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Much ado about Pratibha Patil

ajosephs Icon Posted by Ammu Joseph

July 24th, 2007

So India has got its first female president. So what?

Is her election “a victory for women in a country where gender discrimination is deep-rooted and widespread,” as the Associated Press report suggested? Does her elevation to the largely ceremonial post represent “a step forward for hundreds of millions of Indian women and girls who face bitter discrimination in everyday life,” as The Washington Post said? Will her investiture tomorrow signify “a boost for the rights of millions of downtrodden women,” as Reuters put it?

I am not convinced. Neither are many other Indian journalists, judging by the reports and commentary in leading national newspapers such as The Hindu (see also edit). Despite headlines like “A male bastion falls” and “Unprecedented President” in some Indian papers, the focus in mainstream media coverage within the country has been primarily on the somewhat unsavoury politics leading up to Patil’s election.

Even though a poll reported in the Indian news magazine Outlook, “The New Patil,” claimed that 68% of women in the country thought she was “the right choice for President,” it’s not at all clear that the responses to the rather general questions included in the survey reflected informed opinion (about her or the post).

Interestingly, almost all the international media coverage I’ve looked at has highlighted similar, familiar, predictable issues to drive home the point that much needs to be done to improve the status of women in India: dowry, sex selection, discrimination against female children, violence against women, poor access to education and healthcare, and so on. Significantly, there has been virtually no mention of these issues in connection with the presidential election in the Indian media (although these problems are often covered at other times).

International media coverage does mention that India has had several women in positions of power, expectedly singling out for mention former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (mother-in-law of Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, who currently wields considerable power and more or less engineered Patil’s election). In a recent cover story, Outlook provided some more details about Indian women in politics, including previous female candidates for the presidency.

But both local and international media failed to highlight an important aspect of women in politics in India: the role and rise of women in grassroots politics over the past decade and a half, thanks to two historic amendments to the Constitution that gave life to Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of decentralised governance. The 73rd and 74th amendments passed by Parliament in December 1992, which became law in April and June 1993, mandated reservation for women of one-third of all seats in the three-tiered institutions of local self-government in rural and urban areas (respectively).

As George Mathew, an expert in this field, wrote in India Together, “Thanks to these amendments, out of 3,200,000 members elected every five years to the panchayats and municipalities, more than 1,000,000 are women. Women head one-third of all the local bodies.”

Some villages even boast all-women panchayats. Although there are, of course, countless instances of women being elected as proxies and even functioning as rubber stamps for male family members, there is an increasing number of stories about women growing into their roles as elected representatives, charting independent paths and serving their communities extremely well.

What’s more, as journalist Rashme Sehgal pointed out in Infochange India, becoming a member of a panchayat can open the way to a political career. She cited the example of a woman elected president of a gram panchayat at 21 who went on to become a member of her state’s Legislative Assembly and is now a member of the national Parliament.

In my view, the women with the potential to make a real difference to the lives of their local communities, including fellow women, are the million or so now placed at the bottom of the pyramid of electoral politics. At least some of them are likely to go on to influence larger constituencies and then, perhaps, to even transform governance – and the role of women in it — at the national level.

Another significant aspect of women and Indian politics that didn’t find mention in international media coverage of Pratibha Patil’s election is the infamous history of what is popularly known as the “Women’s Reservation Bill,” seeking to reserve a third of all seats in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies for women. The fate of that piece of legislation is still hanging in the balance more than a decade after it was drafted, despite the lip service paid to it by almost all political parties and despite the fact that it has been tabled in Parliament by various governments several times in the interim. The fact that it remains a dead letter today is thanks chiefly to male politicians reluctant to give up their dominance.

It is a pity that much of the international media coverage of Patil’s election projected it as a major development for women’s rights in India – within politics and/or society – without taking into account the broader and, in my view, more pertinent issues concerning Indian women in electoral politics, at the grassroots as well as higher up the ladder.

Incidentally, there’s a woman among the three nominees for the post of Vice President: Najma Heptulla. So there is some chance that, come 10 August, both these two constitutional positions will be occupied by women. Cause for more celebration? I don’t know.

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