MumbaiNaama: When Will Women’s Issues Be Politically Relevant?

MumbaiNaama: When Will Women’s Issues Be Politically Relevant?

The propensity to merely use women as props in the election season, as pawns against rival parties or leaders, is disgusting and shameful

Smruti KoppikarUpdated: Thursday, May 09, 2024, 08:37 PM IST
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Representative Image | File

The suburban trains do not disappoint. In the midst of every subject that’s heard in animated voices in the women’s compartments over the last fortnight, I engaged in enough conversations and saw many scroll to the Prajwal Revanna story to know that this has hit women where it hurts, even in Mumbai. There was horror and shock, there was also derision about powerful dynasties in which children abuse their privilege and bring shame to their families, and there were firm denials when I asked some women if they would vote for such a candidate.

The sex scandal — it is more than that, but the media tag sticks — from Karnataka’s Hassan in which Revanna, a 30-something third-generation political dynast, was found in nearly 3,000 video clips allegedly harassing, abusing, sexually assaulting women three times his age has opened a can of issues in this election season far away from his constituency. Hundreds of women, it is believed, across the board from his house help and cooks to even officers in the district have had to ‘oblige’ the depravities of this entitled young man. After the tapes were outed, as a political checkmate, many of the women whose identities were unfortunately revealed have had to seek refuge even from their families, reports say.

The grandson of former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, son of long-time legislator HD Revanna, nephew of two-time chief minister HD Kumaraswamy, the young man is contesting as a Janata Dal (Secular) candidate the second time. Prajwal’s stature was significant enough for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make a whistle-stop at Hassan to campaign for him. The father has since been arrested while the son’s return from Germany is awaited. The Government of India, helpfully, put out a blue corner notice for Prajwal Revanna, not the harsher red corner alert used for fugitives. The Congress government in Karnataka has since set up an investigation team.

Did the BJP know of his depravity and video-filming his women victims? Apparently, yes. Prajwal Revanna’s driver stole the video clips and reached them to a BJP leader from Hassan who alerted the party to this brazen misuse of power back in December and warned against the alliance. Was the Congress in Karnataka aware? Its leaders would have to be in the know but chose to keep quiet till it was politically expedient to blow the lid off the sordid story.

In the reams of news reports and video journalism I have seen, the politics of this shameful scandal has occupied centre-stage — not the hundreds of women whose suffering and powerlessness should enrage us all. How they continue to live their lives, what is their mental health status, what kind of support and shelter do they have or need, have families shunned some of them, where will these women go now? These questions have seen less space and attention from the media.

Far away, in Bengal’s Sandeshkhali, a similar scandal took an unexpected turn as the women victims of the sex-for-favours story, which made national news earlier this year, accused the BJP of having orchestrated it all, alleging that they were made to sign blank paper affidavits and so on. The disturbing politicisation of this story between the BJP and the Trinamool Congress is still unfolding. Elsewhere, during the campaign, the prime minister speaks of ‘mangalsutras’ of women to which Congress party’s Priyanka Gandhi Vadra retorts to remind the nation of her mother’s sacrifice of mangalsutra for the country.

In each of these, the propensity to merely use women as props in the election season, as pawns against rival parties or leaders, is disgusting and shameful. Political parties make a hue and cry about the welfare for women, remind voters of the many schemes that were rolled out for their benefit, run down rivals as women-unfriendly and so on. The pattern repeats every election. It is cynical and it is sickening, to say the least. The mud-slinging just does not stop, it is not replaced by serious discussions or debates about women’s issues.

Would more women in politics have made it different? This is a difficult question because through the many stories of sexual harassment and violence against women in the last five years, women cabinet ministers in Modi’s cabinet hardly spoke up to offer support for the women in distress. Remember their silence during the long protests of women wrestlers against the Wrestling Federation of India chief Brij Bhushan Saran Singh? Or during the farmers’ agitation in which women farmers were at the forefront?

These worthy women include Smriti Irani who is, ironically, women and child development minister and Nirmala Sitharaman, finance minister, who is famous for, among other things, her derisive put-down on rising onion-garlic prices in the Lok Sabha. These two had campaigned vigorously and resolutely against the Dr Manmohan Singh government for ‘rising’ prices of LPG cylinders as well as sexual crimes including the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape case. What got their tongues when in power? Other powerful women make this list long but the point is this: women in power have rarely spoken up or supported women’s issues.

They had rushed to praise the Prime Minister when the 33% reservation for women in Parliament and Assembly election was made into law. Such selectivity hurts more than helps. Has the BJP offered as many seats to women candidates? Have other parties done so? Has there been an honest attempt by any party, national or regional, to consciously bring more candidates into the electoral fray, especially party workers and not women from political dynasties? In between elections, politicians seem sensitive to fair representation and articulation of women’s issues only to swing back to the tried-and-tested mudslinging tactics during campaigns.

In Mumbai, of the 115-120 candidates in the fray for whom we will vote on May 20, women make barely 10%. The prominent ones are Varsha Gaikwad (Mumbai North Central) and Yamini Jadhav (Mumbai South) representing the key political parties while a few women have filed nominations as independents. Across Maharashtra, the two major alliances Maha Vikas Aghadi and Mahayuti have fielded barely 15 women candidates on the state’s 48 seats.

This when the number of women voters has seen an increase of 16.3% compared to 12% increase in men voters since 2014. In three constituencies — Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg, Raigad, Bhandara-Gondia — women voters outnumber men. The turnouts in the past two general elections saw women equal or outnumber men in several constituencies. The figures for this election are still rolling in.

Yet, women’s issues from livelihood and amenities to sexual crimes do not get centre-stage attention from parties or leaders that they deserve. On the rare occasion that they do, women are addressed and spoken of as beneficiaries of government schemes rather than participants in a socio-economic process. Core issues like timely and adequate pay for Anganwadi workers do not even make it to election campaigns. The duality is explained, at least partly, by the emphasis of political parties on the ‘winnability’ of candidates and avoidance of ‘heavy’ issues in campaigns. It will take years and many elections before core issues of women become politically relevant and significant — and women are not portrayed as victims or beneficiaries.

Amidst this, take a moment to remember Jaishri Naishadh Raiji of the Congress party, a freedom fighter and social worker, who was the first woman to represent the city, winning from Bombay Suburban in the general election of 1951-52. Mumbai has a history it can be proud of but the representation has not necessarily become better.

Smruti Koppikar, senior journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and the media. She is the Founder Editor of the award-winning online journal ‘Question of Cities’

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