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Let's get political: Why the aam aurat should ignore Chetan Bhagat

"Turns out that when it comes to vote bank politics, women are the new Muslims," writes Chetan Bhagat in what is likely the most provocative sentence in his latest column on Rahul Gandhi's attempts to woo the women vote.

Bhagat casts the innumerable mentions of women empowerment in his recent Times Now interview as yet another example of cynical vote politics; empty rhetoric that woos minorities without delivering results. The gist of his latest outing: As the Congress party does with Muslims, so will it do to women. Fair enough. Though it would have been fairer still to note that Rahul's pandering is no more empty than that of Modi's various women-centric PR ops.

 Lets get political: Why the aam aurat should ignore Chetan Bhagat

A government that represents their interests is non-negotiable. Representational image / AP

The reality is that none of our leaders care about women, not even those who belong to the same gender (See: Mamata, Jaya, Indira et al). It is the reason why women's safety remains a low priority for governments, at the state and national level, why female foeticide continues unabated even in shining Gujarat, why there is no dearth of dimwit politicians spouting sexist nonsense, irrespective of party affiliation. Indian democracy is for, by, and of men.

Bhagat is entirely right when he notes that the only political gains women therefore can hope to secure are those which will not threaten male privilege in our society. What is dubious, however, is the advice Bhagat offers based on these observations:

Politicians want to woo the aam admi. However, for all the aam admi’s extolled virtues , the aam admi is sexist. Hence ladies, please don’t count on the politicians to change things for you. They will only break your heart. If you are serious about empowering yourselves, you have to do it yourself . Women have to make some of the above things happen and make the men change — one guy at a time. 

I am all for self-empowerment, but it is downright bizarre to argue women should cede their basic right as Indian citizens: a government that represents them and their interests. The basic task of any democratic nation and therefore its government is to create an equal society. To transfer this burden on to the shoulders of individual women is not just unfair, it is outright undemocratic. Individuals cannot -- and should not have to -- compensate for the failures of society and state.

This kind of advice is all the more dangerous when viewed in the context of the "missing women" in the Indian electorate. Writing in the Hindu, Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi point out:

Within a democratic system, policies are implemented by a government that is formed “by the consent of the governed.” In India, even though fair elections are held at regular intervals for State Assemblies and the National Parliament, they do not reflect the true consent of the people because a large number of women voters are “missing” from the electorate. We estimate that more than 65 million women (approximately 20 per cent of the female electorate) are missing and, therefore, these elections reveal the preferences (or the will) of a population that is artificially skewed against women.

More urgently, ratio is getting worse, with the percentage of "missing women" increasing from 13 percent to the current 20 percent over the past 50 years. Despite the many visible gains made by women, Indian electorate is becoming more patriarchal and male-centric with each passing decade. Our deteriorating gender ratio partly explains this downward trend, but not entirely so. As the authors point out, in many states, the gender imbalance at the voting booth is greater than in the population of eligible voters.

This means that not all the women who are eligible to vote in Indian elections are registered to vote and, therefore, they are missing from the electoral list. In backward States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, this difference is as high as 9.3 and 5.7 percentage points which translated into millions in absolute numbers.

It doesn't matter if an elected leader is a woman or a man. Political power is a numbers game in a democracy.  As long as women remain outnumbered on election day, their will remain under-represented whether in terms of policy or allocation of resources. To empower women, it is more important to increase the number of women voters, rather than the number of women politicians. When these votes become critical in determining electoral outcomes, the Modis and Rahuls will be forced to do more than just pay lips-ervice to female empowerment.

Encouraging the 65 million "missing women" to vote will do far more to change society than any  personal effort to "change men". I'm all for Bhagat telling women to "assert yourself" -- but not when it is accompanied by a discouraging message that they need to cede politics entirely to men.  At least one important part of asserting yourself ought to include asserting your most basic right as a citizen on election day.

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Updated Date: Feb 10, 2014 18:49:08 IST

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