Under unexpected political limelight

Under unexpected political limelight

Under unexpected political limelight

While it may have been patriarchal political gimmicks that put women into panchayats in Andhra Pradesh, the ladies have ensured they have a true and firm say in the proceedings, observes Usha Turaga-Revelli.

Andhra Pradesh has provided 50 per cent reservation to women for the first time in the panchayat elections held recently. With half of the total 21,590 panchayats in the state having been allotted to women, the polls – that took place in three phases – have thrown up many successes as well as some learnings. Surprised women candidates, intensely political contests complete with gimmicks and deceptions, and clear battle lines drawn between the major political parties, were all part of the electoral process.

Surprise, surprise!

When her panchayat was declared reserved, Jyothi of Metlakunta in Mahbubnagar district suddenly found herself being pushed into the political arena. She filed her nomination because her husband, a long-standing politician in the area, was forced to withdraw due to this reservation. She says, “It was completely out of the blue. Here I was this housewife whose role was restricted to supplying chai to the endless stream of my husband’s supporters and then, quite unexpectedly, I am made to wear this party kanduva (upper cloth worn usually by men in rural areas) and become a leader. Even now the feeling has yet to sink in.” The fact that her husband, too, was taken aback by the notification reflects in the many flex banners that still adorn the village, with his smiling image seeking votes.

Twisted and cunning

Incidentally, the reservation notification did not just take the women by surprise, but severely hit the ambitions of many male politicians, who resorted to their bag of tricks to deal with this “problem”. For instance, while a village in Prakasam district ‘chose’ an old beggar woman as its consensus candidate, just to avoid an election, elsewhere in the state a candidate advanced his wedding date just so that his new bride could stand in the elections in his place. "The power has to remain within the family. What else can he do?" a local journalist laconically comments. At places, the Election Commission even disqualified candidates for auctioning the posts of sarpanch.

Covert domination

Of course, the one aspect the poll experience has highlighted is that women sarpanches and ward members need to make dedicated efforts to win over their constituency, manage funds and, most importantly, handle hostility from the men under their governance. Sadly, these are tough hurdles to get past. Observes S. Janakamma, a former sarpanch from Anantapur district, who has dealt with the problem of lack of control over the panchayat, "In the villages, the domination is never overt. The men make way purely because it is the rule and they have to let a woman contest. Often, the sarpanch herself has no say in what happens in the panchayat. It is the senior party leaders who take decisions. There was a time when my supporters clashed with opponents and I got to know of it only when a case was registered and I was summoned to the police station."

A beacon

Savitha Srinivas, Sarpanch of Garshakurthi village, says, “I had no political aspirations before this. But when our panchayat was reserved for women, I kind of started seeing so many issues around me – and also ways to solve them. So, I thought, let me take the plunge. And today I am proud to say that I won on my own steam as an independent candidate.”

A feisty leader who garnered a majority of 400 votes, winning 1,620 votes out of the total 3,200 polled in Garshakurthi, Savitha is firm that she will not relinquish her hold over the agenda of her panchayat. "I am a graduate. And I have won in spite of the local dynamics and caste factors," she says with determination.

After a moments silence, Savitha adds with a broad smile, "I am going to be a model sarpanch, like that lady from Rajasthan.” She is referring to Chhavi Rajawat about whom she remembers “reading in the papers long back".

Not dainty dames

Women sarpanches also complain that the men are in a habit of pushing them into the background when it comes to dealing with district-level officials or making decisions related money. In fact, women sarpanches are called only to sign or pose for photographs while their husbands playing their true role, unquestioned and unchallenged.

But despite such efforts to cast a shadow on the polls and manipulate the results, the reservations have given wings to many women who were up for the challenge. In Dhanwada mandal of Mahbubnagar, women have more than half the seats – apart from those reserved they contested from general seats as well.

The women sarpanches and ward members, it appears, are taking a lot of interest in the political and administrative matters in their villages. And they are out to prove that they are no longer willing to a mere “pretty” presence in the panchayat office.  

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