Women politicians bring to politics and policy a sensitivity that most of their male counterparts, at least until a generation back, lacked.
Only 15 of the 389 members of the Constituent Assembly, which framed the Constitution, were women.
But they stridently opposed any reservation for women, arguing that equality alone could be the basis for mutual respect and understanding between genders.
In 1966, India had a woman prime minister.
While it didn’t help improve women’s representation in legislatures, one wonders whether Indira Gandhi, the pre-eminent of the 17 women politicians Nidhi Sharma’s book She, The Leader: Women In Indian Politics profiles, Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru’s only child, would have been as successful a politician if she had had a brother.
The question isn’t biased if one considers examples not just from patriarchal Hindi heartland political dynasties but even from matrilineal societies of the Northeast, such as Meghalaya, where families celebrate when a girl is born, and of Ampareen Lyngdoh, the book’s 17th protagonist, a fourth-term legislator and currently a minister in the National People’s Party government in the state.
When her father, Peter G Marbaniang, a parliamentarian, died in 1997, Ms Lyngdoh believed she should be the inheritor of his political legacy since she assisted him in his political work.
Her mother, the head of the family, picked her brother, Robert G Lyngdoh, a government servant at the time ‘and nowhere connected to politics’, as Marbaniang’s political successor.
After a brief but successful stint, Robert stepped away from politics after a stroke in 2006.
Ms Lyngdoh finally had her opportunity, but her brother and the Congress block president selected someone outside the family as the party candidate.
Ms Lyngdoh contested on the ticket of a regional party, defeating the Congress candidate in the 2008 assembly polls.
She was the only woman legislator in the 60-member Meghalaya assembly.
Despite their better gender ratios than the national average and matrilineal societies, few women enter public life in the North East.
Women’s representation has only marginally improved in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies in the last 70 years.
The first Lok Sabha in 1952 had 4.4 per cent women members.
The current 17th Lok Sabha has 15 per cent. The US House of Representatives had 2 per cent women members in 1951 and 28.3 per cent in 2022, while the House of Commons increased from 3 per cent to 34.61 per cent in the same period.
It is incongruous to compare women’s representation in the developed world and developing countries, such as India, which is why, by the 1970s, the women’s movement recognised the need for their political reservation.
The Ramakrishna Hegde-led Janata Party government in Karnataka introduced 25 per cent reservation for women in panchayats, and the state saw its first election under the changed law in December 1986.
By 1988, the National Perspective Plan for Women: 1988-2000 supported a 30 per cent reservation for women, the first government document to set the proportion for women’s reservation at one-third.
It paved the way for the 73rd and 74th amendments, which Rajiv Gandhi piloted, but the law was enacted after his death.
During the negotiations on reservation for women in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), Sharma writes, then Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Gegong Apang told Rajiv Gandhi’s aide Mani Shankar Aiyar, ‘If you force us to have women’s reservation, we will go join China.’
Until now, over 1.4 million women have been elected to the PRIs.
The H D Deve Gowda introduced a Bill to reserve a third of the seats in the Lok Sabha and legislative assemblies for women in 1996, which his party leaders, such as Sharad Yadav, opposed, demanding a quota within quota, arguing that ‘parkati mahilayen‘, women with short hair, that is privileged urban women, will corner the seats.
The Bill continues to hang fire, but in the last quarter century, women increasingly comprise a vote bank that determines election issues and outcomes, spurring parties to announce women-specific manifestos, promises and ‘guarantees’.
She, The Leader: Women In Indian Politics chronicles the political trajectories of Sucheta Kripalani, the country’s first woman chief minister, Sonia Gandhi, J Jayalalithaa, Vasundhara Raje, Sheila Dikshit, Mayawati, Sushma Swaraj, Mamata Banerjee, among others, and the current crop of women politicians, such as Smriti Z Irani, Supriya Sule and Kanimozhi.
It also touches upon the ugly side of Indian public life, of women facing the risk of physical assaults, as did Mayawati, Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee.
Or how they manage their careers and home — Ms Lyngdoh’s husband deserted her when she took the political plunge, leaving her to raise her young children as a single mother.
Sushma Swaraj’s husband, one of the youngest governors of a state ever, took the back seat as she rose to prominence.
Women politicians, Sharma suggests, bring to politics and policy a sensitivity that most of their male counterparts, at least until a generation back, lacked.
In May 1991, standing in front of her husband’s coffin, Sharma notes, Sonia Gandhi noticed the flowerless coffin of Rajiv Gandhi’s bodyguard, Pradeep, and placed some flowers on it.
She pushed the government to roll out schemes that helped women, as did Jayalalithaa in her tenures as the Tamil Nadu chief minister.
Kanimozhi’s advocacy had Tamil Nadu become the first state in the country to establish a welfare board for transgender people and introduce the third gender option in college admission forms.
In India, as the adoption of the Hindu Code Bill in 1956 despite protests from large sections of Hindu traditionalists showed, Parliament occasionally needs to herald reforms that, hopefully, trickle down into the soil that remains patriarchal and the women’s reservation Bill, or even the promise in Madhya Pradesh to reserve a third of government jobs for women are ideas whose time has arrived.
She, The Leader: Women In Indian Politics
Author: Nidhi Sharma
Price: Rs 999
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com
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