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In Odisha too, no room for strong political women

May 01, 2014

According to political analyst and senior journalist Pratap Mohanty, some high-profile women leaders in Odisha could only prove themselves because they came from politically connected families, writes Rakhi Ghosh.

Bhubaneswar: In India’s eastern state of Odisha, the presence of women in the political arena is not a new phenomenon. The state saw its first woman chief minister, Nandini Satpathy, come to power in June 1972. It has also witnessed many prominent women legislators – both at the parliamentary and state levels. Sadly, however, Odisha seems to have regressed. Today, although there are a number of female politicians in all the major parties, they have all had to contend with a patriarchal order. Male chauvinism marks all aspects of the election process and, unsurprisingly, it is the men who corner the lion’s share of the posts and tickets.

Veteran Congress leader Bijayalaxmi Sahoo, 62, makes no attempt to hide her anger at being denied a ticket in the present Lok Sabha elections, which was conducted in two phases on April 10 and April 17, respectively. Incidentally, Sahoo has served the state party for 30 years and is presently president of the Odisha Mahila Congress. She says, “We are victims of a male dominated society. Although the party has efficient woman leaders, it prefers to give tickets to inexperienced male candidates. They talk about women empowerment, but give very little chance to women leaders. Women are capable, intellectually speaking, of competing with men. But instead of welcoming this trend, it only creates insecurity among male politicians.”

It is not just in the Congress Party that such feelings have surfaced. Anjali Behera, of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), after being denied a ticket from her assembly segment of Hindol, decided to file her nomination as an independent. A sitting MLA, Sipra Mallick of the Kendrapara assembly segment, was denied a BJD ticket and, like Sahoo, feels slighted. “It is not just that women need to prove themselves again and again, it is the mindset of political leaders who gravitate towards average male candidates, overlooking efficient female politicians.”

According to political analyst and senior journalist Pratap Mohanty, some high-profile women leaders in Odisha could only prove themselves because they came from politically connected families. He observes, “A woman politician emerging from the ground level and making it to the top is rare because attitudes within parties do not encourage them. While many do well in panchayat elections, during parliamentary or state level polls, male candidates are invariably preferred on the argument that they are more efficient, mobile and can undertake aggressive campaigns.”

Senior journalist Dillip Satpathy finds it a shame that till date the state has only been able to send less than 20 women leaders into Parliament and a handful into the assembly. “The 15th assembly election in 2009 saw only six women emerge victorious, the rest of the seats in the 147 member House were occupied by men. Even if women win, they are not given important responsibilities. They never become ministers of Home or Finance, and invariably end up with portfolios like Women and Child or Handlooms,” comments Satpathy.

Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Yuva Shakti’ initiative is aimed at changing such attitudes and the Party, when compared to others, does have more women office bearers and party workers. But the gap between male and female political leaders is still conspicuous. Jayashree Pradhan, a former Pradesh Congress Committee secretary, admits that for women to get an equal status will take time. Yet, she is optimistic. “The times are changing, and perhaps the next elections will see more women get tickets,” she avers.

Elections to Parliament and the state assembly are taking place simultaneously in Odisha - 21 Lok Sabha and 147 assembly constituencies. The three major parties, the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the BJD, have together fielded only 32 women candidates, in comparison to 441 male candidates. Of these, there are only five female candidates for the Lok Sabha elections and a pathetic 27 female candidates for the Assembly segments. While the Congress, BJP and BJD are fielding 10, 5 and 12 women for the assembly elections, respectively, the figures for the parliamentary elections are 2, 1 and 2, respectively.

What is striking is the poor showing of the BJP when it comes to giving tickets to women, despite the party claiming that it supports 33 per cent women representation in Parliament and the state assemblies. In fact, women constitute less than 10 per cent of party workers in Odisha. Sanchita Mohanty, who is standing from the Jajpur assembly segment on a BJP ticket, seems almost reconciled to this. “We are living in a male dominated society and we have to constantly battle the dominant mindset. Once we get a ticket, we have to work twice as hard to prove ourselves,” observes Sanchita. She adds that with 45 per cent of voters in Odisha being female, it is only fair that women candidates get a chance to emerge as leaders in the state.

Women participants this time come from various walks of life. Yesteryear superstar, Aparajita Mohanty is making her political debut by contesting for the Cuttack Lok Sabha seat on a Congress ticket. The glamorous Mohanty, who has acted in around a hundred films that have done well at the box office, is confident of her victory. “I am not worried about my competitors. I will reach out to the voters and highlight the various programmes that my party has introduced for the poor people,” she says. Another interesting candidate is Subhashree Panda, also known as Milli Panda. The wife of wanted Maoist leader, Sabyasachi Panda, Subhashree is fighting from the Ranpur assembly segment on an Ama Odisha Party ticket. The party has been formed by state political leader Soumya Ranjan Patnai. Freed from jail in April 2012 after the Gunupur court acquitted her in a Maoist-related case, Subhashree formed her own social outfit, the Jan Manch Odisha, in her hometown of Ranpur in Nayagarh district. Calling herself a homemaker Subhashree, who is now studying for her law degree, also projects a confident mien. “Among other work, I will also give importance to the upliftment of women in every sphere,” she asserts.

Former MP, Hema Gamang, wife of one-time chief minister, Giridhar Gamang, resigned from the Congress after blaming the state leadership of ignoring party workers, and joined the BJD in March. She has also secured a party ticket for the Laxmipur assembly segment which is part of the Koraput Lok Sabha seat from where her husband is contesting for the Congress. Former Lok Sabha member, Kumudini Patnaik, wife of the former minister, Ramakrushna Patnaik, secured a BJP ticket for the Polsara Assembly. Both husband and wife recently resigned from the Congress and joined the saffron party. Ramakrushna Patnaik was the finance minister in the Naveen Patnaik led BJD-BJP government during 2000-2004, and later joined the Congress after being expelled from BJD. The party decided to give a ticket to his wife this time and she, too, believes that she will win the voters’ support.

Candidates resigning from a particular party when denied a ticket and managing to get another party to support them is fairly common but, according to party sources, women candidates find it much more difficult to negotiate such manoeuvres and struggle a lot to get a ticket of their choice although women like Hema Gamang and Kumudini Patnaik have managed to do this.

What makes the going even tougher for women political aspirants is the common perception that politics is a murky business. Observes Satpathy, “Talk to parents here, and they will invariably insist they wouldn’t want their daughters to take to politics as a profession.”

It is a vicious circle in Odisha: unless more women enter the field, it will be difficult to fight prejudices and reform the system, but unless the system is reformed, the presence of more women in politics will remain limited.

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