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.