The government let go of a historic opportunity to pass the long pending (twenty-two-year-old) Women’s Reservation Bill – which would have guaranteed that at least 33 per cent of parliamentarians are women – despite having a total majority in the last five years and in spite of making it a poll promise in their 2014 manifesto. The major opposition party has announced that should it come to power in 2019, it will pass the Bill immediately. So far, neither of the parties has actively demonstrated the sincerity of their intent by actually giving far more women tickets to contest in the forthcoming elections.

Mainstream political parties notwithstanding, this election could actually be a turning point for gender equality in the country, should various other factors fall into place.

Other parties, institutions and voters may well bring about the desired change. This observation stems from events that have been unfolding in the last few months and the fact that a significant proportion of the 900 million voters will be young, first-time voters and women voters.

When members of the National Alliance for Women (a well-recognised and respected platform today of several eminent NGOs working together on women’s empowerment including the Women’s Reservation Bill) went to meet the Chief Election Commissioner two years ago, it was with a mixture of angst and hope. The former stemmed from finding negligible reference to gender in the electoral reforms advocated by various law commissions over the years. A strong emphasis on fiscal reforms and vetting of the candidate’s background has resulted in important changes. Revelation of their financial assets and legal history is mandatory for a candidate. Those with legal cases against them that could result in two years imprisonment or more are barred from contesting. The public has the right to reject all candidates and can choose to press the NOTA (none of the above) button. The relative lack of attention towards gender equality has resulted in the number of female parliamentarians not ever crossing the 12 per cent mark.

The groups’ advocacy pertained to the individual parties as well as representation in Parliament. They wanted the Election Commission to make a strong recommendation to the political parties on gender equality in the internal democracy of the party such as enough women in the party strategic committees and think tanks as well as more tickets for women candidates. They also wanted the Commission to support the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament. They felt that the country was being deprived of adequate female talent at highest levels of decision-making whereas people with criminal records were sitting as elected representatives of the people. The National Alliance of Women was of the opinion that internally undemocratic parties do not truly reflect the mandate of the people.

The Commission has been very receptive to the gender issue. Over the last couple of months they have outlined broadly their approach to better gender inclusion: engagement with the political parties and discussion on this aspect; greater involvement of women in the conduct of the elections (including all-women booths) and of course, continuing to bring in as many women voters into the fold as possible.

The Election Commission, on releasing data for the recently concluded Karnataka elections in 2018 voiced their disappointment at the low percentage of tickets given to women (8 per cent) in that election. This made for a powerful statement. Recent announcements about all women polling booths in Karnataka and Delhi reflect sincerity of intent.

The National Alliance for Women hopes that the current Election Commissioner will build on the gender tempo and take decisive action on the Commission’s own recommendations of 2017 (also endorsed by the law commission). Clause 4.30.3 says, “The commission recommends that every political party should…………etc…….reservation/ representation of at least 30 percent of its organisational positions and the same percentage of party tickets for parliamentary and state legislature seats to women. Failure to do so should invite the penalty of the party losing recognition.”

Ironically, recommendations are to be legislated by Parliament after which they can be implemented on ground. The Commission is well within its rights, however, to loudly and consistently influence internal party democracy. It should be seen to be doing so as the guardian of a truly gender equitable and model code of election conduct.

Meetings of the members of the National Alliance of Women with political leaders from different parties led to conversations around practical difficulties faced by the parties in fielding women candidates. Arguments offered included women candidates likely to campaign for lesser hours; avoid campaigning in certain places; not working at night; less people willing to back women candidates financially; elite women likely to get tickets; lack of sufficient female candidates in the party and so on. The National Alliance members countered these supposed limitations with solution- focused discussions.

Today, we see a positive trend insofar as more political leaders are beginning to see the merit in engaging women more fairly. Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik recently announced 33 per cent reservation for women within his BJD party and Bengal CM, Mamata Bannerjee, announced a whopping 40 per cent ticket allocation to female candidates. It would be gratifying if other political parties too felt compelled to follow these path-breaking examples.

The experience of the National Alliance of Women with respect to the Press is that it is consistently helpful and there is healthy coverage of this issue at press conferences and other events organised by women’s groups. The Press has yet to allot this critical issue space on the front pages of their papers, however. The National Alliance for Women hopes that the Press helps in highlighting clauses relevant to women’s empowerment from amongst party manifestos and builds awareness around how many election tickets have actually been allotted to women by the parties in their electoral lists. They would do good service to the cause to compare for the public’s benefit how much any political manifesto is in resonance with the ‘Womanifesto’. The Womanifesto is a wonderful consensus document recently released by the National Alliance which captures female aspirations in diverse fields such as environment , health, gender budgeting and others in a nutshell : http://bit.ly/2u9hZJS

Finally, it rests on our shoulders as voters, to act decisively for gender equality in this country. If we want political parties to field more women candidates, we have to elect these candidates; so that the parties are encouraged to keep fielding women representatives and this becomes a healthy self- perpetuating cycle. The youth of today, who pride themselves on being far more gender just must take their involvement to a much higher level by supporting women candidates. In the absence of a suitable female candidate in a constituency, voters must back a party which is more demonstrably supportive of women. We truly hope these elections are special in the coming together of all democratic forces to shape a more gender balanced future for our country.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based medical practitioner)