The number of women candidates for elections must go up
Words and promises only hold meaning if they are backed by concrete action. That, unfortunately, rarely happens in the case of Indian politicians, as is evident in the paltry number of women candidates being fielded by major political parties for the impending Lok Sabha elections. The Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, commented on the paucity of women in leadership positions and promised 33 per cent reservation for them in government jobs and Parliament if his party is voted to power. He is not alone in having made such pledges; in its manifesto before the general elections in 2014, the passage of the women’s reservation bill had been one of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s key promises. And yet, not only has that promise not been fulfilled, but out of the 374 candidates that the BJP has announced so far for 2019, a mere 45 are women. In the case of the Congress, the number of women candidates out of 343 is 47. These figures, while appalling, ought not to be surprising; they merely highlight the apathy of politicians regarding women’s empowerment and visibility, and their belief that promises of cosmetic changes will enhance their electoral chances.
One major reason behind such hypocrisy is undoubtedly Indian society’s aversion to women in power. Women are viewed as unfit to exercise authority — both within the home and outside it — and make key decisions that affect policy. But perhaps it is also time to venture beyond this understanding and investigate the question of empowerment, and whether it can truly be achieved simply by representation in numbers. The Trinamul Congress and the Biju Janata Dal have fielded 41 per cent and 33 per cent women candidates this time, but is that likely to translate into true empowerment? Even though there have been governmental efforts to encourage the political participation of women in gram panchayats, it has been found that they often remain nominal heads while their male relatives — father, husbands and brothers — wield the actual power. It is not that empowerment is not happening at all, but it is slow and rare. The number of women candidates for elections must, of course, go up; not only is equality a foundational principle of the Indian republic, but visibility in terms of numbers can help ordinary citizens get used to the idea of women in power. But the key to achieving lasting empowerment lies in education and awareness. It is only in this way that the idea of women having the freedom to exercise their own choice as leaders will gain wider acceptance in Indian society.