Spirit of Mandate 1996

Although women did not figure prominently in this year's elections, women power definitely proved to be a very heady potion for aspiring candidates

Published: Wednesday 15 May 1996

-- (Credit: Vishwajyoti)AS THE poll date neared, notes on issues such as gender, justice and natural resource management often got lost in the noise of campaign slogans. Conventionally, such issues are considered psephologically insignificant. But this time, although women do not really figure prominently in the mandate of 1996, issues like prohibition, pushed strongly by women, received much attention.

Women's representation this time has been negligible. According to a press statement issued by a consortium of 18 centres for women's studies and empowerment, the number of women candidates was barely three per cent. "We have lost faith," says Mohini Girl, chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), whose political core group meeting on April 11 took stock of the situation.

The trend, however, has been mixed:
No mainstream political party or alliance gave adequate representation to Women.

Simultaneously, where women could successfully organise and push a social agenda like prohibition, political parties followed suit.

Natural resource issues, often concerning the politically powerless tribals, remained mostly in the back- ground. They occupied centrestage only wherever deemed as enticing election issues.

The ruling Congress(i) could field only 47 women candidates, the National Front-Left combine, 30; and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), two. The NCW finds it a let-down, says Giri, especially after the high of the Beijing Conference and 33 per cent women's representation in panchayats and zila, parishads.

Of late, there has been a downsliche in women's participation in mainstream politics. Th4 tenth Lok Sabha had only 39 women members (total strength 545). In contrast, in 1984, soon after the assassination of the ex-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, 150 women candidates were elected. This would indicate that womens' representation is generally determined by the leadership's attitude, more than anything else.

This time, Girt drew up two lists of 40 women candidates each and submitted them to Prime Minister P V NArasimha Rao and the Bit, leader L K Advani. But according to Gin, the leaders were interested only in "winning candidates".

Undaunted, the NCW is working on a bill to ensure at least 33 per cent representation of women in the future elections. Also, the Ncw has commissioned six groups to study the campaign mode and poll issues of women candidates.

Meanwhile, Women's Political Watch (WPW), a group committed to ensuring womens' role in public policy and political leadership, has come out with a manifesto. The wpw manifesto's highlights include a full-fledged ministry for womens' development and constitutional amendment to ensure 33 per cent representation in party echelons and public offices.

One social issue pushed by women that has found resonance with mainstream political parties is prohibition. During the last Andhra Pradesh assembly general elections, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) romped home victorious aided greatly by its women power. In Nellore, where anti-alcohol movement led by neo-literate women had gained momentum three years ago, the TDP found an instant support base.

Almost on a cue, Kerala's Congress chief ministerIA K Anthony imposed a ban on arrack-earlier this year, sharply hiked the price of Indian made foreign liquor and promised to bring about total prolbibition if he was re-elected. Reportedly, a state that loves its ruddy cup a little too dearly, the move has brought upon Anthony the wrath of the moneyed liquor lobby and attack workers and their dependents numbering 800,000. But then, it has definitely enhanced his clean image and popularised him with the women.

In Haryana too, the state government has closed down rural liquor shops since April 1. Bhajan Lal's Haryana Vikas Party has promised prohibition if voted to power. incidentally, his opponent Bansi Lal has also promised the same.

At a recent meet in New Delhi of womens' organisations from 12 states of women against alcohol, decision was taken to push for prohibition at local levels. Significantly, in Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand regions, women campaigning against alcohol are a force to reckon with. in Madhya Pradesh, the new women's policy that awaits legislation, has provision for the closure of liquor vends if more than 50 per cent of the local women oppose it.

As for natural resources, Orissa's tribal women are continuing their Struggle for rights over broom grass which is their Source of livelihood. In Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, bacm (a wild grass used for making rope) workers and dependents numbering around 60,000, led by the NGO Vikalpa, have demanded written assurances from all electioneering candidates for access to bacin from Rajaji National Park. With the setting up of the park, local women were denied access to the raw material. In the last elections, baan workers had supported the National Front-Left candidates en masse.

As in the past, mainstream parties have demonstrated again that they can bring about social changes by taking up vital issues if they want to - only if there are votes involved.

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