schedule is below, but here are a dozen things I got from the last couple of weeks and from the day spent at the back of the hall.
It is great to be among people who do not pay lip service to the idea of public life, who do not think of politicians only as some rogue service providers. At one point, a speaker said ‘dirty politics’ (as rhetoric) and from the front row leaped up Leela Devi Prasad. She first won elections at the age of 22 in 1956, becoming Bengaluru’s first woman corporator. She has since won several council elections, become an MLA and a minister. But not even at 85 was she going to let anyone badmouth the idea of politics and had to be soothed into sitting back down. The truth was that hardly anyone in the room had the garden-variety contempt of politics. Apart from the volunteer who did translations, the room was full of women who had either stood for elections or wanted to.
From the forthrightness of Dalit activist Ruth Manorama (who has contested as a JD(S) candidate in the 2014 general elections) or C Motamma (vice-president, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee) or former AIADMK MLA Bader Sayeed, to the more diplomatic terms of BJP spokesperson Malavika Avinash or the Congress MP Sushmita Dev, what is the one thing that everyone agreed on? Existing political structures have made little to no room for women. India ranks 148 among 190 countries around the world, as far as women’s representation in politics is concerned. Bengaluru’s only woman MLA, Sowmya Reddy says she talks about being part of Karnataka’s 4 percent at every meeting she goes to.
A friend who works in education attended the event with low expectations and only because her college-going daughter persuaded her to. Afterwards I asked her what she thought and she said she was struck by how different the meeting was from activist meetings she used to go to a decade ago. “Back then it was all people who were on the same side, all disagreeing about small things and being holier-than-thou.” This was indeed stupendously different from Saturday’s speakers and the audience who disagreed on pretty much everything – including where the capital of India should be. Except that women should have their fair share of representation in politics. I agreed with my friend that it was dizzying and unnerving and glorious to be away from the echo chambers.
Despite the range of political positions in the room, discussions always remained civil and fruitful. In the afternoon there was a tense moment during a panel, which featured Surabhi Hodigere (young political consultant who is strongly allied with the BJP and RSS) and Ruchi Gupta, head of the National Students' Union of India (NSUI). But just a few minutes later, Hodigere talked about what she thinks encourages women to rise in politics: to see other women working in politics. She talked about how the presence of Nirmala Sitharaman inspires her. She talked about making it a point to always say at public gatherings that she wants to be the first woman chief minister of Karnataka. Then she said with fulsome grace that she was sure that the presence of Ruchi Gupta encourages other women to join politics, the kind of fantastic gesture that made me start counting the number of women in the room I could imagine as chief minister. Including Surabhi? Lots.
I first learnt about the winning streak of women candidates in India from Tara Krishnaswamy, but data affirms it over and over. Data from the last Lok Sabha elections indicate women candidates win at the rate of 9.6 percent and men at the rate of 6.4 percent. Similar rates can be found in legislative assembly elections and local government elections.
If parties field women, women win elections. But parties do not like fielding women because parties at every level — ticket distribution committees to fundraising committees — are run by men.
Despite everything, despite every last minor annoyance or mortal danger, women want to stand for elections. P Krishnaveni, former panchayat president in Tirunelveli district, nearly died in an attack by her upper-caste political enemies who couldn’t tolerate her caste or her extreme competence. They hacked two of her fingers off and severed her ear and left her for dead, next to a library she had built. That was in 2011. Krishnaveni is among a tsunami of the lakhs of women who have been part of the local government across India and effected change in their constituencies. The scars were visible on her arms, but Krishnaveni spoke this Saturday with great gravitas and sincerity in favour of women in politics.
And that brings us to reservation. Unlike every uncle you know, who starts saying "Laloo Rabri" when they hear the phrase reservation for women. (Laloo was predictably against women’s reservation) Participants agreed on the fantastic results wrought by reserved seats for women. A volunteer who had come from Mysore said with a gleam in her eye that she had read a study that indicates that women who win in reserved seats go on to stand for elections in open seats the next time round. This detail was affirmed by speakers such as Varsha Nikam, a sarpanch from Maharashtra (with swagger and a thrilling public speaking style).
And when having slogged and slogged for parties (that like women foot-soldiers to get women voters) deny them tickets, what do women do? Apparently hundreds of women stand as independents or ‘rebel’ candidates: their own way of battering at the low and thick glass ceiling in Indian politics.
While the subject of money (how much you need to run) was touched on, it needs a mountain more of discussion. As does how sexual harassment keeps women out. Again, politicians from different parties agreed that the establishing of internal complaints committees (ICCs) in parties and stronger anti-sexual harassment policies were a strong need.
Recently, Michelle Obama made headlines around the world by saying about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In philosophy, “that s**t doesn't work all the time.” I was fascinated to notice how husbands, family and children rarely made an appearance in the all-day discussion. I am actually hard-pressed to think of a single mention, which was not merely in the context of husbands and families bringing in women as candidates. Not in the context of domesticity or work-life balance or anything.
Which brings me to what we can call The Husband Stitch (to borrow from Carmen Maria Machado). Yes, yes, many women in politics get in because their husbands want them to stand in seats reserved for women and be malleable. (And as Krishnaswamy said, nobody questions the competence of sons and nephews and brothers-in-law who get tickets). Except as studies show and speaker after speaker said on Saturday, it doesn’t matter if we start off with a Sarpanch Pati situation. Once women get their foot in, everything changes. It changes for them and it changes for women voters who are usually ignored by male politicians. As the fascinating research by Bhanupriya Rao (who also spoke this weekend) indicates in many parts of the country, ‘women panchayat leaders functioned independently, without male interference or support.’
I found the discussion about women’s wings of political parties rewarding. Yes, it can be a place to relegate talented women politicians said some, but Sushmita Dev, president of the All India Mahila Congress, argued that the women’s wing can be a place for a soft start for women with no connections to build their political network and capital. So how to deploy the advantages of both career paths is something for us to think through.
A month ago I reached out to an out-of-town friend and asked her for a Rs 500 contribution to the event. She offered Rs 3000 and asked me to ask people for more. After the event, I reported how great it was and she said, “Of course, we need something which is not the same old beef-vidhwa-Ayodhya discussion everyone on the left and right is stuck in. As if there are no alternatives to this discussion. There has to be a fresh framing. Another way of seeing the world.” Or as Ruchi Gupta had said, a creation of a political idiom that is not hypermasculine and hypermuscular.
The day ended with the assembled group agreeing that we need to demand 50 percent women candidates from political parties in the 2019 elections.
As recently as 24 November, members of Shakti had petitioned the Congress Manifesto Committee in their consultations on gender, asking Sushmita Dev for her backing of the Women’s Reservation Bill. As I write this, I hear the glad news that Rahul Gandhi has endorsed Sushmita Dev’s recommendation and has written to all state chief ministers from the Congress and allies telling them to officially back the Women’s Reservation Bill.
The road ahead is long but sakhi, see you in Delhi!
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