Powerless Tigresses: Women’s Political Participation and Representation in Indian Politics

They say that in an India flanked by the two extremes of the super rich and extremely poor, one should consider it not only a luxury, but also God’s gift to be born into a household that controls the fate of millions of people who thrive in the country. The Indian politician has what even the most industrious of businessmen lack: the power of absolute control. From the economy to the people to the very fundamentals of livelihood, what does a politician not take under their wing?

As an astrologer once glanced at my hand and remarked, my stars were well-aligned. Born as a girl to one of the most prestigious families in Indian politics, I had the privilege of gaining exposure to a world that lies concealed to the common eye. I witnessed the major political turnabouts in Indian history quite closely, and I watched the world of imperial politics both build and tear down my country, my home and even my impression of what constituted a democracy.

As a child, I looked forward to the holidays, when a royal white ambassador would pull over to what I imagined to be the big, grand house of New Delhi. A smiling old man dressed in a white kurta pyjama would step out of the house to greet me with a warm hug. Much to my amusement, the guards at the door would salute every single time he passed by them.

My grandfather, the late Sardar Darbara Singh, was a freedom fighter and ex-Chief Minister of Punjab. He became involved with the freedom movement under Indian National Congress Party, which was then led by Smt. Indira Gandhi, the First Lady Prime Minister of India. The freedom movement, as it is historically known, was male-dominated. Strong, well-built, powerful Indian men would come forward and dedicate their lives to the struggle faced by their motherland, and my grandfather willingly adopted the same path.

The internal struggle continued for years after the British left India.

Once India was declared a free country in 1947, my grandfather assumed authority as the Chief Minister of Punjab. Though my family breathed a sigh of relief that the days of bloodshed had come to an end, my grandfather’s life was no more secure than before. Governing a state as volatile and rich as Punjab had its consequences. The Khalistani militants were gaining power in the state and my grandfather escaped death three times.

My family was issued a warning that all our lives were in danger. “Apni beti ko bahar bhej di jiye pata nahi inka yaha reh kar kya hoga,” a minister warned my father. (Send your daughter to someplace safe, we don’t know what might happen to her if she stays.) I was moved to Welham Girls’ School where armed soldiers protected my safety.

My grandfather quit office in 1983 and the Indian Parliament assumed role in the state of Punjab. Operation Blue Star took place in June 1984 and Indira Gandhi ordered the shootings of Jarnail Bhindranwale and his followers in the Golden Temple, the holy site of the Sikhs in Punjab. The sentiments of the Sikh community had been hurt. Indira Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984, by her two Sikh bodyguards.

The incident had a psychological impact on many. Not only was Indira Gandhi in the highest seat of authority in the country, she was also the constitution of female power in the country. Many questioned her decision to take brutal action in a place of prayer. While India lauded the fact that a woman was in the supreme position of power, it forgot that a sole representation at the top does not determine adequate representation at the bottom seats of power.

To date, the role of the lady politician is questioned time and again, her character dissected and constantly compared to that of a man.

“Is she dressed appropriately?”

“How many children does she have?”

“What is her relationship with her husband?”

“Is she having an extra-marital affair?”

“Will she be as capable a ruler as her husband was?”

“Does she understand what the economy is or is her focus limited to the kitchen?”

The Indian female politician has always been the trump card of the major political parties. A popular Hindu belief is that a woman can either make or break a man’s life. She could either be a Devi-ki-roop, a God-like entity that transforms a man’s life for the better, or an unfortunate soul, one who tears apart a man’s life and brings him to his doom. Though the female politician in contemporary India is a leader of the masses, she is still seen as an extension of a man, a mere limb to his body. She is still viewed as an object of fortune or doom. She is still a wild card that discloses the unknown.

One might ask me why public suspicion is such a bad thing. Any new politician would be subject to a certain degree of discern till he or she proves their mettle, one might argue, but Indian politics is still a devil in the womb, sucking blood from the mother figure that carries it and yet respecting the maternal being a woman is. It has never been a smooth road for women in Indian politics. In a country where a man dominates the mindset of the masses, women in positions of power face a constant power struggle, not only to win votes, but also to convince the man that is she able—to think, convey, and perform.

India’s first female President, Smt. Pratibha Patil was known more for her Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party, is presently at one of the highest positions of power in the country. Clad in a plain white saree, she represents her husband, Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi. India knows her as a “wife carrying out her duty,” to finish what her husband left back, and to protect what power her son would assume in the years to come. She is first seen as a bearer, and then a politician. When recent political scandals revealed that she was in a more controlling position than the Prime Minister himself, we had ministers remarking: “The Prime Minister takes orders from a woman in a pallu (Indian word for saree).” When Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of Bengal makes a wrong decision, the state comments on the illogical characteristic of a woman and her inability to think like a man. If thinking like a man is so important, why represent women at all?

Typical of all other Indian affairs, the role of women in politics is full of contradictions. On one hand, we have Pratibha Patil take office as the first female President of the country and on the other hand, the constitution of the country does not even permit women full access to their political rights. Women raised the issue of representation in politics first in 1917 as a demand for universal adult suffrage. By 1930, women had gained the right to vote, which worked to the advantage of women from political families, who could use this right to vote to bargain for a right to represent. After 14 amendments to the constitution, women today are guaranteed equal voting rights and political participation. Women have the right to participate in decision making with men at all levels. However, in spite of these constitutional and legal provisions, women have not received adequate representation in proportion to their numerical presence in the country.

Today, even with most political parties supposedly making a conscious effort to represent women in politics, the Congress is comprised only 10% of women, while the BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) and CPIM (Communist Party) has only 7% representation of women. India, the world’s largest democracy reserved only one-third of the total number of seats for women.

Statistics show that India’s female representation is far behind the world average.

India falls to the lowest quartile with only 9.1% women in the 14th to the UN’s 2008 survey of women in politics, countries such as Rwanda (56.7%), South Africa (44.5%) and Mozambique (34.8%) have much more female representation in politics.

The results raise an ethical and moral question. Does the indestructible image of a woman as a domestic being continue to have a negative impact on women looking to enter the world of politics today? Does a woman have to be constantly compelled to share the same thoughts as a man, to have to serve his nation and still be subject to political dogma?

I raise these questions as a woman of the soil demanding my right to an answer.


Featured Image: Indira Gandhi via Creative Commons

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