Karnataka politics: where are the women?

Lately, Shobha Karandlaje was rural development minister. Ramya is the national head of Congress’ digital team. However, the total number of women who have been elected to parliament or state legislature is very low. DH file photo

Karnataka has had several women ministers, namely Margaret Alva, Basavarajeshwari and Taradevi Siddharth in the Union cabinet, and Nafees Fazal, Manorama Madhvaraj, Rani Satish, etc., in the state cabinet. The late KS Nagarathnamma was the only woman MLA to become the Speaker and the opposition leader in the assembly, while Motamma was the only woman to become the opposition leader in the council.

Lately, Shobha Karandlaje was rural development minister. Ramya is the national head of Congress’ digital team. However, the total number of women who have been elected to parliament or state legislature is very low. And the situation is unlikely to improve in the forthcoming assembly elections as very few women are contesting. Karnataka pioneered the reservation of 25% seats for women in panchayats when Ramakrishna Hegde was chief minister in 1983, even before the passage of the legislation that mandated representation for women in these bodies. This was commendable, as at that juncture no powerful women’s lobby had emerged in Karnataka to press for this move.

Today, with the 73rd and 74th Amendments, which call for the reservation of a third of seats for women in Panchayat Raj institutions and urban bodies, the percentage representation of women in the three levels of Panchayat Raj institutions in Karnataka – gram panchayat, taluk panchayat and zilla panchayat are 51.14%, 55.15% and 53.21%, respectively. Despite enormous challenges and obstacles, women have started to play an important role in panchayats in Karnataka and accelerate social development.

Today, women are change agents who transform the development agenda and address health, education, nutrition, sanitation and empowerment. But still, women have not been given due space and representation in the state assembly and parliament. In the assembly, the situation is abysmal. A cursory study of the 2013 election reveals that women’s political representation is nowhere comparable to that of men. According to the Election Commission, out of the total 224 assembly constituencies in Karnataka, out of 175 women candidates who contested in 113 constituencies, only six women won the elections. The six constituencies are Nippani, Terdal, Kumta, Shimoga Rural (SC), Kolar Gold Field (SC), Puttur. Out of the 169 women who lost the election, 159 forfeited their deposits. The situation in parliament is no better. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, 21 women contested in Karnataka. Only one woman won.

The Bill introduced in parliament in September 1996 to reserve a third of the seats in parliament and state legislatures has evoked a great deal of resistance. This is despite the fact that all the parties –- BJP, Congress, JD(S) – support the legislation only theoretically. The reality is that the legislation has not been passed till date.

Women’s participation will transform the political landscape of Karnataka and bring in many positive benefits. Women introduce new perspectives and promote gender-friendly policies. Women are more capable of networking across party lines work to accomplish social welfare objectives. For instance, in the 2008 Rwandan parliament, 56% of the members of parliament were women, who dealt with controversial issues like land rights and food security. Women MPs in Britain have informally worked together across party lines on societal issues like employment law, equal pay and violence against women.

The Karnataka Vision 2025 document states that the main aim is for the state to be a leader in human development and offer a minimum quality of life that is at least the national average in every region of the state.

However, the impediments are many: high levels of corruption — Transparency International ranked Karnataka as the fourth most corrupt state in a recent survey — and a phase of political instability. The participation of women and men together can bring about positive political culture to make the vision a reality. A critical mass of women in power can affect a transformation in leadership.

There is no denying the fact that greater participation of women in the political process would be a pre-condition for sustainable development and their economic and social upliftment. Even though a significantly large number of women vote in the country, women have held positions like President and prime minister as well as chief ministers of various states, yet in Karnataka, there has been no woman chief minister. In the last five years, the state has had only two women ministers in a male-dominated cabinet: Women and Child Welfare and Kannada and Culture minister Umashree and Cooperation and Sugar minister Geeta Mahadeva Prasad.

Today, women encounter many problems and challenges to gain access to political power and empowerment in Karnataka. Socio-economic obstacles are lack of adequate financial resources, limited access to education and health. Psychological barriers include women’s low self-esteem and self-confidence, endorsed by certain cultural patterns that do not facilitate women’s access to political careers. Political obstacles are lack of party support. It is necessary to increase women’s representation in the parties and legislature. The political leadership of women is of crucial significance in the present political landscape to ensure empowerment of women, gender justice and gender equality in Karnataka.

(The writer is a former Professor of Sociology, Christ Deemed to be University, Bengaluru)

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