Empty Promises

India’s parliamentary elections are a creakingly patriarchal affair

A woman votes in parliamentary elections in Delhi on 10 April. Women formed only 11 percent of the previous parliament , though they constitute almost half of the electorate. Manish Swarup / AP Photo
01 May, 2014

THE MODEL CODE OF CONDUCT adopted by the Election Commission of India contains a significant omission—it does not caution political campaigners against gender hatred. So, in early April, the Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav got away with reassuring voters that he does not support the death penalty for rapists, since “boys will make mistakes.” Yadav was widely condemned for his statement, as was his colleague Abu Azmi, who simultaneously suggested that one remedy for rape is to put sexually active women to death. The impunity with which Yadav and Azmi were able to say this—in contrast with the EC’s swift checks on alleged religious hatred in speeches by leaders such as Amit Shah and Azam Khan—indicated how slow India’s political discourse has been to absorb and react to a burgeoning awareness of gender issues in many parts of the country.

Over the last eighteen months, under the shadow of the fatal gang rape of a young woman on a Delhi bus in December 2012, the language of gender justice movements in India entered the mainstream of public discourse, in ways that were partial and sometimes flawed, but also forceful and emotionally influential. Alongside the widespread horror over the realisation that Indian women are raped a lot, there was a growing awareness of how poor our quality of life can be, how little we tend to be paid, and how our security and independence are compromised by larger and interlinked problems of inequality. Unsurprisingly, women’s issues were assimilated into campaign rhetoric to a degree that they have rarely been in previous elections.

But in the competition of buzzwords to which the issues of this election were reduced, the fight between “development,”“secularism” and “anti-corruption” pushed “women’s empowerment”—admittedly as amorphous and unsatisfying a term as the others—to the margins, when it ought to have been central. The biases of parliamentary elections in India are a reminder that, in unequal societies, the importance of women is directly linked to the expectation that they will assist in the march of male progress, and any promises to the contrary remain conditional and unconvincing. The legislation that will most significantly change the rules of this game, the Women’s Reservation Bill, currently finds support in the manifestos of every major political party. But the bill has been in parliamentary stasis for seven years, and all talk in its favour seems to be despite, rather than because of, the possibility that it could fundamentally change India’s democracy in a generation’s time.

This democracy, at its highest levels, is a creakingly patriarchal affair—and in spite of the new directions in which public conversations about gender have taken us, it will continue to be so unless women’s participation in the democratic process receives the attention it warrants. Over months of campaigning this year, it emerged that most political parties saw little incentive in thinking systematically and sincerely of gender as a deciding factor, either with respect to the electors or the elected. Through phase seven of polling, only 8 percent of the candidates declared were women. (In the 2009 Lok Sabha, women constituted under 11 percent of the parliament. It is disturbing to contemplate the poverty of that representation in a body in which the Indian people vest their highest powers.) Of the 815 million people who make up the 2014 electorate, women voters constitute about 48 percent, but are disadvantaged by adverse sex ratios and underrepresentation on electoral rolls in several parts of India. Recent EC data showed that while new voter registration increased this year, there was a significant gap between male and female first-time voters—58 percent and 41 percent of the total respectively.

Last year, the economists Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi applied Amartya Sen’s concept of “missing women”—the relative deficit in the number of women in Asian countries—to five decades of data on India’s assembly elections. They detected some dire historical tendencies in voting patterns. In states with better gender ratios, women contested elections less than they did in states with worse ones. In more gender-equitable states, women derived their participatory power by voting more, instead of running for more posts. “The intuition for this is that in places where the sex ratio is in favour of women, women do not have to incur the high cost of contesting an election to achieve their preferred policy outcomes,” Ravi wrote in an email. “If the cost of contesting an election is higher for female candidates relative to men—think of this as costs arising due to lack of exposure and lack of political experience, and not just monetary costs—then our research predicts that women are more likely to contest elections in those constituencies where there are more women ‘missing’ in the electorate.”

Kapoor and Ravi found that when women did take the risk of contesting elections in more gender-unequal states, they tended not to win—perhaps because women voters, who may have provided key support, turned out less in these states. The result: across the board, women ended up having less say in the electorate, and less voice in government. Fifty years ago, Ravi said, the proportion of missing women in the electorate was 13 percent; today, it is 20 percent, a sign of how deeply India’s worsening sex ratios can affect the practice of democracy.

One way in which this problem might be emphatically addressed within a cycle or two of elections is through affirmative action, something India has already seen at the panchayat-level, where a third of all seats have been reserved for women since 1993. There are indications that this could be changing the parameters of electoral power. When panchayat-level reservations were introduced, they were accompanied by scepticism—but there is nothing frivolous or anti-egalitarian about the fact that there are 1.5 million women in local governing bodies across India today.

