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Criminality, not patriarchy, deters women in politics

May 11, 2009

With only a fraction of women candidates contesting the ongoing parliamentary election, political empowerment of women is a far cry. Regional editor of IPS Ranjit Devraj analyses the factors that prevent women from stepping into a territory where criminals and corrupt politicians rule the roost.

“Crime and corruption are bigger deterrents to the entry of women into politics than patriarchal attitudes or any other factor,” Madhu Kishwar, founder of Manushi Sangathan, an organisation that works for women’s rights, told in an interview.

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Before the start of the ongoing elections, staggered in five stages between April 16 and May 13 to accommodate some 715 million voters, major parties pledged once again in their manifestos to usher in what they have glaringly failed to do since 1997 – arrive at a consensus on legislation to reserve 33% of seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) and in the state assemblies for women.

A measure of poor progress in female participation can be had from the fact that 44 women were elected to parliament in the last general elections held in 2004 – the exact same number as in the 1984 elections conducted 20 years ago. Of the 6,538 candidates in the first four stages of the ongoing elections only 462 are women.

An easier route to political power for women is to ride on the success of male relatives and gain visibility and power within political parties before attempting to win parliamentary seats by taking to the gruelling campaign trail.

"For the ordinary woman who aspires to be a candidate the odds are nearly insurmountable”

Take Sonia Gandhi who owes her pre-eminent position in Indian politics to her membership of the dynastic Nehru-Gandhi family that enjoys unquestioned control over the ruling Congress party.

Similarly Mayawati, currently chief minister of India’s largest province of northern Uttar Pradesh, owes much of her success to her late mentor and companion Kanshi Ram who mobilised India’s dalits into a formidable political force under the banner of the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Jayaraman Jayalalithaa, who served twice as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, was brought into politics by the late M.G. Ramachandran, her constant companion and co-star in many blockbuster Tamil movies of the 1960s and 1970s.

Jayalalithaa, like Mayawati, is considered prime ministerial material. “Such women rarely encourage other women to come up within their parties,” said Ranjana Kumari, president of Women Power Connect, an umbrella for some 700 women’s organisations and individuals.

“For the ordinary woman who aspires to be a candidate in an Indian general election the odds are nearly insurmountable,” Kumari said, adding that on top of everything else female candidates have to contend with criminalisation of politics.

“Because the current election is one of the most closely fought between the Congress party and its allies in the United Progressive Alliance coalition and its rivals in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - led National Democratic Alliance, the ‘winnability’ of each candidate is critical, and that means calling into play money and muscle – areas that are often linked to criminality,” Kumari explained.

Contesting a parliamentary seat calls for the raising of, on average, around two million US dollars – all of it in cash since the taxation system makes it nearly impossible to fund a candidate or a party legitimately.

“Politics is dirty, and, if you are a woman, you may need the support of male family members, a father, brother or a husband to act as a buffer against the payoffs, the land-grabbing, extortion and underhand dealings,” said Kishwar.

Indeed India’s vast ‘black (or parallel) economy’ is closely linked to its electoral system with one feeding on the other. “Over the last 15 years there has certainly been a tendency for more candidates with criminal charges against them to be standing for the elections,” says Sanjay Kumar, deputy director of Lokniti - a programme for comparative democracy.

Kumar, an expert on electoral mobilisation and electoral violence, said that while women may not decline an opportunity to contest a seat merely for lack of money or muscle power, political parties do not have sufficient confidence in their ‘winnability’ in the face of these factors.

In its manifesto, the Congress party claims credit for having successfully steered Constitutional amendments through parliament in 1993 to reserve 33% of seats in the village panchayats and urban local bodies for women.

“Today, about 40% of the elected representatives in panchayats are women, compared to a reservation of 33% mandated for them. This is nothing short of a quiet revolution,” the Congress manifesto crows, vowing to extend the quota to the national and provincial legislatures if voted back to power. However, the Congress party’s arch rival, the BJP, has in its manifesto accused the Congress party of “not having the courage to stand up to its allies who are opposed to the political empowerment of women”.

"The best way for women to contribute is to get more involved in local level politics where they already enjoy reservation"

But both the Congress party and the BJP are fielding fewer women candidates this time than they did in the 2004 elections.

Kishwar comments that the best way for women to contribute, at this stage, is to get more involved in local level politics where they already enjoy reservation, “because it is easier to begin cleansing politics of crime and corruption at the neighbourhood level”.

Also, until reservations are extended to parliament and the state legislatures women should push their parties into democratising internally and giving competent women a chance to get nominations on the basis of merit rather than family ties,” Kishwar said.

Source : IPS
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