Tsunami Tsunamo has crested, propelled by people-power. As one who entered the media in the late-fifties -then eighteen, now eighty—I stand witness to a rare karmic moment in the nation’s life. It has come only twice before: in 1971 when Indira Gandhi rose Durga-like post-Bangladesh; again, in 1984, when a nation mourning her assassination gave awesome mandate to Rajiv Gandhi. Ironically, both times fate also decreed else-wise. Will this third-opportunity redeem the nation’s trust or similarly fritter?
Daunting multiple challenges exist. Economic, social, political, compounded by extreme polarisation, hate-crimes, a 24X7 media amplifying all. The Minority issue is upfront. As critical but less in focus is its largest minority—women. Women’s empowerment, constitutionally-imperative, done right could transform the body-politic.
The Prime Minister started well. Helming Women and Child Development (WCD) by a political heavyweight: Smriti Irani—the electoral-battle’s giant-killer whom media-speculation had as Amit Shah’s successor—testified to new political will. Irani brings formidable field-talents, tenacity and ability to tweak the bharitya-nari-image with barrier-breaking shakti (witness Sita as pall-bearer). But her absence from recently-announced crucial committees does not augur so well. There must be place at the high table to ensure across-board cooperation. Bridging all gender-gaps is the most sure-footed pathway to total vikas; it cuts-across castes, classes, creeds, creates pan-India empowered citizens.
This election evidenced maturing of women’s political agency: a critical-half of voters were women, near-parity with men, many making independent decisions. Ironically, political parties provided little corresponding support to women’s contestation. Only two regional parties gave women significant seat-allocation: Orissa’s BJD (33%); West Bengal’s Trinamool (50%).
The 17th Lok Sabha boasts the highest tally of women since Independence—76. Yet that comprises only 14% of 543 members. This rate of increase will take forty years to reach women to 33%—the minimum threshold for critical-mass-enabling-gender-impact.
That seventy-six women made it testifies to their gumption. Smriti Irani is prime example having conquered the Gandhi bastion and coped with murder-mayhem. This was the nation’s most acrimonious electoral battle ever, with discourse-coarseness and violence seldom witnessed before. Naturally, winners were mostly the crorepatis—88%; the criminally-charged/court-indicted—43%. Women are a given casualty when money/muscle-power dominate. Besides demeaning-sexist/sexualised-smearing militates for a different macho-type to enter the fray, not the softer gender-influence hoped to uplift politics. Over-half the current women MPs are dynasts also.
Equitable women’s political representation (WPR) remains a key unfulfilled political agenda from the 20th century. Demands to revive the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB), challenging the Prime Minister to redeem past promises and prove his party’s pro-women-credentials are already resurfacing. However, Modi would be wise not to touch the WRB-hot-potato which is a deeply-flawed proposition seeking to unseat one-third sitting members while holding the remaining two-thirds in perpetual jeopardy. Each WRB-attempt saw unprecedented scenes of gross-misconduct/violence blemishing Parliament, prophesying worse outside. Naya India needs women leaders as harbingers of harmony and progress; gender parity not fractional reservation.
WPR is a principal challenge. Done differently it could catalyse simultaneous solution to another equally vexing problem—the demographic-stalemate distorting democratic-processes, ensuring money-and-muscle-power dominance. The misconceived 1976-era population-control-legislation continues to freeze Parliament/Legislature seat-numbers at 1971 population-numbers, causing both seat-scarcity and bloated constituency-size as these average 2 million, many 2 ½ to 3 million population. The freeze extends till 2026. Fresh delimitation comes thereafter. The Constitution, which provided equality-of-vote and equitable state-population-ratios, stands diluted. Creatively enlarging the pie—not rotating scarce-slices and earmarking-additions to women could ensure both gender-representation and demographic-justice without disturbing politically-negotiated balance.
More immediately two interconnected negative trends must be reversed: (1) plummeting women’s work-participation; (2) massive personal physical insecurity for women.
Lack of personal safety threatens women’s freedom-of-movement/speech/ dress, jeopardises equal access to education, health, work-opportunities/political participation. It was a major electoral issue unpacked by many pre-election surveys, perhaps a key factor propelling women to vote in large numbers.
Macro political stability must translate into micro safe environments as preeminent priority. The plummeting work-force participation, the resonating MeToo movement, highlight women’s insecurity in streets/work-places/public-places which are their constitutional birth-right to access. Significantly, women’s equality-push could add 1.4 points to India’s GDP; bridging work-participation gender-gap an estimated $770 billion to the economy by 2025. (McKinsey Report).
However today women face menace to their bodily integrity even within their homes/neighbourhoods. Building home-toilets was one key step towards women’s physical security. It resonated. But cleansing the Internet and social media platforms of pornography freely invading homes, polluting the social-environment, turning near-relatives and strangers alike into predators, is a burning issue yet left untracked—as vested interests of the digital economy prove too powerful to confront.
The dangers from prurience over the airwaves acquire ominous proportions as the airwaves penetrate deeper, compromising the very development they carry. This needs attention at par with national security-threat; it is that and requires prioritised strategic-action divorced from censorship-concerns. Sadly, memes/morphs of political figures/devis elicit outrage but the porn that bedevils ordinary women’s everyday lives is ignored. Rape/gang rape has become media-fodder while selective political-blame-games blunt the deadliness of heinous sexual-crimes per se. Sexual-violence against women constitutes an epidemic today. It must be labelled terror, shown zero-tolerance. Streamlining prosecution and punishment is necessary but cannot replace primary prevention and protection.
Aping Western-models currently dominant in feminist thinking/media exposure is not the way. Demand for the “freedom from fear” and the “opportunity to grow” is a very different (Gandhian) trajectory to pursue than the “freedom for sexual-assertion”. The former has widespread societal support, the latter assures media-space but also societal backlash.
These are seminal contemporary societal issues. Will Modi display the courage to walk a very different walk as Gandhiji once did? The legacy and the lessons are right there.
The author is a media veteran who pioneered the first feminist columns in the national press. She has served the country in various capacities, including in GOI and as Member, National Population Commission