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Elections in India and Women

This post is part of the Global Voices Special Coverage on Indian Elections 2009

World’s largest democracy, India, will hold general elections starting in a few weeks from now. In a country of more than a billion people, general election is nothing sort of a “make or break” time for many interest groups, political parties and the common folk. For how their life will be for next five years is decided on that day.

A rainbow of colours of rural women and men gathered as volunteers for social mobilisation and development in their villages.

A rainbow of colours of rural Indian women gathered as volunteers for social mobilisation and development in their villages.

Image by Flickr user mckaysavage and used under a creative commons license.

Indian women, who have long been denied their rightful position at home, at work and at the helm of power also have a huge stake in upcoming elections. Female literacy in the country (based on 2001 census) is at 53.63% compared to 75.26% for male, but Indian women are not completely shut off from the political process. Level of their participation is increasing and a some prominent parties have women as leaders.

Although more and more women are becoming aware of their voting rights and participating at local level politics, a report suggests that this year less women are likely to be elected to the country’s parliament.

“The introduction of the Women’s Reservations Bill in 14th Lok Sabha has prompted more women asking for tickets from major parties this time, but the selection of candidates by the latter reveals that electoral politics in India still remains a male preserve.

Including party Chief Sonia Gandhi, only nine women figure in the list of 90-and odd Lok Sabha candidates announced by the Congress so far and the BJP list of 232 candidates, contains only 21 women.

The Left Front, which has accused both the BJP and the Congress of lacking political will on the women’s reservation bill, has fielded only two women out of 42 candidates in its bastion West Bengal, down from five it had fielded in 2004 elections.”

Samiya Anwar, a female voter, writes about upcoming elections focusing on her hometown of Hyderabad:

“There are more women issues than men to be addressed. Isn’t it? First, it is the safety of women in society she dwells in. Many women in the Old City (of Hyderabad) do not trust police. They go through domestic and physical violence and don’t complain. We need a system where women can approach cops fearlessly. The issues like water shortage, frequent power cuts, road accidents and physical abuse of women at workplace should be given first thought.”

Question of caste is a big one during election time in India. As someone said “Indians don’t caste their vote but vote their caste”, the politics of dividing people based on their caste and exploiting them as “vote banks” is a common practice.

Joshua Meah blogging about caste system and of women in Indian politics at Washington Note says:

“India n. (perhaps it has potential as an adjective as well?): the land where the opposite of everything is always at least a little bit true. This is the same country that has produced a great number of enormously powerful female politicians long before America even honestly broached the subject – Indira Gandhi being the case in point. Even now, the head of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and the home to 130 million people, is headed by a woman of dalit origin (India's lowest caste). The progress of India's democracy in terms of its movement toward social equality has in some ways been as breathtaking as it is heartbreaking.”

Vinod Sharmaalso discusses “vote bank” through an imaginary exchange of words between three powerful women- Mayawati (Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh) who is a “dalit” (lower caste), Maneka Gandhi (Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law) and prominent social and animal rights activist, and Sonia Gandhi (Maneka’s estranged sister-in-law) and Congress party supreme. Here is an excerpt:

“Sonia: The Congress party is a national party with a glorious history.

Mayawati: And no future.

Sonia: Don't say that. Please. It hurts. We are confident of coming back to power on our own.

Mayawati: Really? Look, I don't care whether anyone is from the Gandhi family or a raja or maharaja. If you or your son threaten my vote bank in any manner, I will put you both behind bars.”

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