Women leaders in Karnataka call out gender discrimination

They demand more representation in the upcoming assembly polls

28-Priyanka-Gandhi-Vadra United we stand: Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at the ‘Na Nayaki’ women’s rally organised by the Karnataka Congress in Bengaluru.

ON JANUARY 16, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra announced the ‘Gruha Lakshmi’ scheme, a promise to give Rs2,000 per month to every woman head of a household, in poll-bound Karnataka. The Congress said it was a guarantee to help women bear the “burden of inflation” imposed by the BJP government.

The announcement has created ripples in political circles, with the BJP rushing in to advertise its “women-oriented” schemes in newspapers and hinting at a separate women’s budget and a poll manifesto. The Janata Dal (Secular) legislature party leader H.D. Kumaraswamy recently announced that he would appoint a woman as deputy chief minister if voted to power.

“Make this election about you. Demand politics that talks about your issues, progress, education and jobs,” said Priyanka. Ironically, Karnataka, which has 2.55 crore women voters of a total of 5.14 crore voters, scores poorly when it comes to women’s representation. Currently, the 224-member house has only 11 women legislators―six from the Congress, three from the BJP and one from the JD(S) and a nominated member from the Anglo-Indian community. The Basavaraj Bommai cabinet has a lone woman minister in Shashikala Jolle.

In 2018, the Congress, the BJP and the JD(S), gave 16, 17 and 14 tickets to women candidates, respectively. This time, women leaders are keeping their fingers crossed. Said Pushpa Amarnath, president of the state Mahila Congress, “We have 109 women aspirants seeking tickets from 74 constituencies. We are hoping to get at least 30 tickets.”

Geeta Vivekananda, a former corporator and president of the state BJP Mahila Morcha, said women leaders hoped to get at least one ticket in every district to begin with. “Unless there is reservation, no party will think of giving ticket to a woman. Winnability is a factor and finding the right constituency with a favourable caste combination is also crucial,” said Vivekananda. Often, the women who get lucky are those who belong to political families or are expected to fight the polls on sympathy factor, following the demise of a family member, the incumbent MLA.

Former BJP MLA from Dharwad Seema Masuti spoke about her debut in the 2008 assembly polls, when Sushma Swaraj came to campaign for her. Swaraj worked a miracle with her captivating speech, equating Masuti to “mahisha mardini” (demon slayer), and Masuti won by 800 votes.

“I entered politics by chance though I belong to a political family. The party was finding it hard to find a candidate and picked me to contest the zilla panchayat elections from Uppin Betageri in 1998. Then I won from Garaga as there were no takers for the seat. But in 2008, I had to compete with four male aspirants to contest from the Dharwad Rural constituency. Women candidates have limited resources and supporters. It is the selfless work of the RSS cadres that comes to our rescue,” said Masuti.

Some women leaders lament that the practice of leaders treating their constituencies like family fiefdoms is curbing new leadership. Some feel that there should be a cap on the number of times a person can contest elections. Most women leaders fail to identify a suitable constituency to nurture amid stiff competition from their male colleagues.

The Congress has classified seats into A, B and C categories, depending on winnability. “The A-category seats are presently held by the party, B stands for seats where it is hopeful of winning with a little more effort and the C-category seats are the strongholds of rival parties. We hope to contest from the C-category seats and nurture them. We are confident that we can convert these seats in our favour with hard work and people’s support,” said Amarnath, who is hoping to contest from Mahadevapura (SC) constituency.

For a woman politician, the 50 per cent reservation in local body polls has been a great opportunity. But caste politics, money and muscle power and gender bias are proving to be major hurdles. Cutting across party lines, women leaders have been demanding the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament. “Unless the bill is passed, no political party will voluntarily give us tickets. The Modi government has an absolute majority and it must pass the bill,” said Amarnath.

After the Women Reservation Bill was stalled in the Lok Sabha, Congress MLA Sowmya Reddy proposed a private member’s bill in the Karnataka assembly, asking for 33 per cent reservation for women in the assembly. The bill also sought the rotation of reserved seats after every two rounds of assembly elections. The bill, however, was not taken up in the house.

Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Political Shakti, a non-partisan group that works towards increasing women representation in assemblies and Parliament, said the organisational structure and work culture in politics were not conducive for women.

“We always see men occupying all the spaces, while women leaders are relegated to the women’s wing. The culture where men get together at late hours for a drink and take crucial decisions, or them hogging the limelight during public events and crucial party meetings and the occasional physical jostling around men in power deny women their rightful place. Most men find it difficult to treat women as equals and as professionals,” said Krishnaswamy. “We need women to represent women as we are witness to many decisions that lack empathy and where inherent bias and misogyny are at play. For instance, sanitary napkins are taxed, there are not enough public toilets and crucial issues like child abuse, molestation or atrocities against women are not being dealt with sensitivity. Like an urban-bred leader cannot comprehend the challenges facing an adivasi, a man cannot always speak for women.”

Amarnath said the mindsets of people and political parties needed to change. “I am confident that an educated and empowered female electorate will support women leadership and also emerge as a strong lobby in the near future. We want to see more female chief ministers and prime ministers soon.”