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Will these 61 women in India's Parliament make a difference?

Jul 01, 2014

The more women take up political responsibilities, the broader will be parliamentary representation, writes Seema Guha.

Smriti Irani

New Delhi: Security was tight in Kabul and the Afghan police were on the edge. A day earlier a suicide bomber had killed several people in the heart of the city’s high security zone.

An Indian journalist friend was stopped at several checkpoints. At the last, just before he entered the Interior Ministry, a soldier checking his passport asked, “So, you stay in Delhi. Does Tulsi stay there? Have you seen her house?” The journalist was perplexed and asked himself who this Tulsi was. The Afghan soldier was aghast that an Indian did not know Tulsi, “She’s on television every day. She comes in ‘Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’. Don’t you watch it?” He was also informed that all work came to a standstill when the serial was on air every evening and the best loved character was Tulsi, played by Smriti Irani. This is a story dating back eight years.

On May 26, 2014, Irani, one-time model and popular TV actress, took oath as a minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet. Her spectacular rise – she now heads the all-important Human Resources Development Ministry – indicates the impact she has had within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The appointment has, of course, proved controversial. A Modi favourite, she contested from Amethi, the pocket borough of Congress scion Rahul Gandhi. Although she lost the election, she has been rewarded for making sure Gandhi’s victory margin was lower this time.

Irani is among the 61 women members out of a total of 543 MPs that make up the Lower House of Parliament (Lok Sabha). Women comprise just 11 per cent of the House, a dismal figure when compared to many countries, including India’s South Asian neighbours. Pakistan has 67 women in a House of 323 (20.7 per cent), Bangladesh has 67 members out of a total of 347 (19.3per cent), while Nepal has a total of 172 women in a House of 575 (29.9 per cent). The rest of the world also has interesting examples: Rwanda had 63.8 per cent of women in Parliament; Cuba, 48.9; South Africa 44.8; Germany 36.5; Canada 25.1 and the UK 22.6.

The good news is that women make up nearly 25 per cent of the Modi government. This is the first time India has seven women ministers, six of them getting plum cabinet posts. Considering that the BJP has the image of being a patriarchal party, the move has come as a welcome change. While there were many women ministers in the United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress, none of them headed ministries and, therefore, none among them attended the all-powerful powerful Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) meetings.

As the new foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj has got one of the four most important charges in the government. These are home or interior ministry, foreign ministry, defence and finance. These members make up the CCS, a crucial decision making body called in to discuss issues of grave national interest.

Sushma Swaraj is a well known face in Indian politics. She was minister of health in the former BJP government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and has been Leader of the Opposition in the Lower House in the earlier government. A feisty and articulate politician she can be considered a political heavyweight.

Estranged Gandhi daughter-in-law, Maneka Gandhi, is today the minister for Women and Child Development. She has been with the BJP for over two decades now and was welcomed into the party largely because of the Gandhi name she carries and her frosty relations with the family.  Nirmala Sitharaman, the national spokesperson of the BJP has done an excellent job in projecting her party in television debates and briefings over the last two years. She is a relatively new face in Delhi politics, but has been admired for her efficiency. She will be the country’s commerce minister with independent charge. So while she may not be a heavyweight, the fact that she has been given independent charge of a ministry does shore up her profile.

At 75, Najma Heptullah is the oldest woman cabinet minister and the only Muslim. A long time Congress Parliamentarian, she switched loyalties to the BJP and has been rewarded with the full fledged ministry of Minority Affairs.

The other women cabinet ministers are Uma Bharati and Harsimrat Kaur. The former has been known as the ‘temperamental sanyasani’ and has been given charge of Water Resources, River Development - and the new responsibility of Ganga Rejuvenation. The latter, the daughter-in-law of a powerful political family from Punjab, will be in charge of food processing.

So what does all this signify for Indian women? Ranjana Kumari, Director of Centre for Social Research and Member of National Mission for Empowerment of Women, sees it as a “positive sign”. But she adds, “This is just a first step. Unless the Women’s Reservation Bill is passed, women will not be in a position to improve their lot.” The Bill, which has been gathering dust since 1997, allows for reserving for women 33 per cent seats in Parliament and the state assemblies.

When asked about whether having more women in such bodies will make a difference, Ranjana Kumari points out the experience of Panchayati Raj in India, “Some work and some don’t, much depends on the individual. But generally what is noticed is that while initially they may not make much of a difference, the same person is far better the next time around because she is more familiar with the system. This is true everywhere and for both genders. Even in Parliament, how many first-time members speak? Take Member of Parliament Dimple Yadav, the wife of the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. She has yet to speak a single sentence in the House.”

Among the 61 women MPs, 22 hold post graduate degrees, 21 are graduates, six are matriculates, and all them have taken their school leaving examinations. One among them, Bollywood actress Hema Malini has an honorary doctorate, possibly given by some university for her acting. Six of these MPs are doctors, seven are in agriculture, three are lawyers, six are artists, 10 have described themselves as businesswomen, while one is a teacher. Among the doctors is Uma Soren, 28, from West Bengal’s Jhargam constituency. She won by 3.50 lakh votes, the largest margin among women contestants. When her constituency was in the grip of Maoist violence a few years ago, this young Santhal doctor had led a team of medical personnel deep into the forests to treat the injured.

It may be premature to assess the impact of this new crop. Says Kirti Singh, lawyer and long time women’s activist, “It’s too early to judge, but it will certainly help in the long term. The more women take up political responsibilities, the broader will be parliamentary representation. On issues that affect women’s security, health and child care, hopefully women across party lines will join forces.”

Madhu Kishwar, Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) is less optimistic. “Women who work get a good deal from the party, but where do you find those who work? They are very few,” she says. She believes that women should prepare themselves for their political roles more assiduously, “They need to get their own political act together – not just hang around political parties but actually work.” She also believes that unlike in Europe, where women help build up opportunities for each other, in India most women in politics are at each other’s throats. Says Kishwar with brutal frankness, “Each of them is on the lookout for a male patron. They hate their female colleagues and would be happy kicking them down within their own parties.”

Will the new women parliamentarians prove Kishwar wrong? Only the future will reveal.

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