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How do promises to women by the two major national players in the 2019 elections compare with each other and will we finally see the passage of the 33% Women’s Reservation Bill?

 

If manifestos were followed to the ‘T’ by the political parties that publish them before every election and form the Government, we should have seen many more women in our polity more than a decade ago. The promise of a 33% Reservation Bill for women in Parliament and state assemblies makes its third-time appearance in the BJP manifesto as once again, it went untabled in the Lok Sabha. This time around, there appears to be a difference and we may soon see passage of the bill?

The Indian National Congress (INC) or the Congress party released its manifesto last week, while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched it on Monday, this week. With both documents from the 2 largest national-level contenders in the 2019 poll race coming out so close to each other and just days before the first phase of polling, it is hard to gauge impact on voters. Still, it is significant that both parties not just included substantial sections dedicated to Women and what they could expect, the Congress also included a dedicated section to its plans for the LGBTQI+ community if the party were to come into power.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Both the BJP & Congress increase space dedicated to women in their manifestos- a sign of the increasing importance of the women vote. Congress includes dedicated section to LGBTQIA+ issues. Community welcomes move.
  • Strong positive signs of passage of 33% Women’s Reservation Bill with both parties prioritizing the promise. BJP representative claims both parties committed to table and clear it. Activists hopeful, but skeptical.
  • Ambitious promises of both parties will be tested in their commitment to implementation. Strong vision needs to be complemented with a plan of action.

For a woman voter, manifestos are perhaps among the few party documents which offer benefits to women and one only hopes that these promises would be kept over the tenure of the Government.

Arti Mehra of the BJP believes that the Government has walked the talk on women’s issues. “BJP has showcased inclusive development over the last 5 years. All women of this country, especially Muslim women as in the case of Triple Talaq bill, have seen the credibility of the BJP when it comes to speaking on behalf of women’s rights. The nation’s women will surely support Prime Minister Modi in these elections,” she says.

For a woman voter, manifestos are perhaps among the few party documents which offer benefits to women and one only hopes that these promises would be kept over the tenure of the Government.

Rajya Sabha MP Prof. Rajeev Gowda who is also convenor of the Congress Party’s Manifesto Committee is equally confident about the manifesto’s impact. “We have covered a range of issues in our document, the benefits of which will reach women across all strata of society. We have a detailed plan of action and Congress President Rahul Gandhi has promised to deliver. As far as women in our country go, I have no doubt that the Congress party will be their first choice,” he says.

INC: Is there intent to implement?

Overall, the Congress manifesto talks about women’s issues more than the BJP’s does, as the party manages to also integrate a gendered perspective in other sections such as in ‘jobs’ where it promises to “provide fiscal incentives to businesses that employ a certain percentage of women” and in ‘Cities, Urbanisation and Urban Policy’ it claims that all kinds of public spaces will be made safe for women and that “More women will be appointed to government and municipal jobs in towns and cities.”

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“The gender budgeting oriented approach of the Congress Party’s manifesto is commendable,” says Tara Krishnaswamy, who runs Political Shakti an organisation capturing women and politics through data. “It is well-rounded because it covers social, economic and political representation,” says Tara.

On some other fronts in the Congress document, there are provisions for women farmers and internal security measures specifically for women. The party promises to achieve women’s representation of “minimum of 33 per cent in the force strength of CISF, CRPF and BSF.” It pledges similarly in the case of police forces and mentions efforts in the same direction in the judiciary too.

Also Read: Congress promise on reservation mere rhetoric?

Its ‘Women’s Empowerment and Gender Justice’ section begins with name-dropping Indira Gandhi as “India’s only woman Prime Minister… belonged to the Congress.” The party claims to have “mainstreamed gender in government schemes.” Yet, in the same section, there is a lot of ambiguity on women-related schemes. Many promises such as ensuring “same pay for similar work” and installing “sufficient” number of night shelters, public toilets and sanitary napkin vending machines seem well-intentioned, but impact is hard to predict and one can only hope that these will be professionally managed and implemented.

BJP: Where is the credibility?

Several of the BJP’s promises are vague too. There is no specific commitment on the ‘Jobs’ front and this is surprising given that the Modi Government has received major criticism for jobless growth. Its commitments on women’s security, health and sanitation list some measures but go into no details or timelines. The section repeatedly talks about continuing with or building on the success of existing schemes such as Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, Ujjwala Yojana, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and so on, but the very achievements of these schemes are under question. The Clean India Mission has been constantly criticized by experts and commentators for claiming one thing on paper while ground realities are very different.