In new surveys, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found a tendency among women across India to prefer, in recent years, parties headed by women, such as Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress or Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. When I spoke to the director of CSDS’ Lokniti programme, Sanjay Kumar, he speculated that this new and powerful preference for gender representation could be the outcome of panchayat-level reservations giving women voters the confidence that their free and active participation in politics enables them to give power to others like themselves. Another possible effect of this shift is already evident—female turnouts in some assembly elections in the last couple of years have shown dramatic improvements. For the first time, women even outnumbered male voters in the last assembly elections in large states such as Punjab and Uttar Pradesh—perhaps something Mulayam Singh Yadav should have considered before making his remarks about boys being boys.

Even without assuming that all women’s political interests automatically align with universal feminist concerns, we do have reason to believe that more equitable turnouts and better electoral representation will change the way we elect our representatives, and, by extension, make the local and specific problems that fall under the rubric of “women’s issues” both visible and addressable. Some of the complexity of this category is already acknowledged in the tactics developed by Indian feminists to draw attention to women’s rights, and to hold politicians accountable with regard to these issues. For example, the Womanifesto 2014, drawn up by several feminists and feminist groups, sought political parties’ formal support on a six-point agenda that included straightforward political goals such as the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill and the promotion of gender-sensitive education; but it also sought the amendment of laws—such as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act—which allow for state-sanctioned persecution of LGBT people and women in conflict zones. In Chennai, a group called the Women’s Coalition for Change came together to advocate against “gender unjust” candidates, who are known to be misogynist or discriminatory; in February, they also released a manifesto which reflected the concerns of over 350 diverse women’s groups, including those representing transgender people, women from marginalised castes, and sex workers.

The urgency and vibrancy of these interventions highlights some of the problems that electoral promises have largely failed to address. It may be that issues of women’s independence and security don’t consistently outweigh other concerns among electors; but it could also be that voters who appear non-committal on the subject do so because the political conversation generated by candidates simply avoids highlighting these issues in many parts of the country. In a massive survey of issues important to 2014 voters, the civil-society groups Association for Democratic Reforms and Daksh found that “women’s empowerment” ranked among the top issues on people’s minds in several states, though much less so among rural voters than urban ones. When it came to the more specific question of women’s safety, the divide between town and country was even starker. Urban residents ranked it as the third most important issue in these elections; rural respondents placed it nowhere in their top ten.

Such findings may be a comfort to those political leaders who privately hope that the current crisis over women’s issues is manufactured and sustained, mostly in metropolitan India, by an overzealous media. The former prime minister HD Deve Gowda notably refused to condemn Yadav’s remarks, telling journalists instead that something had to be done to repair the country’s image in the eyes of the world after it had been tarnished over the last couple of years. It is true that the media has confronted sexual violence doggedly and at high volume—but those like Gowda, hoping to stuff the genie back into the bottle, seem not to have realised that every headline and angry prime-time bulletin speaks to very real fears, shared even by those who may not have the wherewithal to take to the local police station, much less the streets of their hometowns, to draw attention to the problem.

The essential indifference to women in the electorate has also been upheld in different ways by the candidates around whom most talk of the government’s future has coalesced. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s muscular national campaign once again demonstrated how little the party has in common with any interests that are not aligned with old-fashioned Hindu patriarchy, and the BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s engagement with women’s issues has so far been intellectually negligible. The Aam Aadmi Party, popular in urban India, has arguably the least gendered appeal of any male-led party. But its brief, forty-nine-day rule in Delhi is still remembered for missteps such as the extreme misogyny and racism of AAP minister Somnath Bharti. Bharti’s verbal attack on two Ugandan women, who were illegally detained and humiliated by Delhi police in January, were an object lesson in the difficulties of challenging sexism within the existing political framework.

The ruling Congress did make gender justice a central plank of its campaign. But in doing so, it clearly hoped to bypass justice and move straight to reconciliation. Its vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s idea of India accepted the reality that women’s labour is a crucial factor in nation-building and economic prosperity—“you built Gujarat, not the people who are taking credit for it now,” he told women at a rally in the state earlier this year. But this sort of Nehruvian expansiveness is hard for listeners to swallow unless it comes with Gandhian—that is, Mohandas Gandhian—self-awareness. The widespread public resentment toward the United Progressive Alliance is, among other things, linked to the growing acknowledgment of the violence against women that occurs in India’s public spaces and institutions. Had Gandhi’s talk of prioritising women’s safety over chasing superpower status come prefaced with an apology for the party’s failure to do more to ensure this safety during its decade in power, his electors may have been more easily convinced.

Gandhi lives and works not far from Raisina Hill, where hundreds of people were water-cannoned for protesting the authorities’ failure to prevent the December 2012 gang rape. Presumably, he suspects that the Congress government in Delhi may have paid in the 2013 assembly elections, not only for its own clumsy response to that anger, but also for the UPA’s paralysed silence. It’s alarming that a woman had to be practically dismembered for women’s safety to become an election issue, and that were it not for a number of brutal episodes of sexual violence coming to light in the last couple of years, issues related to women’s independence—“empowerment,” if we must—might have remained all but invisible. This election campaign has shown us time and again that the logic of power is not governed by justice, but any future government would do well to consider that the logic of democracy must be so.