Women have occupied powerful positions in the Congress party organisation as well as in its national politics but the party’s record of fielding women candidates in Lok Sabha elections from Gujarat has been dismal compared to the BJP. This time too, like in 2014, the Congress has only one woman candidate, Gita Patel from Ahmedabad East constituency.
Prabha Taviad, sitting MP of Dahod, was the Congress candidate in 2014. However, she lost in the ‘Modi-for-PM’ wave that saw BJP win all 26 seats in Gujarat.
The BJP has given tickets to six women this time. It has consistently, if incrementally, raised the number of women candidates from three in 2009, to four in 2014 and six this time. The Congress, by contrast, has gone the other way around, fielding just two women in 2009 and dropping to one each in 2014 and 2019. Ironically both parties have declared in their manifestos that they are committed to 33 percent reservation for women in Parliament.
In 2014, initially the BJP had fielded only three candidates. Ranjan Bhatt, who was deputy mayor of Vadodara, was chosen for the Lok Sabha seat only after Narendra Modi, who had also won from his other seat, Varanasi, vacated the Vadodara seat, necessitating a bypoll.
Apart from Bhatt, MPs contesting again are Poonam Maadam (Jamnagar), Bharati Shiyal (Bhavnagar) and Darshana Jardosh (Surat). The two new faces are Sharda Patel (Mehsana) and Geeta Rathwa (Chhota Udepur.) Patel is former BJP state minister Anil Patel’s widow.
Though 23 per cent of its candidates are women, female BJP workers and some of the old hands believe women face a long struggle to prove calibre and establish their position.
Even among the repeated women candidates, in the case of Darshana Jardosh, BJP was considering male candidates, as it took time to declare her name. Party sources said it was left with no choice but to finalise Darshana Jardosh, as the demand from Surat was for a local candidate. As all seven MLAs in the Lok Sabha constituency are originally Saurashtra based, the party decided to repeat Jardosh for the seat.
This despite her polling the highest percentage of votes among the four BJP women candidates in 2014 — 75.79 percent — even higher than Modi’s 72.79 percent in Vadodara. However, all 2014 BJP candidates’ victories are attributed to the ‘Modi wave’.
Ahmedabad city’s first woman mayor Bhavnaben Dave, who later went on to become Surendranagar MP, had also expressed interest in contesting the Ahmedabad East ticket this time. Dave, who became mayor in 1995 when elections were held for the first time after the a constitutional amendment gave 33 per cent reservation to women in local bodies, said the mentality was still that women candidates would lose elections.
“As society is male-dominated, so are political parties. Congress, by selecting only one female candidate, has insulted women. As women, we deserve more. But unfortunately political parties only target victory and feel that women would lose,” said Dave.
“Also, men fear that we will replace them,” she said insightfully.
Former Naroda MLA and junior minister Nirmala Wadhwani, who also staked claim to the Ahmedabad East seat, said winnability was the main factor that political parties used, among other criteria, to choose candidates. In her case, “caste could have been a factor” that went against her candidature, she said hinting that it was because she was not from the Patidar community, which has a large electorate there. Amid heavy speculations about who the party would field from the seat after sitting MP Paresh Raval declined to contest, the BJP announced sitting Amraiwadi MLA and Hasmukh Patel, a Patidar, at the last minute.
Interestingly, no BJP woman candidate has lost a Lok Sabha election in Gujarat since 2009. And yet, winnability is named as a factor.
The Congress’ lone woman candidate from the constituency, Ahmedabad East, Gita Patel, is also a Patidar, and said to be backed by quota agitation star Hardik Patel.
Asked about the low representation of women in elections, AICC general secretary and the party’s Gujarat election in-charge Rajiv Satav also said tickets are allotted on the basis of “winnability”, but he admitted that the party should seriously consider the problem of lack of women candidates.
However, it was not for lack of “winnable” women Congress leaders that they have not been chosen, pointed out Chandrikaben Chudasama, a senior Congress leader and former MLA, who is currently a vice president of the state unit. “When there are so many female Zila Parishad presidents who are familiar with their constituencies and know every voter by name, then why not (field them) in Assembly or Parliament elections?” she asked.
A seasoned politician, Chandrikaben was among only two women candidates (the second being Shantaben Chavda from Rajkot Rural) who won on Congress tickets, among 94 who contested the Assembly elections in 1995. Chudasama won from Mangrol.
She, however, offered an insight on the poor representation of women in elections across parties. “The major reason is (lack of) financial resources,” said Chudasama. “As women do not own big businesses and (many) are merely housewives, they cannot contest elections on their own. Only if the party supports her can she contest.”
Congress has a history of fielding fewer female candidates in Assembly elections too. In the 2017 Assembly election not a single women candidate was given a ticket in all the 58 seats in Saurashtra, she said. Admitting that it was regretful, Chudasama said the Rapar ticket (Kutch district) was given to the woman (Santokben Arethiya) at the eleventh hour only because the party could not field her husband due to legal issues. “Arethiya does not even live in Gujarat but is based in Mumbai,” said Chudasama. “If she can win, then why not the women district presidents?”