Even the Government’s flagship Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which offers free gas connections to the rural poor, is said to be achieving targets on paper but failing in its objective. Finally, the ambitious Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Scheme has not been able to achieve its objectives either and there are charges of “lack of policy implementation, diversion of funds and the failure of monitoring mechanisms” combined with concealment and manipulation of scheme data by the Government. The manifesto also promises “to ensure financial empowerment among women in rural and semi-rural areas and create better employment opportunities,” which is welcome, though there are no details on how this will be done. This is worrying since it is the same Government that pushed through demonetization that had a substantial negative impact on women.

BJP Manifesto promises financial empowerment but fails to tell us how

“I’m very disappointed with the BJP manifesto. It doesn’t do justice to the reality of 50% of the country’s electorate. There is no commentary on education and close to nothing on health,” says Tara Krishnaswamy. “…BJP is the national party which has distributed the lowest percentage of tickets to women. They have a 33% women’s reservation for internal party positions and most of them continue to stay vacant.” She also adds that the Congress is merely slightly better when it comes to ticket distribution to women.

33% Women’s Reservation: Long due

Yet, there are some similar specifics in both manifestos which must be welcomed. The most significant of these is the Constitutional Amendment providing reservation of 33 percent seats for women in the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. The Congress claims to have agreed to pass the bill if it were to be tabled in Parliament in the past 5 years but accuses the BJP of not being committed to the promise. The party also adds that if it were to come to power, it would pass the Bill in the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha.

Prof. Gowda reiterated the Congress party’s promise of passing the bill in the first session of Parliament if brought into power. He also told shethepeople.tv that in the event of a BJP or BJP-led NDA forming the Government, the Congress would still support the Bill if tabled in Parliament. “We passed it in our time in the Rajya Sabha and kept waiting for the BJP to table it in the Lok Sabha during their term but they didn’t. That speaks volumes about their seriousness regarding the matter. We will deliver,” he confidently adds.

women voters impact elections
Women voters will impact elections

“The Congress Party may accuse us because they are habitual liars, but both the Congress and the BJP are sincere regarding the women’s reservation bill. We did not want to pass a bill hastily in a half-hearted manner. We are committed to our manifesto’s promises and if the numbers are favourable in both houses of Parliament, I am certain we will be able to pass this Bill this time,” says BJP’s Mehra.

The two largest national parties explicitly showcasing their commitment to the bill sounds great in the run up to the elections, but Krishnaswamy thinks we should contain our excitement since both parties command low levels of trust when it comes to implementing promises in the manifesto. “This is the third time the BJP has mentioned the Bill in its manifesto but no tangible steps were taken to ensure its passage. Though we welcome the Congress’ position, we will have to wait and watch whether they stick to their position where it matters. When it comes to the women’s agenda, parties kick into their worst patriarchal forms,” she cautions.

On crime and “criminal” errors

On the issue of Crimes against women, both parties pledge to give more importance in this regard. While the Congress promises to “to establish a separate investigative agency to investigate heinous crimes against women and children”, review the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act, and provide paralegal assistance to women at the Panchayat level, the BJP focuses on time-bound investigation in cases of rape and expansion of forensic facilities and fast track courts.

A genuine manifesto is less a document of grandiose promises; instead it (is) a review of prior commitments against deliveries – Tara

In previous versions of the BJP manifesto (similar errors don’t appear now), gaffes in some sentences led to a social media storm. The glaring error in the following sentence gave the Congress the necessary ammo to attack the BJP and score some brownie points online- “We have constituted the Women’s Security Division in the Home Ministry, and have made strict provisions for transferring the laws in order to commit crimes against women.”

The community of sexual minorites has largely welcomed the inclusion of a dedicated LGBTQIA+ section in the Congress manifesto. Some members online noted that the section itself was brief but its very presence was of significance in post-Section 377 India.

Indian elections LGBT
As Krishnaswamy puts it in her own comparative analysis , “A genuine manifesto is less a document of grandiose promises; instead it (is) a review of prior commitments against deliveries and new ones framed in that context. Until we measure the governance of political parties with hard data, their talk is cheap, the vote is costly for voters, and women remain a corrigendum.” To usher in a paradigm shift in Indian politics, women must be conscious of their power as a votebank and hold parties to account on their commitments. Parties must move beyond tokenism and lip service to the cause of women and at least now, begin to give women their due in politics.

Surya is an affiliate researcher with the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University. Views are the author’s own

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