THE 73RD Constitution Amendment, yet to be ratified by the requisite number of state governments, holds within it the potential for a passive revolution in the Indian countryside. For not only does it constitutionalise a third level of governance in the country, namely the panchayats, it also reserves one-third of the seats in these bodies for women.
Admittedly, both the institution of the panchayat and the process of politicisation of Indian women are even now the subject of considerable cynicism. Essentially because it is the same parties that are involved, the art of the possible at the panchayat level is held to be as coterminally distorted as at the state and national levels.
More important, the practice of Indian politics has by and large excluded women. Despite icons ranging from the late Indira Gandhi to Tamil Nadu's Jayalalitha Jayaraman, not only are Indian women under-represented in numbers, they can also legitimately claim that they have become subject to development processes, which, while not accentuating traditional gender discriminations, nevertheless do ignore what is due to them.
Because of this realisation, the media as well as feminist opinion in India has been tempted to be rather dismissive of the recent panchayat elections in West Bengal, in which for the first time, the provision of one-third reservation for women came into practice. The West Bengal panchayat elections were true to form marked as they were by the repeated occurrence of instances where gullible, illiterate and politically naive women were exploited by wily men.
However, despite the depressing flaws, there is reason to resist yielding to despair. It is critically important to not underestimate the significance of the 73rd Amendment. It must be understood that panchayats, as units of local governance, have eventually led to the democratisation of politics, wherever they have been introduced in the country.
Take the example of West Bengal itself. When the Left Front government came to power in 1977, it immediately took to nurturing panchayats as an exercise critical for the acquisition of permanent muscle in the state's villages. However, today, West Bengal's panchayats are more than brawn for Marxists minds. They have visibly led to a remarkable resurgence of rural polity in the state, manifested by two major political developments. Firstly, they have recruited new people into politics and allowed them first-hand exposure to the task of self-governance at the local level. This has enabled the creation of a pool of politically mature citizenry, capable of leadership.
Interestingly enough, the initiated have rarely been able to cling to office for long, even though some of them have shown the inclination to do so. It is the immediacy of political processes and issues at the local level that has ensured this. In fact, there are examples of panchayats, where all the members have been elected for the first time in successive elections. These panchayat leaders have also been able to move up the political ladder. West Bengal can already boast of several ministers who were once former heads of panchayats.
Secondly, despite its obvious deficiencies and weaknesses, the people of West Bengal by and large regard panchayats as a success story and what is remarkable is that this appreciation cuts across all political lines.
Other states which have paid special attention to their panchayat institutions, Karnataka for example, have also had similar experiences, though to a lesser degree. The determining factor is the attention and effort state governments put into their panchayats. To the extent that the 73rd Amendment tries to ensure by law, what some state governments have done by commitment. A more radical legislation is difficult to visualise.
The amendment not only makes it mandatory for all states to establish panchayats, but also to ensure that regular elections to these are held as per the constitutional process. If the sheer number of grassroot politicians this would give rise to is remarkable, the fact that one-third of them will be women is even more significant. As a rough estimate, the 2.25 lakh panchayats in the country are expected to have nearly 8 lakh women members. Indian women are often referred to as a silent majority, but such voluminous presence must surely lead to more audible articulation of women's interests, as no other stratagem can.
The fact that such an opportunity for women has been created by what is largely perceived to be a male-dominated polity must not be missed. On the one hand, it lends credence to the argument that there are avenues of hope for women to find their political feet on the rough ground of Indian democracy. On the other, it underscores the need for women to be aware of themselves.
Indeed, the mobilisation of women for themselves has a long way to go yet in India. Both in rural and urban areas, women's movements have drawn inspiration from the creed that "personal is political". Quite correctly, women leaders and activists have contended that the process of their politicisation has to begin with resistance to suppression and oppression at home. There have been numerous instances of notable campaigns around issues such as sexual violence, dowry deaths, sati and female infanticide.
Unfortunately, the trend of such mobilisation shows that only the personal has become the political. Women's movements have by and large failed to establish connections with wider struggles based on caste, class and region. Yet, the suffering of Indian women is also due to the oppression and exploitation that result from these realities.
This understanding is patent, especially in environmental issues. In rare cases such as Chipko, women have been able to argue that they are the worst-hit even as they pointed out the pervasive impact of development through environmental degradation on all local people. The resulting women's mobilisation have been dramatically successful and have come to include men as well.
In the coming years, the substantial presence of women in panchayats will be accepted as fait accompli. But only their capacity and capability to develop encompassing articulations of their special interests will determine whether they will enjoy a parenthetical presence.
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