Shakti – “Political Power to Women” launched nationally in Delhi on February 12th at the Constitution Club of India. Over a 100 invitees attended the event including aspiring politicians, students, women’s groups, civil services aspirants, lawyers and others. Members of Parliament, party spokeswomen, leaders, political commentators and voter data analysts weighed in on how to maximise the number of women elected to the 17th Lok Sabha.

Nisha Agrawal of Team Shakti in her welcome note emphasised that, “We are all aware about how much has changed with women in India in every other sphere from education to health, except in political representation. Shakti’s first goal is to better than the 16th Lok Sabha, and pressure parties to give more tickets to women, and enable more women to be elected this General Election.

Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Shakti in her opening presentation established the need for a women’s caucus in a democracy, “The natural progression of women into Parliament has gone from 24 women MPs in 1952 to 66 in 2014, amounting to not even one women MP added per year! We have no choice as citizens but to exert public pressure on political parties and exhort voters to vote for balance. Women candidates are more winnable in Lok Sabha elections, and in every single General Election since 1952, as the Election Commission data shows.”

The natural progression of women into Parliament has gone from 24 women MPs in 1952 to 66 in 2014, amounting to not even one women MP added per year!

Shakti also announced the Shakti-Neta App survey from 15th January 2019 that was answered by 10 lakh registered voters across the rural, urban, women, men and youth demographic. The response to “Do you want more women MPs in Lok Sabha in 2019” was an emphatic 82.2% YES across 24 states.

The first panel deliberated on “Promoting Women Candidates for the Lok Sabha Election,” moderated by Priya Sehgal, Editor NewsX.

Divya Spandana, Social Media Chair of the INC, said that “She was the youngest in Parliament when elected in the 2013 by-poll and yet there were detractors that a woman was chosen to lead the Social Media Cell of the INC. I think the bill really needs to pass there is no other way.”

Divya Spandana made an open appeal to Shakti to “Create a mass movement for women across parties to come together.”

Shaina NC, BJP spokesperson from Maharashtra, was candid, “The numbers are appalling and until that is fixed, it is tokenism even if we have a Defence Minister or even a Prime Minister. Women must unite and really think about how we can build pressure within the parties. We don’t want charity. Politics is tough on the bladder for sure but women are now breaking all the stereotypes in politics by working late hours. Women must vote for women candidates.”

“Women must vote for women candidates.”

Kanimozhi, Rajya Sabha MP from Tamil Nadu revealed that, “To be taken seriously itself is a big achievement for a woman. She has to be at least twice as intelligent twice as hard working! Party workers told my father not to put women candidates, as they won’t help them campaign – such perceptions exist. The political space is not used to accommodating women, and is completely woven around the male way of looking at processes and policies. It is not inclusive at all, and like every other field women will have to break the glass ceiling. We need women to work across ideology & party lines and support each other in Parliament to help this change.”

The political space is not used to accommodating women, and is completely woven around the male way of looking at processes and policies.

Radhika Ramaseshan, Sr Journalist commented that, “Despite numbers of women MPs across Indian states being abysmal, I’m really concerned about women politicians of the North. Dimple Yadav is the only new woman leader we have. I remember covering an election in TN and meeting a woman sarpanch, the sole breadwinner and with an alcoholic husband. She cut him off when he tried to interject in her governance.”

Smita Gupta of The Hindu Centre for Public Policy, called out the importance of the threshold, “Patriarchy exists in all parties whether they call themselves left, right or centre. If you have 181 women in Lok Sabha the whole power dynamic will change – you have to look at panchayats where there is critical mass – the first term they learn the ropes and then they can perform really well.”

Women Lok Sabha 2019
Picture Credit: Shakti

The second panel, moderated by Neha Dixit, Independent Journalist, focused on what it would take to build a women’s vote bloc.

Jagmati Sangwan, ex General Secretary of the AIDWA, who recently contested Mayoral elections in Rohtak, Haryana, pointed out the damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for women leaders, “More women are agitating at ground level for wages, participation is there but representation is not there! In fighting for women’s rights and against oppression, the sexist campaign by men against me was that if you vote for Jagmati she will put eve teasers in jail! Without Women’s Reservation Bill, it cannot be done in such a severely patriarchal society.”

Lalitha Kumaramangalam, ex Chairperson of the National Commission of Women, and of the BJP, suggested a formula for the women’s vote bloc: “More and more women, especially in rural areas, are becoming assertive in running their own lives and want economic independence. We have to talk to women voters as women, not as caste or any other identity. Women prefer women candidates but women in parties are not trained on how to aggressively demand the vote. Elections are won in last two weeks- how do you do it? Alcohol, violence against women, and jobs are the three most binding issues of women voters.”

We have to talk to women voters as women, not as caste or any other identity. Women prefer women candidates but women in parties are not trained on how to aggressively demand the vote.

Sushmita Dev, Member of Parliament, Silchar, Assam and President of the All India Mahila Congress reminded us that “Patriarchy begins at home. Less politicians begins at less women at colleges, and the emancipation of women starts with economic empowerment.

The worst thing you can do to women empowerment is tokenism. For instance, when access to justice is the biggest challenge women are facing today, unless we address the actual delivery of justice, even passing laws is tokenism. Make a man into the WCD Minister; that’s a start! Men in Parliament are asking why should we vacate our seats for women . If you increase seats in the Lok Sabha, they will have no issues with more women.”

The worst thing you can do to women empowerment is tokenism. For instance, when access to justice is the biggest challenge women are facing today, unless we address the actual delivery of justice, even passing laws is tokenism.

The session concluded with Shakti committing to ramp up citizen pressure in the run up to the elections, pledging to promote and support women candidates, and optimistic that many more women will be contesting Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

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