Indian politics has woefully failed to address women's issuesby Meena Kandasamy / April 10, 2014 / Leave a comment
It is a fact universally, and unashamedly, acknowledged that caste and cash and religion and alcohol play a far greater role than gender when it comes to voting in India. In the run-up to this year’s election, political parties have spent little time on gender issues, despite occasional references to the Women’s Reservation Bill, a proposed constitutional amendment that would ensure that a third of parliamentary seats have to be filled by women. Most parties have resorted to wooing women voters with populist promises—free kitchen appliances, free colour television sets, food grain subsidies—and have failed to address anything beyond such immediate “domestic” concerns.
In response to this, some of India’s leading feminists and celebrities are promoting a so-called “Womanifesto.” Mainly aimed at an online audience, the campaign asks voters to ask political parties to include six demands in their manifesto: public education programmes to fight discrimination; more detailed and better funded judicial action to end violence against women; passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill; recruiting more female police and prosecutors; swifter justice; and promoting employment opportunities for women.
While the initiative is commendable, it is also naïve. These appeals are being sent to political parties that have not only failed to tackle India’s rape culture, but have actively added to it with their efforts to control female (and male) sexuality, their aspersions about the character of rape victims and their alliances with corrupt caste-based political parties. In a nation that witnesses a rape of a woman every 22 minutes, it is unfortunate that we are still crying for help on the eve of elections, instead of seeking to expose and change India’s heavily patriarchal politics.
Corporations and corporate-run media houses seem far more excited than political parties in making noises about the female electorate. The latest to join this bandwagon is Tata Tea, which has launched their “Power of 49” campaign, reminding women voters, who make up 49 per cent of the electorate, that they have the power to make or break a government. This advertising campaign is an opportunity for Tata to rebrand, after reports of plantations workers on its Nahorani tea estate being paid below the legal minimum wage.
Even as corporations take turns repeating the mantra of female power, Narendra Modi, the pro-business Prime Ministerial candidate of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has styled himself as a hyper-masculine “strong man” who will lead India to new economic heights. Modi fits the patriarch stereotype: as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, a state where every third child is malnourished, he claimed that women were not eating because they were beauty-conscious; in a nation where female foeticide, infanticide and dowry deaths are not uncommon, he advised that parents plant five trees when they have a baby girl, claiming this will help their marriage prospects in later life.
Then there is the carnage that occurred in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister of that state. In February 2002, 58 Hindu pilgrims were killed in a fire on a train. The Gujarat government, led by Modi, claimed that the fire was an attack by a Muslim mob (although a central government investigation later concluded that the fire was an accident). There followed violent retaliation by Hindu mobs that left at least 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus dead, with many Muslim women raped before being burned alive.
Modi’s own role in this religious pogrom has repeatedly been called into question, though he was cleared of wrongdoing by a Special Investigation Team of India’s Supreme Court in 2012. However, many of Modi’s critics remain unsatisfied. As the Economist wrote earlier this week, “If the facts in 2002 are murky, so are Mr Modi’s views now. He could put the pogroms behind him by explaining what happened and apologising. Yet he refuses to answer questions about them. In a rare comment last year he said he regretted Muslims’ suffering as he would that of a puppy run over by a car.”
Campaigning has been wrapped up, and the first round of polling begun this week. The BJP, despite having unleashed a multi-million dollar advertising campaign, did not release its manifesto until 7th April, the first day of polling. In other words, the party finished its entire campaigning spree without letting Indians know clearly where it stands on violence against women, affirmative action, foreign policy, economic issues or national security. At the moment, it appears as if not only India’s women, but the entire 800 million-strong electorate of the world’s largest democracy, are being taken for a ride.