The world’s largest democratic exercise, the 17th General Elections, returned the Modi Government to power with a mandate that set a new record for our polity. Done and ~ well ~ almost dusted. Notwithstanding the expected gripes, darkly conjured up doomsday apparitions and conspiracy loaded lamentations from some shell shocked quarters, many clear messages have been sent by the people of India. Lessons need to be learnt from them to ensure that there is indeed a definitive move towards effecting fundamental, transformative change, which unfortunately remains unrealized in substantial measure, even after seven decades of endless swearing on and by our iconic Constitution which has, at least at the level of easy exhortation, been accorded a sacrosanct status.
According to the understandably ~ and justifiably ~ exultant Prime Minister, it was chemistry that worked and arithmetic that failed, putting paid to soaring ambitions of aspirational, though arguably, faded and jaded politicos. However, there can be no disputing the essence of the verdict in that it cannot be “yesterday-oncemore” yet again. Whether the vaulting expectations of the electorate will be met, of course , remains to be seen. This is just the start of a tough and challenging performance test. It will depend to a large extent on the nature of vigilance and informed, intense scrutiny the Government is made to go through with during its full tenure. The easy option of moving off into an uncaring ~ though intermittently carping ~ snooze mode, simply won’t work if we the people are genuinely serious about where and how we want to move, as we unfailingly seek to make out, given the slightest opportunity.
Among the positive takeaways from the elections is that this Lok Sabha will have the distinction of the highest percentage of women MPs since Independence. Their number is 78, constituting 14 per cent of total membership, evidencing the trend of slow, yet steady growth over the years. The outgoing Lok Sabha had about 11 per cent women MPs, while the very first Lok Sabha of 1952 had a miniscule 5 per cent. Impressively, a third of these 78 MPs have retained their seats. They are also, in terms of averages, younger, more educated, richer and have won by bigger margins than their male counterparts. Further, an analysis of the strike rates ~ the percentage of seats contested that are won ~ shows that women scored higher in parties that have sent a noteworthy number of women MPs to the Lok Sabha. For the BJP it was 74.1per cent and for the TMC, 52.9 per cent
It is, therefore, disappointing to observe, in this heartening backdrop, that out of a total of 8000-odd candidates who contested the general elections, less than 10 per cent were women and a significantly high third of these contested independently. Of the national parties, the BJP and Congress gave tickets to not more than 12 per cent women candidates each . No new thinking on this front. However, in numerical terms, because of the number of seats contested, the figures appear to be misleadingly high, i.e. 53 and 54 respectively. For the record, the final tally of elected women MPs from these two parties stands at 40 and 6 respectively. In sharp contrast, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress, fielded around 41 per cent women candidates, with the predictable star-quotient thrown in for its dazzle-power. 9 made it, making TMC the party with the second largest number of women MPs. Navin Patnaik’s, BJD, too, gave tickets to 33 per cent women ~ in 7 of the 21 seats in Odisha. They included Chandrani Murmu, a 25-year-old B Tech student and Pramila Bisoyi, a 70-year-old Anganwadi Sahayika who has not travelled out of the State. Both won as did 3 more, making it the party right below the Congress in the number of its women members. Among the parties which fielded women candidates but were unsuccessful in making the cut were CPI-M, CPI and AAP.
Pan India, UP and West Bengal have the highest number of women MPs, while many States / UTs have a dismal solo representation, viz. Assam, Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Kerala, Meghalaya, Telangana, Tripura and Uttarakhand.
While the picture is a mixed one, it is not one to be particularly euphoric about. A comparison of the latest data on national Parliaments available with the World Bank shows that India is still far behind the world as well as regional average. These are around 24 per cent and 18 per cent. The percentage is much higher in countries such as Rwanda (61 per cent), Cuba and Bolivia ( both 53 per cent), Mexico (48 per cent) and Sweden ( 47 per cent). Our neighbours, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have fared better on this score.
The Women’s Reservation Bill to reserve 33 per cent seats in the Lok Sabha has been in a comatose state for over two decades. Neither the UPA or the NDA Governments have been able to see it through on some pretext or the other. Occasionally the women MPs and activists scream and shout about it, getting their moment-in-the-camera-glory. Political parties also remember to squeeze it into the fuzzy fine-print of their insignificant manifestoes, knowing fully well that they are highly unlikely to be held to account for it. As Dr. Carole Spray, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham and the co- author of Performing Representation:Women Members in the Indian Parliament, has scathingly pointed out, “78 female MPs is good, but it will take another 40 years to reach 33 per cent”.
The Prime Minister is keen to push through major electoral reforms like simultaneous elections at different levels of governance. If it is history that is being attempted to be written, along with this and many others which require urgent attention, he ought to consider, on top priority, taking a fresh look at the tattered Women’s Reservation Bill. To my mind, instead of staying with the jinxed figure of 33 per cent, on grounds of equity, if not anything else, he should revise it to an eminently justifiable 50 per cent and steer it through as part of the “New India” package, slated to be ushered in by 2024. Civil society and some political parties like the TMC and DMK have already reignited the faltering campaign and petitioned the Law Minister to introduce the Bill in the inaugural session of Parliament which will be in session will the end of July.
Those elected should not for a moment forget that the 2019 elections have seen more women voters than ever before , equalling the percentage of male voters.
Institutionalising the meaningful participation of half the population that holds up the sky, in governance will obviously not be enough. There should be no illusions as Parliament is a deeply gendered structure, as are its systems and processes, being an adjunct of a predominantly patriarchal, hierarchical and identity-riven society which we are unfortunately still embedded in.
There is much by way of innovative re-engineering that is called for. To give it the touch of raw reality, we may refer to the study of the Association for Democratic Reforms and the National Election Watch. This time around 100 women candidates declared criminal cases against themselves.
For the real difference to be felt, no failed clones and no rehash of a disappointing past please.