In the early 1990s, a newly-launched newspaper published a front page picture of the emerging star Mayawati in a nightgown in Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Kanshi Ram’s home in Delhi. While the salacious message implicit in that photograph still resonates with the dominant culture and political discourse, there has been a slow but tangible change over time, largely because of the forceful campaigns for gender parity, bodily autonomy and, more recently, an understanding of consent and freedom.
As women assert against rigid social mores and negotiate uncharted territories, even the acutely conservative arena of mainstream Indian politics is gradually changing.
The effects of iconic women warriors, freedom fighters, decision-makers, a powerful Prime Minister and decades of universal adult suffrage, are slowly being felt.
Women leaders Businessline spoke to felt there had been a marked improvement in the general political ambience. The caveat, of course, is that a lot of work still needs to be done, especially to ensure appropriate representation in legislatures.
“In the last few decades women have been breaking barriers in all fields. That is true in Indian politics as well. Here, there is also the question of power and everything that goes with it, so it is all the more difficult to break into. But generally I think things are improving,” says CPI(M) politiburo member Brinda Karat.
None is better placed to describe the experience of being at the receiving end of such attitudes than Jaya Jaitley, the former president of the Samata Party.
“There is a lot of posturing on account of the dispossessed, the poor as also for women. The progressives in our country have not been able to look beyond their elitist perception of what constitutes modern and aesthetic and what is conservative.
The most important struggle for us as women is to reject the standards and labels being thrust upon us, like only the par kati’ (short-haired) women want reservation (a reference to the socialist Sharad Yadav’s remarks about 33 per cent reservation being a demand of supposedly upper-crust women). I also understand the importance of culture, religions and tradition in shaping creativity, which is typically Indian. But if I am a woman, I will always be typecast,” says Jaitley.
Women leaders, across parties, agree their organisations are not attuned to accommodating their viewpoints or sensibilities, which leads to a policy blindness on women’s issues. Crimes against women, personal freedom and choice, declining child sex ratios, malnutrition and female foeticide don’t get the attention they deserve.
Renuka Chowdhary, Rajya Sabha MP, of the Congress, and former union minister, links women’s disadvantage in politics- Indian politics, with their financial status. “Money, which is a huge consideration for politics, is never at the disposal of women. As long as women remain financially dependent on men, they cannot emerge as independent power centres.”
However, in the age of dramatic assertions of identity through attire, language, conduct and collective action, the political class cannot contain women for very long. The presence of women in positions of power will have to be backed by an institutional reform, such as reservation, for empowerment to become a reality.