Nirmala Sitharaman, Glass Ceiling Breaker, Can Change Much More

As the new cabinet gets down to work, the appointment of Nirmala Sitharaman as the country's Finance Minister has invited special attention, as it should. As the country's first woman Finance Minister, (except for the short stint when Indira Gandhi held the portfolio as Prime Minister) Nirmala Sitharaman has broken a hitherto iron barrier, just the way she had done as India's first woman Defence Minister in the previous government, and deserves all the congratulations she has received.

The number of women in parliament has gone up to 78,  which is 14.3 per cent, up from 12.3 per cent in 2014. It is certainly a positive development  that we have an increased representation of women in the Lok Sabha, but we are still far behind the rest of the world. According to the Inter Parliamentary Union, India, after the 2014 elections, was ranked 148th among  192 nations. With the increase in the number of women MPs in the 2019 elections, our rank will be marginally better at 141. If the Women's Reservation Bill had been adopted as had been promised in 2014, the number of women in parliament would have been 181. Newly-elected women MPs have the responsibility in parliament to ensure that there is no betrayal this time and that the Women's Reservation Bill gets priority for adoption as one of the first new laws of the present government.

Inspite of the increase in women MPs, regrettably, the number of women in the government and the cabinet has come down. In 2014, there were ten women in government and six in the cabinet, whereas this time, so far, there are six women in government, only three of whom are in the cabinet.

Those sceptical about the benefits of the Women's Reservation Bill argue that having more women in parliament or government will not necessarily help women because the parties whose policies women are bound to follow in parliament may be deadly opposed to women's rights. On the other hand, among the proponents of the women's bill are some who argue that women by nature and because of their reproductive role are "nurturers" and therefore more more likely to be concerned about the general welfare of women and children in policy interventions.


Nirmala Sitharaman is the only woman minister in PM Modi's "Big 4". (PTI)

In public life, it is ideology and not biology that determines policies and political positions. We have seen across the world women in positions of power leading some of the most aggressive and reactionary policies in favour of war, or pushing for domestic policies which bulldoze the rights of women and the poor. In India, we have seen the leadership of women in the building up of communal frenzy, and others participating in communal violence and hatred. We have heard such women in parliament; we have seen, even in the recent elections the communal hate campaigns that delivered some of them victory.

But at a wider level, the presence of more women in the public sphere that would be a direct result of the Women's Reservation Bill, would break social barriers and taboos that stereotype women's roles and would therefore be beneficial in strengthening social reform, regardless of which political party may gain. The 50 percent reservation for women in panchayats has led to significant advances against male supremacy in decision-making processes in rural India, though much remains to be done. The Women's Reservation Bill is essential because it is a step that strengthens democracy by taking forward the  constitutional mandate to ensure gender equality by breaking male domination in all spheres, which must include politics.  It is not a magic wand that will transform politics or policy.

However, women in positions of power often forget that once they attain those heights, they have an accountability to the history of women's struggles and sacrifices which have made it possible for women to get such recognition. They are distant from the hopes of ordinary women, that by virtue of being a woman, such women leaders will be more sensitive to the demands of women.

Will Nirmala Sitharaman as Finance Minister be more sensitive to women's roles in the economy than her predecessor was?  

Will she take an interest in ensuring funds and direct political attention into building the infrastructure for the security of women, for the rehabilitation of rape victims, issues which were absent in the last five years?

Will she address the shameful neglect of the five million "scheme workers", those employed in anganwadis, as Asha workers, as mid-day meal scheme workers, who work in the most critical areas of social and health security but, far from being recognized as government employees, are denied even a minimum wage and whose requirements have been ignored by successive budgetary allocations? In the last five years, pensions for single women and widows did not see an increase of even a single rupee- will the Finance Minister be more aware of the needs of widows?

Will she initiate a resetting of gender budgeting which has been reduced to a mere accounting exercise and use it instead as an instrument to garner more resources and give a push to equality within the economy and the fair distribution of resources?

Will her taking office help the recognition of the economically productive role of women, particularly in rural India, where women's work is largely unpaid and unrecognized? At a time when unemployment rates are at their highest in four decades, will she  take a hard look at the data which shows that of the 11 million who lost their livelihood post-demonetization, over 8.8 million were rural  women?

There are many challenges that the Finance Minister faces, not least because she inherits an economy which, according to the latest report, has registered the lowest growth rates with all the concomitant problems. Driven by a policy framework of so-called reform, the distribution of national resources has been dominated by subsidies for the rich and the powerful, representatives of whom were present at the glittering function when the new government took oath . In the last five years, these "reform" processes have led to far greater inequalities between the rich and the poor, between the general population and dalits, adivasis and minorities, between men and women of all categories.  India is among the top nations which are most unequal, a country where, according to the January 2019 Oxfam report, just one percent of India's rich owns 73 per cent of all household wealth. So it is not that there are no resources to meet the needs of India's poor, especially its poor women, but the political will to tap those resources with higher tax rates on corporates, while deploying more resources to increase the purchasing power of the people, is missing.

Can we expect that the Finance Minister will look beyond statistics to the faces which represent those statistics? Across the country, there are girls and young women dreaming of a better future who look for opportunities not just to help themselves but often to help the communities, the villages they live in. The policies followed by successive Finance Ministers and governments at the centre  have crushed those dreams. Remember the story of the young and inspiring Sunaina, a young Scheduled Caste girl in a village in Uttar Pradesh, captured in such a moving interview broadcast on NDTV. A girl who wants to become a doctor to help her village, but who has neither the resources nor the backing to achieve her dream. She is a representative face behind the statistics of poverty in India. Will the new Finance Minister acknowledge and address through her financial policies, the existence of millions of Sunainas and their dreams?

Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.