Assembly Elections 2021: No dearth of women cadres, but parties fail to ensure gender equality in lead roles

Assembly Elections 2021: No dearth of women cadres, but parties fail to ensure gender equality in lead roles

Assembly Elections 2021: No dearth of women cadres, but parties fail to ensure gender equality in lead roles

We are in 2021 and India is gearing up to celebrate its 75 years of its independence, but gender equality has taken a step back. India has slipped 28 places in Global Gender Gap Index 2021 published by the World Economic Forum. India ranks 140 among 153 countries and the biggest slump is in the political empowerment sub-index where India ranks 51 versus 18 last year.

True to these figures, the larger trends from the ongoing Assembly elections in five states — West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry (Union Territory) — tell us we are still far behind in achieving gender parity in politics.

Despite women being 50 percent of the voters if not more, the number of women contesting the ongoing elections did not even cross 11 percent. Assam stands at the bottom with just about 8 percent women contestants while it is about 10-11 percent for Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Puducherry.

While there is no dearth of women karyakartas (party workers) in major political parties, the clear denial of tickets to contest elections is a huge entry barrier for women in politics. Lathika Subhash who was chief of Kerala Mahila Congress tonsured her head in public protesting the denial of ticket for the Ettumanoor constituency.

Data for West Bengal is updated until Phase IV elections held on 10 April 2021. Image courtesy Election Commission of India website.

Except for Mamata Banerjee led the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), all other major political parties fighting this election season are led by men. Mamata is often known for and praised for scouting women talent from within her party. However, it is worth questioning why she could give only 16.4 percent tickets (until Phase IV polling held on 10 April 2021) to women in the ongoing Assembly polls in comparison to 41 percent tickets in 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Is it because of the perception that only men will be able to fight against men being fielded by opponent parties or something else?

For those who managed to contest elections, sexist slurs and gender-based criticism await them from their men counterparts. From chief minister of the state to grassroots level contestants, women have been met with verbal attacks of sexism in this election. West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh suggested Mamata Banerjee wear a pair of ‘Bermuda shorts’ instead of draping a ‘saree’.

He added that he found it objectionable that a woman chief minister is showing her legs in an inappropriate manner. By making such comments, he resorted to the sexualisation of a woman’s body. And not just that, wives and mothers of male contestants were also being attacked in derogatory terms. In Tamil Nadu, DMK leader A Raja made derogatory comments against Chief Minister E Palani Swamy’s late mother. It is unfortunate such men were also seen announcing so-called women empowerment promises and schemes during campaigning.

Over and above this, gendered physical and digital threats of violent nature add to the number of challenges women face during their political journeys.

An Amnesty report published in 2020 shows that one in every seven tweets that mentioned women politicians in India is problematic/abusive. With the violence that erupted especially in West Bengal, it is not a particularly motivating environment for women to occupy public spaces. Political parties are still fielding men candidates with criminal charges relating to violence against women. For parties, this is not even considered as a criterion for sifting the candidates while announcing tickets.

Among political spaces dominated by patriarchal men, finding allyship from men colleagues would add much more value to the solidarity and support a woman politician can find. This election season, there is not a single incident we can count as allyship and this leaves women with no support from parties, colleagues and families to enter and progress in politics. Politicians who react quickly in condemning an attack even on statues during the election season, disappear from condemning any violence or sexist attacks on women colleagues.

Given the rise of polarisation of voters and heated political battles, women also find it hard to come across party lines to find solidarity and support.

While it is important to highlight the need for women to get more tickets to contest elections and reservation mandates, there is an urgent need for mechanisms within political parties for women to progress and lead. KK Shailaja (popularly known as Shailaja teacher) has been applauded by the entire world for her scientific handling of COVID-19 and Nipah viruses. While we celebrate her examplar political leadership, the party has conveniently sidelined as a contender for the chief minister’s post. Without institutional mechanisms in political parties either proactively taken or mandated by the Election Commission, women political leaders like Shailaja teacher cannot benefit from promotional politics.

Women are making strides in STEM, economics, healthcare and several other disciplines. In politics too, there is empirical evidence on women politicians at the village level investing more in public goods that are important to women. During Covid-19, there are several positive examples of women politicians in India showing exemplary leadership in assuring the citizenry and doing effective management.

Like other professions, politics should also be made an entry-able profession for women. Despite upholding terms such as equality and justice by our Constitution, women are disproportionately represented and are having to put more effort to make their mark in politics just because of their gender. We are very late in doing so but we still need to have more conversations about politics as a career choice for women in India.

Democracies are of no value if half their population cannot be represented. From citizens to political parties to government institutions, come, join the movement and become an advocate for women in politics before we take pride in democracy.

Akhil Neelam is an advocate, Women for Politics, an initiative that aims to have a free, fair and equal political representation and participation of women in South Asia. He tweets @akhilneelam. Nikhil Ramolla, an undergraduate student in B.Tech, assisted with data scraping from ECI website