Women power on the wane in Indian politics

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New Delhi: Women voter turnout is on the rise in India, but women candidates in the elections are declining. While some of the most powerful political leaders in the country are women, they comprise just 11 % of total number of MPs in the Lok Sabha.

Political parties fighting for votes in the general elections have put women’s issues high on the agenda. But it will see just a few female lawmakers implementing the policies being proposed. Less than a fifth of the candidates standing for the front-running main opposition group, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or the ruling Congress, are women, according to an analysis by AFP.

Politicians are going all out to win over women — earlier seen as wallflowers — with “empowerment”, a recurrent theme 16 months after the fatal gang rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi rocked the nation. That case, which led to protests in the capital, sparked intense media scrutiny of the widespread abuse of women, forcing efforts to sensitise men and counter discrimination.

Many women voters, who form 49% of the 814 million electorate, say they are pleased to see the BJP splashing billboards, newspapers, radio and TV slots with vows for women’s safety. Nine in ten Indians see rape as a “very big problem”, while eight in ten believe the problem is growing, a study published last week by the US-based Pew Research Center said.

But others are unconvinced by the attention, accusing parties of cynically tapping into the national anger over the Delhi rape case and others which have reversed years of complacency about growing sexual violence.

“How can we expect change when a lot of these politicians hate women and think rape is normal?” said Shagun Behl, a 26-year-old dance teacher. Shagun was referring to Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the regional Samajwadi Party, who triggered outrage on April 11 when he described a group of convicted rapists as “boys” who had made “mistakes”.

BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi criticised Yadav’s remarks in a TV interview, saying women’s issues should be dealt with sensitivity. “My priority is women’s dignity,” Modi promised.

But the 63-year-old also spurred controversy a few days before Yadav’s comments when he belatedly declared that he was married to a woman he had never previously acknowledged or divorced. His rival Rahul Gandhi, leading campaigning for the Congress party, accused him of hypocrisy, saying Modi promised respect for women but neglected his own wife.

Gandhi and Modi have both pledged to pass the pending Women’s Reservation Bill that would reserve a third of seats in national and state assemblies for women among other measures.

Until recently the president was a woman and the most powerful politician of the last 10 years has been Sonia Gandhi, head of the Congress party. Three regional party chiefs are also female. But below these public figureheads, men predominate.

(With AFP inputs)