India - New Delhi
Photo: A group of women tickets seekers for Orissa Lok Sabha and Assembly elections waiting for final word from the Congress party high command. (Credit: Bhupesh Bhoria\WFS)
By Yogesh Vajpeyi
New Delhi (Women's Feature Service) - Lured by the promise of the Women's Reservation Bill introduced in the 14th Lok Sabha (Lower House), a larger number of women are seeking party tickets this time. But as mainstream parties begin to release their nomination lists, women are realising that electoral politics in India still remains a zealously guarded male preserve.
A hardy politician and a former Haryana minister, Krishna Gahlawat, understands this grim reality, as she knocks at the doors of Congress power brokers for a ticket to contest from the Sonepat Lok Sabha seat. "I have a strong case. I have been vice-president of the All India Mahila Congress for three years. Congress workers of Sonepat have told AICC observer Rajni Patil, sent to gauge their views, that I will win. But the final choice rests with the party," she says.
Gahlawat realises that she faces heavy odds. Infamous for its gender bias, Haryana has thrown up only four women Members of Parliament (MPs) in the past 30 years.
Even as she waits for the party's decision, news from the All India Congress
Committee (AICC) headquarters is not exactly encouraging for women. Inclusive of party chief Sonia Gandhi, only nine women figure on the list of the 90-odd Lok Sabha candidates announced by the Congress Party so far.
The situation in the other mainstream parties, which support 33 per cent reservations for women in Central and State legislature, is no better.
On the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) list of 232 candidates, there are only 21 women. Apart from big names such as Sushma Swaraj, Sumitra Mahajan and Yashodhara Raje - all contesting from Madhya Pradesh - most women have been nominated for reserved or seats where the prospects of victory are bleak, say insiders.
Rajasthan Women's Commission Chairperson Tara Bhandari literally broke down when she found that the Jalore Lok Sabha seat, for which she was a strong contender, had been given to an outsider, Devi Singh. "Though women have demonstrated their political acumen and proved themselves winnable, they are yet to get full justice," Bhandari rues.
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 from its bastion, West Bengal. The figure is down from five candidates that the Left had fielded in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Both candidates: Jyotirmoyee Sikdar and Sushmita Bauri are from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), the Left Front's largest constituent that will be fighting 32 out of 42 seats in the state.
"It is striking because the CPM has at least 30,000 woman members in West Bengal and, at the gram panchayat (village council) level, around 40 per cent of the Left Front's representatives in the state are women," concedes Shyamali Gupta, General Secretary, Ganatantrik Mahila Samity, the CPM's women's wing. She then goes on to defend the decision of the leadership adding, "The number is definitely poor, but since it is a political battle, the party couldn't take chances."
But Rekha Goswami, another CPM leader and Minister for Self-Employment, West Bengal, differs. "It is a question of mindset. We should have set an example for other states by offering tickets to more women," she says.
All India Mahila Congress (AIMC) president and Rajya Sabha member, Prabha Thakur admits that in most cases established party leadership rejects a woman's candidature because of the "winnability" criteria. Of the 45 women candidates fielded by the Congress in 2004, only 12 won. "But things are changing. In the last assembly elections, we fielded 23 women in Rajasthan and 13 of them won," she argues.
The AIMC has received a larger number of applications from women aspiring to enter Lok Sabha this time and has strongly recommended more than 100 cases to the Central Election Committee, Thakur adds.
The BJP Mahila Morcha President, Kiran Maheshwari also thinks that the space for women in Indian politics is expanding. "But we still encounter resistance. It will take time before they get their due share," she quips.
Women leaders lobbying for their candidature at the Congress headquarters at 24,
Akbar Road; and the BJP headquarters at 11, Ashoka Road, give the distinct impression that the demand for more representation to women in our legislatures cannot be resisted for long.
"I have been working as vice-president of Nashik district for 20 years. I am also general secretary of Maharashta Regional Congress Committee Industrial Division. I am fully qualified to enter the Lok Sabha," says Saroj Ahire, a law graduate.
Ahire has applied for a ticket for Sirdi Lok Sabha constituency, reserved for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) after delimitation. She is busy convincing senior party leaders that the constituency may slip out of the Congress fold if she is denied the ticket.
Former Corporator of Gandhidham in Gujarat, Punam Veljibhai Jat, 45, has been a primary member of the BJP for the last 15 years. When she learnt that the party's sitting MP Pushpadan Gadhvi could not be fielded again because the seat had been reserved for a SC candidate she pitched her claim. "I am sure I will win because I have worked in the area and the BJP has a strong organisation in Kutch," says the science graduate.
In fact, the leaders of the Mahila Congress as well as BJP Mahila Morcha maintain that the 100-odd names each organisation forwarded had a strong potential to win. As Thakur points out, "The 33 per cent reservation for women in panchayat and local body elections has thrown up a strong women's leadership during the last decade. These leaders now want to play a bigger role."
Some, such as Punam Jat of Kutch, have been lucky to get party nominations. Others, such as Tara Bhandari of Rajasthan and Delhi Mayor Aarti Mehra, have been outmanoeuvred by male rivals.
The 13th Lok Sabha had the largest number of women members in Parliament - 49 women representing 9.02 per cent of the total strength of 543 of the Lower House. Some 284 women candidates had contested for those seats in the General Elections of 1999. The outgoing 14th Lok Sabha had 45 women MPs - constituting only 8.29 per cent of the total strength of the House. Some 355 women candidates had contested.
Will things be different this time? Most political analysts don't think so. They will be very surprised, they say, if the number of women crosses 50 in the Lower House of 543 members. The more things change the more they remain the same. At least that seems to be the case for women aspiring to be Parliamentarians in India today.
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