India goes 'pro-woman'

India goes 'pro-woman'

Undira Gandhi became the first woman Prime Minister of India in 1966. A good 13 years later Britain, the mother of democracy, presented it’s first woman Premier in 1979 when Conservative Margaret Thatcher stepped into No. 10, Downing Street, defeating James Callaghan’s incumbent Labour government.

Women in the United Kingdom were provided voting rights only in 1918. This happened after a long and hard struggle. The British women were fighting for their voting rights since 1860s. India, in contrast, provided for universal suffrage before and soon after independence. This, of course, was not possible without the  centuries-old struggle for rights of women in Europe and America.

The election of Meira Kumar (MP from Sasaram, Bihar), daughter of Congress leader Jagjivan Ram, to the post of  Speaker of the Lok Sabha this month has put “a second official stamp” of approval on “pro-women” political postings in the country after Pratibha Patil became the first woman to head the Indian Republic on July 25, 2007.

Quota & male polemics

And now ambitious moves are afoot in India for ensuring 33 per cent reservation of seats for women in the lower house of parliament and in the state assemblies. As and when this happens, India would be the only country in the world to offer such a “political status” to “the second-sex”. The impact of 33 per cent reservation for women may have a roller coaster affect on the politics and society ruled and run under the dominant “male value system.”

But that would happen only if ground realities in the context of conditions of  average women and girl child also changes. First-time Lok Sabha MP Harsimrat Kaur from Bhatinda (Shiromani Akali Dal) candidly speaks about all-round domination of men in rural India. She says even after six decades of independence, a village head has to be a man and in villages where “Sarpanch” seats are reserved for women, husbands remote control  “Panchayats” using their wives. Pointing to female foeticide, Kaur says: “To empower women in reality, first women should be given the right to be born as per their gender”.

The killings of “the yet to be born female children” in some of the Punjab villages are so rampant that they are described as “kudi mar” (girl child-killer) villages. Not without reason, Punjab and Haryana have the worst male-female ratio in the country. Yet another distressing figure is that of sex workers. Out of about 300,000 women sex workers in the country, almost half of them are girl children.

If empowerment of women is to be synonymous with “she” occupying the key posts in the country, then the largest populated state of Uttar Pradesh had the first ‘Dalit” woman Chief Minister in Kumari Mayawati in 1995. Even before that UP had the distinction of having the first woman Chief Minister in Sucheta Kripalani way back  in 1963 .

Sonia Gandhi is the President of the Congress party since 1998 but far way  back in time, Annie Besant had become the first woman President of Indian National Congress. She presided over the 1917 Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress. The one interesting link between Gandhi and Beasant was their foreign origin.

There are a number of well-heeled women who made it big in Indian politics.

J Jayalalitha, the actor-turned politician and AIADMK chief was elected to power thrice in Tamil Nadu -- from 1991 to 1996, for five months in 2001 and from 2002 to 2006.
Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, the Congress chief minister in Punjab ruled the state from April 1996 to February 1997.

Kissa kursi ka

There are some cases of “rank opportunistic empowerment” with politicians transferring their “Kursis” (hot seats) to their wives for “safe keeping”. For instance Rabri Devi, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Yadav’s wife became the Bihar chief minister from July 1997 to February 1999 and again from March 1999 to March 2000. Rabri kept the seat hot while her husband went to jail in the fodder scam and struggled with other cases.

This model of “empowerment” has another variant in Janaki Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu. Janaki succeeded her actor husband and Tamil Nadu chief minister M G Ramachandran when the latter died in 1987. Her AIADMK government lasted only 24 days.

BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, recently appointed deputy leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, was the chief minister of Delhi from October to December 1998. Swaraj’s ex-party colleague Uma Bharati was chief minister of Madhya Pradesh from December 2003 to August 2004. The two political women leaders came up in their political life largely on their own.

Another BJP leader of royal Scindia background, Vasundhara Raje, was chief minister of Rajasthan from December 2003. Her party was not able to regain power in the state in the December 2008 elections.

Last month, Congress leader Sheila Dikshit became the longest serving woman chief minister in the country when she retained power for the third time in the Delhi assembly elections. Dikshit’s father was a central minister in the Indira Gandhi government.

But women occupying political high posts is not unique to recent Indian history. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, sister of first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first woman central minister as also free India’s first ambassador to the erstwhile Soviet Union. Likewise, Sarojini Naidu had the distinction of being the first woman governor in the country. Nandini Satpathy headed the Congress government in Orissa from June 1972 to March 1974 and March 1974 to December 1976. Shashikala Kakodkar was Goa chief minister from August 1973 to June 1977 and then from June 1977 to April 1979 heading a Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party government. The list of “first women” may go on – the first speaker of assembly Sanno Devi, first IPS officer Kiran Bedi, first Indian Miss Universe Sushmita Sen and first Miss World Rita Faria.

But are these first women making a chain and reaching the last woman in the street? The 33 per cent women’s quota could be a positive step in bringing about a change in the gender issue. But the diehard throwbacks and the keepers of status quo are yet not ready to give up “the privileges”.

“Women hold up half of the sky”, said Chinese helmsman Mao Tse Tung over six decades back. Would they be holding up 33 per cent of the Lok Sabha now? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

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