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Has Priyanka Gandhi given fresh life to women’s reservation issue?

Neeraja Chowdhury writes: Her promise of giving 40 per cent of Congress tickets in UP polls to women is bound to have ripple effects across the political spectrum.

Written by Neerja Chowdhury |
Updated: October 23, 2021 7:24:25 am
By targeting women as a constituency, Congress has made a pitch to reclaim its “umbrella” status of yesteryears, cutting across caste and community. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

After a long time, the Congress party is setting the political agenda instead of reacting to moves made by the BJP. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has promised that 40 per cent of the Congress tickets will be given to women in Uttar Pradesh. And Congress will ensure greater participation of women in politics. If the initial reactions to Priyanka’s move are anything to go by, it could charge up the atmosphere in the poll-bound state.

It will be naïve to believe that the decision will suddenly make the almost defunct Congress into a force to reckon with in UP. But “40 per cent to women” is a good mobilisational tool for Congress. The party neither has a major caste behind it nor does it have an organisation worth the name to convert its “jumlas” into votes, certainly not at this stage.

By targeting women as a constituency, Congress has made a pitch to reclaim its “umbrella” status of yesteryears, cutting across caste and community. This may have an appeal for younger Indians.

It will bring Priyanka Vadra centrestage. Will she lead her party into battle by contesting the assembly elections herself? She has not ruled it out, and left the question unanswered with a tantalising, “Ek na ek din toh larhna hee hai.” This would be a change. For, at one time, it used to be said that “the Gandhis don’t become chief ministers; they only become prime ministers”.

An improvement in Congress’s position is bad news for the Samajwadi Party, which is emerging as the alternative to the BJP. For, it may create confusion amongst the minorities, and divide their votes. Otherwise, there has been a growing feeling amongst the Muslims not to waste their vote and this was noticeable in the West Bengal polls earlier this year.

Political parties have sensed that women are emerging as a constituency. They are coming out in larger numbers to vote. They are also voting differently from their menfolk, and several studies have showcased this trend. Women ensured the victory of a beleaguered Nitish Kumar in Bihar 2020. They stood solidly behind Mamata Banerjee in May 2021. Women have also supported Narendra Modi. The BJP has gone out of its way to woo them. The prime minister recently ensured 11 women ministers in the Union council of ministers. “Toilets for women”, “Ujjwala” and “Beti Padhao Beti Bachao” have helped.

The ripple effect of Priyanka’s latest move is bound to be felt beyond UP.

The BJP — and others — will naturally ask Congress whether the formula is going to be followed in Punjab, Manipur, Goa and Uttarakhand, states that are also going to the polls in February-March 2022. There will be pressure on the GOP to accommodate more women in these states.

There will also be pressure on other parties to follow suit. Given our competitive politics, more tickets to women could become like the “300 units of power” free to every family. It was promised by Arvind Kejriwal, and has now been picked up by other parties in Punjab.

The argument that there are not enough women candidates will not wash today. There is a pool of women out there who have been sarpanches, and members of local bodies, with experience of governance at the local level over a period of three decades. This was thanks to the law to give them one-third representation — in some states it is even 50 per cent — in local bodies. They are waiting to play a larger role in state assemblies and in Parliament.

Priyanka’s salvo may bring the Women’s Reservation Bill, gathering dust in some forgotten government almirah, centrestage again. Congress has already flayed the BJP for not passing the Bill, despite the clear majority it enjoys in the Lok Sabha. The Bill has been pending since 1996 when HD Deve Gowda’s government had first introduced it in Parliament. It promised to give 33 per cent representation to women in Parliament and in the state assemblies.

It was passed In the Rajya Sabha in 2010, thanks to Sonia Gandhi. But Sonia got cold feet when faced with opposition from the two Yadav chieftains, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav, who were supporting the UPA. She chose not to call their bluff. Mayawati, whatever she may say now, had told then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that her party would not support the Women’s Reservation Bill “in its present form”. Every party which opposed the Bill used that phraseology.

The truth is that the Women’s Reservation Bill did not see the light of day because of a ganging up by the political class across parties. It is not that all male politicians were against women coming into Parliament or the state assemblies. They feared that their constituency might get reserved for women in the rotational arrangement envisaged in the Bill. The axe could fall on Etawah or Baramati, Hajipur or New Delhi, or any other constituency.

It is early days yet to say who will be the ultimate gainer of Priyanka Vadra’s latest gambit. For, the BJP will make its counter moves. Will it enact the Women’s Reservation Bill, or its variant, in the run-up to the 2024 elections?

In the last 75 years of independence, women’s representation in Parliament has gone up from 5 per cent in the first Parliament to an “impressive” 14 per cent in the present Lok Sabha. The numbers are much lower in state assemblies.

Women have broken glass ceilings and made a mark in every profession, including those seen as male domains. It is in politics that their numbers remain abysmally low.

Competitive politics has been the bane of our public life; but in this instance it may well become a blessing. The more Congress attacks the BJP and vice versa for not doing enough for women, the better it is for women. It will keep the issue alive, and on the radar.

Women are emerging as a vote bank, and they cannot be ignored. Young Indian women represent aspirational India possibly more than any other grouping today. Given half a chance, they may bring a new energy into our stagnant politics, and move it towards delivery of basic needs — health, nutrition, education and livelihoods.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 22, 2021 under the title ‘The 40 per cent promise’. The writer is a senior journalist.

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