AAP Disappoints On This Front

Published: February 17, 2015 09:11 IST
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(Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.)

The absence of a woman in the six-member AAP ministry after its stupendous victory in Delhi is disappointing.

The explanation that it is because of the legal limit of seven in the number of ministerial berths (implying thereby that there is no woman who would qualify as a choice in the first list) sounds familiar.

There is always a justification. We are told that women will be included in important roles in the Chief Minister's Office, where policy decisions will be made. Here, we see a novel extension to the political sphere of domestic cultures of women's invisible work: behind every successful man there is a woman, in this case, behind every successful government are women.
 
The AAP government shares these laurels with seven such other brother state governments, where there are no women ministers.

A study conducted by activist Bhanupriya Rao shows that there are 569 Ministers in state governments in India, among whom only 39 are women - that is just seven per cent. In state Assemblies, out of 4120 MLAs, just 9 per cent, or 360 legislators, are women.

The record in the other three states which went to the polls after the Lok Sabha elections and before the Delhi elections has hardly improved, except for Haryana, which now has 13 women MLAs in the Assembly compared to nine the last time. Maharashtra does not cross even 6 per cent, with just 16 women MLAs in the 288 member Assembly. The Jharkhand Assembly has nine women members. In Maharashtra, there is one woman in the cabinet and one Minister of State; Jharkhand and Haryana have one woman member each in the cabinet.

Political parties across all divides have failed to break the barriers based on discrimination that result in under-representation of women in elected positions and in decision-making bodies, including in ministerial positions. On the contrary, some political parties and leaders have actively contributed to strengthening patriarchal political cultures. There has been a regression in the levels of political discourse.

Sexist and gender-demeaning statements ranging from threats of rape against women political opponents in Bengal to objectionable statements regarding women journalists by a member of the present government hardly provide an environment conducive to women's equal space in politics. One dimension influences the other. The negligible number of women in elected bodies itself creates an environment where misogyny thrives, while such an environment further strengthens discriminatory practices against women.

In today's obsession with models of good governance, it is important to reiterate that the macho definitions of good governance that we are currently being subjected to tend to entirely push social justice issues off the political agenda. In fact there can be no good governance which is not based on ethically and morally sound social justice policies, including at its heart policies which address and fight against all aspects of social discrimination based on gender, caste and community.

In spite of the direct and indirect  assault against reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from many quarters, including sections of the judiciary, India's democracy has been strengthened if not saved, by the instrument of reservations, which has brought at least a semblance of justice to the Dalit and tribal communities, even as other aspects of the iniquitous caste system mock on a daily basis at India's Constitutional provisions against discrimination. The present system of reservations at least protects a minimum number of seats for Dalits and tribals, proportionate to the share in the population.

Women's position cannot of course be compared to that of oppressed castes and communities. Women are not a homogenous group. The class and caste differentiations among women are self-evident. Dalit and tribal women, women of the working classes face many levels of discrimination, oppression and exploitation over and above  gender-based discrimination. However, it is equally undeniable that women as a whole have faced discrimination in many fields by virtue of their sex. Politics is one such sphere.

Global experience has shown that without legal or Constitutional mechanisms, the gender gap in politics in Parliamentary democracies can rarely be overcome. With just 22 per cent of women in Parliaments as the global average, many countries are adopting Constitutional measures to include women. According to recent research published by IDEA International's Global Data Base of Quotas, half of the countries in the world today are using one form or other of quotas and Constitutional mandates to push more equal gender representation.

It may be considered ironical that male-dominated Parliaments across the world have the responsibility of changing a scenario they themselves have created. But it is feasible precisely because the adoption of mechanisms to provide for more equitable representation for women goes beyond the stereotypical male-female divide into a debate to strengthen democracy, and therefore benefit society in general.

India had taken the initiative through the reservation for women in seats in local urban bodies and in the three-tier panchayat system. Unfortunately, the tremendous benefits accruing from this reservation system in unleashing the energies of communities of women across the country have been unfairly underestimated, both in terms of the power it has given to women in decision-making bodies as well as the changes this has wrought in social relations at the grassroot level, not quantifiable perhaps, but certainly discernible. It was a politically sound approach to ensure a wider base at the village and local level, rather than starting at the top with quotas in Parliament.
 
However, more than two decades after this successful project, the absence of women in the Assemblies and Parliaments is even more glaring. After sustained pressure from women's movements and their supporters, the UPA passed the Women's Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha in March 2010 on the occasion of International Women's Day. The distance from the Rajya Sabha to the Lok Sabha takes five minutes to cross. But five years later, the Bill has not moved an inch. The total lack of political will is the highest barrier.
 
The Modi Government has a single-party majority. It need not concern itself with apprehensions of the lack of numbers required for a constitutional amendment. On the fifth anniversary of the passage of the Women's Reservation Bill this March, the Modi Government should redeem its pledge and bring the Bill for adoption and passage in Parliament. Only then can we ensure that the voice of India's women will be heard in the institution that the Prime Minister described as the temple of democracy which equally applies to state Assemblies. This will, in turn, lead to a situation where no Party can form a Ministry without the inclusion of women.


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