ONLINE DIALOGUE/BLOG: India's Politicians Ignore Women Voters in Election Campaigns

New York Times
Sunday, November 10, 2013 - 19:00
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Initiative Type: 
Online Dialogues & Blogs

On the eve of Diwali, I was walking around the inner circle of Connaught Place, a well-known shopping center in Delhi, with a journalist friend. The business arcade teemed with people. Suddenly loud, belligerent voices tore through the festive air. We stopped.

Two angry middle-aged women were seeking the help of a policeman and accusing two men hovering around them of making lewd remarks. “He called me a whore,” said one of them, pointing her fingers at one of the men. The accused man raised his hand to hit her.

A curious crowd gathered. The police officers, all men, did nothing to help the women. And then I saw one police officer pull at the clothes of one of those women and yell at her: “I will slap you!.”

We walked through the crowd to the police officer and identified ourselves as journalists. He seemed taken aback by our sudden arrival. It didn't bother the two men who had been accused of sexual harassment. As we argued with the police officer about his failure to act, the crowd gradually dispersed and the women walked away. Two men who had happily joined the original harassers muttered about “women's power” crossing all limits these days.

The incident evokes the everyday violence that defines the lives of women in Indian cities. According to data compiled by the Delhi Police, over 1,000 rape cases have been reported in the capital this year through mid-August, more than double than what was reported in the same period last year, while molestation has gone up by nearly four times during the same period.

But despite the routine gender violence, India's political leaders are conspicuously silent on the subject of violence against women as they gear up for the national elections in 2014. Last December, the gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old student in Delhi had spontaneously drawn thousands out on the streets of the Indian capital — women and men, young and old. The visibility of last year's protests against sexual violence were expected to affect political attitudes in India, but as Indian politicians campaign feverishly, they have once again successfully tuned out the question of women's rights.

The political class has always studiously ignored women's concerns, even when it has to do with an important subject like safety in public spaces. Yet one would expect a different electoral imagination for the 2014 elections because of their extraordinary backdrop. A combination of street protests and detailed coverage by the Indian media have pushed two topics to the top of the public discourse: corruption and gender violence.

The governing Congress Party finds its credibility in tatters because of a succession of scandals, which began with the revelations of corruption in the organization of the Commonwealth Games in 2010, followed by allegations of graft in the allocation of wireless spectrum to telephone companies and accusations that the government underpriced coal blocks awarded to private companies. The scams generated reams of news and scalded the Congress Party and the United Progressive Alliance, the governing coalition it leads.

As the news reports of corruption within the Congress Party-led government continued, India seethed with anger. The spontaneous anticorruption movement led by the Gandhian activist Anna Hazare in 2011 changed the political conversation in India. The recent formation of the Aam Admi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal, a former civil servant who was the most influential aide of Mr. Hazare's before they parted ways, has introduced the possibilities of an alternative politics in India as the new party is making its electoral debut in Delhi's local government elections later in the month.

The anticorruption upsurge has been a success in that the politicians and governments facing charges of corruption are now finding it increasingly difficult to evade the law. Recently, Lalu Prasad, the former chief minister of Bihar, was convicted of siphoning funds and was sentenced to five years in prison.

But despite the mass protests last December, gender and women's issues remain absent from the daily discussions of politics. The rhetoric of machismo underpinning the ongoing election campaigns might offer an explanation for this silence.

The protagonists of India's two national parties — Rahul Gandhi of the Congress Party, the heir of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the chief minister of Gujarat — are squaring up against each other. The theatrical speeches delivered by Mr. Modi and Mr. Gandhi are laced with an overdose of machismo. Their failure to mention, let alone dwell on women's security, throws into sharp relief the masculinity on which Indian mainstream politics rests. This manifests itself in both speakers' body language, their gesticulating hands, wild swaggers and frequent rolling up of sleeves.

Customarily, Mr. Modi is associated with macho theatrics and political chutzpah. He is known to articulate a rugged political power that has aided him in steamrolling dissent within his own party and critics outside it. Mr. Modi likes to stare his opponents down and fling cutting remarks at them. His relentless advocacy of putting Pakistan in its place at every provocation that comes India's way further enhances this masculine image.

Mr. Gandhi was seen as the reluctant torchbearer of the battered Congress Party and no match for Mr. Modi's display of masculine valor. Mr. Gandhi came across as diffident and low-key, and was written off by Indian political pundits for his lack of oratorical skillls and aggression. The constant lament about Mr. Gandhi's subdued campaign has of late nudged him into embracing the aggressive finger-wagging, rostrum thumping of his male competitors and colleagues.

The reluctance or indifference of Indian politicians to speak about the violence against women illustrates the misogyny that binds India' political class. India's politicians irrespective of political and ideological affiliations casually pepper their speech with sexist remarks.

Not so long ago, Mr. Modi, had “joked” that the Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi, who is also Mr. Gandhi's mother, does not know “how to run a kitchen.” He also threw barbs at Shashi Tharoor, a federal minister, for having a “50 crore [500 million] rupee girlfriend,” referring to Mr. Tharoor's wife, Sunanda Pushkar, who was once accused of gaining a lucrative stake in a cricket team while she was dating Mr. Tharoor. Mr. Modi had claimed that Ms. Pushkar had 50 crore rupees [500 million] deposited in her bank account a month before she married Mr. Tharoor and seemed to signal that Mr. Tharoor used his official position to get her the lucrative cricket deal. In support of Mr. Modi, the B.J.P.'s spokesman, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, said, “For an international love guru like Tharoor, a ministry of love affairs should be created.”

On the other side of the divide, Sriprakash Jaiswal of the Congress Party, the coal minister, commented that “wives lose charm over time” as they become old. His colleague in government, Sushilkumar Shinde, the home affairs minister, casually dismissed Jaya Bachchan, an actor who is a member of the upper house of the Indian Parliament, when she intervened in a parliamentary discussion on sectarian violence in the northeastern state of Assam in 2012. “It is a serious matter and not the subject of a film,” Mr. Shinde told Ms. Bachchan.

It is precisely this attitude that has prevented the passage of the Women's Reservation Bill, which gives women a 33 percent quota in the Indian Parliament and state assemblies — for over a decade. Indian politicians fundamentally believe in the mythical idea of “vote banks” – specific sections of the population that will garner electoral votes – and pander to what they perceive to be their interests. Unfortunately, women are not considered a “vote bank” and are therefore free to be abused both physically and through words.