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The street protests over last month's brutal Delhi rape case produced an unintended but significant consequence. The political class woke up to women power in India and jumped with alacrity to condemn the slew of retrograde reactions that spilled out in orthodox fury from hoary conservatives like Asaram Bapu and a variety of male politicians. From the Congress and the BJP to the flag-bearers of caste politics like the SP and BSP, the backlash to the assertion of patriarchal social norms was unanimous.
It was surprising too. Indian politics is steeped in traditional identities of caste, community and region. Gender has rarely been part of the political calculus except for the occasional attempt at affirmative action like Rajiv Gandhi's decision to reserve 33 per cent of the seats in panchayat bodies for women. (It is now 50 per cent. ) Not any more, it seems. After an aggressive display of numbers and fortitude as they challenged a callous and corrupt establishment for ignoring their safety and security, women are emerging as a constituency no political party dare ignore.
"We are still trying to fathom it but we realise that women have become an important voter bloc, " says Congress leader Ambika Soni. "There is a younger woman out there who is no longer willing to take the dos and don'ts imposed by society. She is demanding equal space without buts and ifs. Political parties that don't want to be caught on the wrong side of history will have to be sensitive to gender issues in the future. "
BJP spokesman Siddharth Nath Singh agrees. "Women are more aggressive and more ready to express themselves today. We will have to move beyond the usual welfare schemes for women to look more closely at their concerns in consultation with them, " he says.
Although it took something as extreme as the rage of the anti-rape protests for the political class to sit up and take note, the reality is that women have been making their presence felt, slowly and steadily. For instance, Election Commission statistics show that more women than men voted in the five state assembly elections in early 2012. In a forward, progressive state like Goa, the voting figures were 85. 97 per cent for women and 79. 67 percent for men. But even in a backward state like UP, it was the same story. Here, 60. 29 per cent women turned out to vote as compared to 58. 82 per cent men.
In addition, women are increasingly exercising their franchise independently of their men folk. In the 2010 Bihar assembly elections, correspondents in the field found enough anecdotal evidence to indicate that the women vote was caste-neutral. In other words, women's voting decisions were not necessarily based on caste or party affiliations.
Political parties have tapped into the women vote in sporadic ways. The BJP's Ram Mandir movement was fuelled by support from women. BJP leaders recall that they would run after L K Advani's rath in those heady days and scoop up the dust kicked up by his vehicle to apply it in the parting of their hair as a blessing. Murli Manohar Joshi once admitted that women were a huge factor in the BJP's rise. Similarly, the late Andhra Pradesh chief minister N T Rama Rao of the Telugu Desam scripted his return to power in 1995 with a promise to ban liquor. Women, fed up of being beaten by drunken husbands, turned out in large numbers to ensure that he swept the polls.
These were ephemeral moments. Women have been unable to sustain themselves as a political constituency for a variety of reasons and parties have forgotten about them once elections are over. NTR's prohibition policy, for example, was overturned under pressure from the liquor lobby. And there was little traction for gender justice issues in the strong patriarchal underpinning of the BJP's Hindutva platform.
Interestingly, even a party like the Congress, presided over twice by women, has been quite oblivious to the politics of gender. Although Gandhi, realising its importance, consciously and deliberately associated women with the freedom movement, the party did little to nurture women as a constituency after him except for a brief flash under Rajiv Gandhi.
Women played a major role in United States President Barack Obama's re-election last year. According to American analysts, there was an 18-point gender gap between Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. It didn't surprise anyone. Obama made their core issues, including abortion, access to contraception and healthcare, the most vocal issues of his campaign. He not only spoke directly to women voters, he appealed to them as women, marking a critical strategic shift in the politics of the Democrats.
Indian political leaders may take time to get there, but a start seems to have been made with the recognition that politics must change to accommodate women as a constituency. Activist and lawyer Vrinda Grover believes that there's a long way to go yet. "We have to create a women constituency. It has to be defined more clearly. I think political parties are beginning to realise that society is changing but it's more about taking into account a huge youth population that thinks differently, " she says. "But yes, there is a new dimension because the protests were an assertion of equality by this younger generation, both in terms of gender and status. "
She feels that women will have to push hard to develop themselves as a voter constituency. "There's a huge responsibility on us to do this because political parties are waiting to see whether all this will wash over and disappear. A women constituency is the key to change and we have to position ourselves in that space, " she says.
The controversial women's reservation bill, passed by the Rajya Sabha but hanging fire in the Lok Sabha, may finally be an idea whose time has come. As the BJP's Singh acknowledged, all political parties will now have to consider increasing women's representation in the higher elected bodies. The gender assertion that was evident in the anti-rape protests may well shape a new kind of politics in the future.
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