By Rashmi Saksena
The Uttar Pradesh Assembly poll results are supposed to bring cheer to women for one singular fact. The newly constituted 16th Assembly of UP has the highest number of women MLAs in the history of the state Legislature since Independence. Of the 403 seats, women have bagged 35. That makes women’s representation in the Lucknow seat of power as much as 8.68 per cent. No two opinions that, comparatively speaking, it is good news seen in the context of the justified growing demand for increased women’s participation in the male dominated political landscape of our nation. The news from Punjab, Uttarakhand and Goa ranges from good to dismal. Fourteen seats out of 117 in Punjab have been won by women making it a high 12 per cent. Of the 70 seats in Uttarakhand five have gone to women (7.1 per cent) and it’s a sad commentary on Goa. The winning BJP could not find a woman worthy of a ticket! The new Goa chief minister has promised to find one in the next polls.
The news is definitely stuff that headlines are made of. But what remains the hidden headline is that India ranks 99th amongst 187 countries when it comes to women representatives in Parliament.India, the largest democracy in the world lags behind Pakistan, Afghanistan and Rwanda when we look at elected women in the polity of our nation. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union it is the tiny East African nation,Rwanda, which has the highest number of women parliamentarians. The 2008 elections in Rwanda saw women get a majority in the Parliament with 56 per cent of the seats held by females.
In the Lok Sabha the strength of women is 10.8 per cent. In the 545 member House there are 59 women members. Now let us take a look at the number of women representatives in three big States in north India. Bihar has done a best ever since 1962 in its 15th Assembly (2010). Of the 243 legislators, 32 are women making it 13.16 per cent. In Madhya Pradesh there are 18 women representatives out of 230 in the Assembly making the percentage 7.8 while in Rajasthan it is 14.5 per cent given that there are 29 women in an Assembly of 200.
To turn the pages of history of the Indian Parliament it is interesting to see the female factor in the Constituent assembly set up in 1946 for drafting the Constitution forIndia. The Constituent Assembly after its last session in November 1949 acted as the first Parliament of India after Independence in 1947. Of the 217 indirectly elected representatives 15 were women (6.9 per cent) all of whom holding a meritorious record of contribution to India’s freedom movement. Amongst the famous women members were Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Sucheta Kriplani, Durgabai Deshmukh and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur.
While the numbers from UP are significant when looking at progress in women making space for themselves as elected representatives, a convincing win by Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party is bound to impact the future of the Women’s Reservation Bill. The passage of the Bill in Parliament will get 33 per cent reservation of all seats in Lok Sabha and Legislative assemblies. While the Rajya Sabha passed the Bill on March 9, 2010 it could not make it through Lok Sabha. For that thanks have to go to the Yadav trio of Mulayam Singh Yadav (SP), Sharad Yadav of the JD (U) and Lalu Prasad Yadav (RJD). The SP and RJD leaders threatened to withdraw support to the UPA government on the Bill. The Yadav’s have opposed reservation for women in Parliament from the word go. To mask the real reason for their opposition to it they raised the demand for a quota within the quota. Looking at temperamental allies like Mamata Banerjee’s TMC, the Congress cannot afford to be on the wrong side of Mulayam or Lalu. This will force the Congress led fragile UPA government to put the Women’s Reservation Bill in deep freeze. The Bill is likely to be sacrificed at the altar of political sagacity.
A debate still rages amongst many on the merit of reservation for women in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies. While one thought looks at it as a social necessity another views it as something against equality of opportunity. But for men politicians the merit or demerit of it is not important. The truth can be spotted if the veil of hypocrisy of all political parties is torn down. Reservation for women is actually seen by male politicians as something that will shrink their space in the political arena. The Women’s Reservation Bill aside, what stops political parties from establishing a voluntary norm of having 50 per cent women candidates in polls? This is so in Sweden which has seen women constitute 45 per cent of Swedish parliamentarians. In Rwandain 2003 President Paul Kagame implemented a new law reserving 30per cent of all Parliamentary and Cabinet seats for women. The Rwanda 2008 elections wrote a new script for the women there.
However, all this can work for the women of India only if the choice of female candidates is based on criteria other than their being the daughter, wife or widow of an established political leader. So far that takes precedence over everything else in most of the political parties. Another point of debate is that will an increase in women leaders actually make things better for the women of the country? India has had 14 women chief ministers and a woman Prime Minister so far and not to forget that we at present have a woman as President, Lok Sabha speaker, UPA chief and Leader of the Opposition. Can they look the women of India straight in the eye and say they have put gender above politics? Till women politicians get serious about the cause of women the number of women in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies will mean precious little. (IPA Service)