Tsunami/tsunamo is how Narendra Modi’s return to power is being described. Critics may be sceptical but can hopes re-pin on his post-triumph pledges to turn his back on the ugliness of the political contest, build consensus and carry all: Sabka vikas sabke saath, now with sabka vishwas to build Naya India? With four states going to the polls in the coming months, there will be an early test of whether campaign-mode-Modi reruns or he retains statesmanship beyond showmanship.
As one of the few women who entered the media in the late-fifties — then 18, now 80 — I stand witness that this is indeed a rare karmic moment in the nation’s life, one that has come only twice before: In 1971, when Indira Gandhi rose Durga-like post-Bangladesh, arousing hopes that she would revive Jawaharlal Nehru’s foundational legacy of India’s Third-World leadership set-backed by the Sixties’ wars and also, wipe-out poverty; again in 1984, when a nation mourning Indira’s assassination gave an awesome peoples’ mandate to a youthful Rajiv Gandhi diffidently accepting responsibility thrust by fate. But both times, fate also decreed otherwise. Will this third opportunity created by the nation have proverbial third-time-luck or is it destined to be frittered as before?
The minority issue is upfront and has many to canvas for what it takes to win vishwas with a communal-free perspective. But what about the country’s largest minority — women?
As the prime minister plans actions to transform India — and politics — he needs to pay more heed to women’s field-voices and needs. For the first time ever, a critical-half of voters constituted women, near-parity to male numbers with many exhibiting independent decision-making in vote-casting. This outpouring — despite 20 million women claimed as missing from voters’ lists — testifies to the maturity of women’s political agency. It is a self-propelled contribution to nation-building, notwithstanding lack of adequate support to women’s political contestation from any major political party — other than the BJD in Odisha and Trinamool in West Bengal, which gave 33 per cent and 50 per cent of seats respectively to women-contestants.
The 17th Lok Sabha has the highest tally of women since Independence — 78. This still amounts to a mere 14 per cent of 543 members. A political environment wherein money and muscle-power dominate and women face demeaning sexist/sexualised smearing, militates for the emergence of a very different type of woman-warrior: More thick-skinned macho-clones than the softer gender-influence earlier projected as a potential uplifting force for politics. Further, as a recent study highlights, with the current rate of increase it will take 40 years for women to reach 33 per cent participation in Parliament/legislatures. (Thirty-three percent being the minimum threshold for critical-mass enabling gender impact.)
Demands to revive and pass the Women’s Reservation Bill are already making the rounds. The Bill, in any case, was a deeply-flawed proposal that sought to unseat one-third sitting members while holding the other two-thirds in perpetual jeopardy. Each attempt at its introduction saw unprecedented scenes of gross misconduct/violence blemishing the august halls, prophesying worse in the streets on its adoption. The vision of 21st century New India needs women-leaders as harbingers of harmony and progress, not macho-matchers; gender-parity not fractional reservation.
Naya India also needs to urgently put in place measures to reverse the massive drop in women’s work-participation and threats to freedom of movement. A major issue identified by many pre-election surveys, perhaps a key propelling factor for voting in such large numbers, was the concern about physical security and safety. The plummeting work-force participation in past years, the resonating #MeToo movement, highlight growing insecurity for women in coming out onto the streets, in workplaces/public places, which are their birthright to access. Besides emphasising women’s fundamental and constitutional right to dignity and security, bridging the gender gap in work-participation, according to a McKinsey estimate, would add $770 billion to the Indian economy by 2025. Naya India cannot be built unless women hold-up-half-the-sky.
Equally, there is growing threat to women’s personal and bodily integrity within homes and neighbourhoods. Building home-toilets was one key step towards women’s physical security and it resonated. But cleansing the Internet and social media platforms of the pornography invading homes and turning fathers, brothers, sons, neighbours and of course, strangers into predators, is a burning issue yet left untracked. This is as much a national security-threat requiring prioritised strategic-action that brooks no further delay. Sadly, memes and morphs of political figures elicit political outrage but not the porn that bedevils ordinary women’s everyday lives; rape/gang rape has become a selective political-blame-game blunting the gruesome deadliness of rape per se.
Besides personal security which is paramount, attention to women’s issues, including equitable political representation, could spearhead other vital democratic reforms desperately required to cleanse the system of the unabashed growth of money-and-muscle-power, a principal inhibiting factor for women-contestants – and equally, less-muscular-moneyed-men — in the electoral process.
Women’s rights are fundamental human rights, not to be examined in silo fashion. Nor by using avante-garde Western-style models that currently dominate feminist thinking and media exposure. Demand for the freedom from fear and the opportunity to grow is a very different trajectory to pursue than the freedom to slutwalk/sexually assert. The former has widespread societal support, the latter provocative media space with societal backlash.
A holistic, interconnected and intrinsically Indian vision cross-cutting sectors and issues needs articulation with time-bound implementation deadlines as a major national priority. It could become the global exemplar.
– The writer is a senior journalist and has been member, National Population Commission
— This article first appeared in the June 24, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Call of New India’
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