And Shakti is here to give it to them

On Saturday, the 8th of December, Chalukya Hotel was filled with women. Of all shapes and sizes, clothes and colour, irrespective of ideology or affiliation. They were here for the first ever India Women’s Caucus, the Bangalore launch of Shakti — a non-partisan, citizen’s group that came together just a month ago, to fight for a Women’s Representation Assurance Policy in mainstream Indian politics.

When I studied the Indian Freedom movement in 8th grade, I remember being damn proud that in my country, women got the vote way before women in Switzerland did. However, 71 years down the line and here’s what the statistics still look like:

data sourced from Economic Survey 2018
data sourced from prsindia.org and livemint

Why? Because women are not competent, not interested, unlikely to win, always proxy candidates, or more corrupt than men? The first speaker that Saturday, Srilatha Batliwala, opened the session with these very myths and within an hour, she and Tara Krishnaswamy (co-convener of the event) had countered every single one of them. “Just look around you, does the state of this country indicate high competence among men?” asked Batliwala, going on to refer to World Bank’s appraisal of “impressive development” in Rwanda — the world’s foremost nation when it comes to women in politics. Krishnaswamy adds to this, citing data from both the United Nations as well as the RSCD; “There’s been 15% more economic growth in constituencies with women leaders” she says. Later into the day, Bhanupriya Rao explains that this is because women tend to focus more on infrastructure investments than the “changing light bulbs kind of maintenance that men focus on”.

“Krishnaswamy uses data from the Election Commission to counter the winnability myth”

As for interest, Batliwala appears surprised. “I did not know we were not interested” she says, describing the teenage years she spent campaigning for her aunt, who later went on to become an MP. Moving on to the “Deep Structures” within party politics that keep women from higher positions, she emphasises on the need to build a parallel process and transform the very culture of politics — the way Richa Singh did in Allahabad University when she refused to play the role of a student leader just laying the bricks for a political career in the Uttar Pradesh elections later on.

But the fact that voters do want women and that women can indeed, change the nature of Indian socio-politics for the better, has not been enough to counter the real impediments that women encounter when entering the political realm. To begin with, as Ruth Manorama says, “party structures are not women friendly”. Not only are women candidates expected to have either financial or male backing, they’re also often faced with the daunting task of quite simply being the only woman in the room. “It was just me!” says Kavitha Reddy, “you begin to ask yourself, do I really belong here?” says Surabhi Hodigere. I am reminded of the workshop on Budget and Media that I attended the previous day, where I was the sole woman participant in a room full of 30 plus men. Numbers do change the game; sitting here among more than 200 women, I felt more comfortable than I had ever felt at a public, political gathering before.

What’s more, caste also plays a significant role. As sarpanch Krishnaveni testifies, caste in particular becomes a cause for harassment. Meanwhile sarpanch Varsha Nikam speaks of how men have 10s of lakhs to spend, purchasing votes with booze and biryani  while women have to work from scratch. “Men’s pockets are deep, but women toh don’t have pockets to begin with!” she laughs. Male backing too, is often the only way in. Without a “father, uncle or boyfriend in the party” as Ruth puts it, acceptance of women is very low. And with it, comes the label of being a proxy candidate.

While some women argue that the 33% of seats reserved for women at panchayat level since 1993 has turned out to be little more than tokenism, with women presidents merely puppets to the real male vice-presidents, others like Nikam and Krishnaveni believe that it works well as an entry point. “5 years to learn the ropes” they explain and according to Nikam, winning the next year around on a general seat comes naturally as a result of the work and connect formed with one’s vote bank. However, as Shahina K.K. points out, despite their entry at panchayat level, women never move beyond since it is only the panchayat that’s considered an extension of family life and not the Assembly.

Another point of entry for women, as Sushmita Dev and Ruchi Gupta argued, are the mahila morchas or women’s wings of various political parties. Though Malavika Avinash questioned the restriction of women to these morchas as a way of keeping them out of where the real decisions take place, Dev says that given the hyper-masculinity of the main party, a women’s wing acts as a “softer platform for younger girls”, at least in the beginning. She speaks then of the need for not just political reservation alone, but also serious gender sensitisation within the party. Bader Sayeed, describing the fatal pillow talk that inevitably follows a win, says that this sensitisation must happen for women as well!

At the very beginning of the all-day event, Tara Krishnaswamy made it clear that it was not to be a “selfie, filter kaapi and Facebook post” kind of day but one that ended with real resolutions and steps to action. Having heard the story of how she brought the group together and raised 1.2 lakhs for the event all within the span of but a month, it wasn’t hard to believe in her determination. The final panel thus, discussed ways forward. Part of these included:

for the original list of resolutions, refer to the Shakti Facebook page. The petition is available on change.org

Finally, there was also a grand plan to march to Delhi before the 2019 elections and before we knew it, everyone in the room was grinning idiotically at the thought of hundreds of women flooding parliament. While ambitions were sure flying high that Saturday, it wasn’t easy to keep from rising with the tide… as Surabhi Hodigere, Dhanya Rajendran and Leela Devi Prasad, repeatedly and fearlessly declared their desires to be CM, PM and all of the above, I couldn’t help but want to be a part of this fantastical plan. To quote Bader Sayeed, “Just dream”, no harm will come.

Shakti’s logo was also launched at the Bangalore event

All infographics made using Infogram. Resolutions poster designed on Canva

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Shalom Gauri

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