MUMBAI - The men contesting India’s general election are vying for female voters, but the paltry number of female candidates shows the battle women face in Indian politics — as in so much else in Indian life.
When not trading barbs, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his political archrival, Rahul Gandhi, have both promised a safer life and new opportunities to the women who form almost half the nation’s electorate.
Yet the female reality looks far less rosy.
Women in India earn less, learn less, live poorer, marry younger and risk sexual violence from molestation to rape.
Given this, their lot in politics is no big surprise.
“There is no truer reflection of the reality of Indian society than politics. Women are discriminated against from birth to marriage to death,” said Tara Krishnaswamy of Shakti, an organization campaigning for more women in Parliament. “Both economics and social order is dominated by men and so is political representation,” she said.
Modi and Gandhi both hope that by promising women a better tomorrow, they will win votes in today’s elections, which began on April 11 and will end on May 19, with results due four days later.
India was one of the first countries to have a female head of state, Indira Gandhi, yet female participation in politics remains stubbornly low more than five decades later.
India has since had a female president, and major political parties have female bosses who are giving Modi a tough fight this election. But the gender ratio lower down the ranks remains massively skewed in favor of men.
Despite the assiduous courtship of female voters, the parties vying for power share a shaky record when it comes to promoting women as potential fellow leaders.
Only 527 women are contesting this election out of 6,046 candidates, according to data compiled by electoral watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms.
“The numbers appear small. Parties don’t think women can contest, since men have been around in politics for years and women have to be prepared for the role. I don’t agree,” said Vijaya Rahatkar, national president of BJP’s women’s wing.
Rahatkar, however, listed her party’s women-centric achievements — such as having six female Cabinet ministers out of a total 27 — and a commitment to reserve 1 in 3 places for women in Parliament if the BJP forms the government again.
“I believe we are ready. There are many good women,” said Rahatkar, who was on the BJP’s selection committee.
Of the 437 candidates fielded by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), 50 are women; Gandhi’s Congress party has 46 women out of 421 candidates.
Yet women are key to the workforce and economic success, according to the World Economic Forum, which ranked India at 108 out of 149 countries in its Global Gender Gap report of 2018.
“Political parties say they are not able to find women candidates. It is untrue. They just think men make better candidates,” said Krishnaswamy, who co-founded Shakti — which means strength in Hindi — last December.
India ranks lower than neighboring Bangladesh and Pakistan in its number of female parliamentarians, standing at No. 150.
According to the United Nations, only 24 percent of all national parliamentarians were women as of November, up from 11 percent in 1995.
About 432 million of India’s 900 million voters are female, and they are a key focus of the men competing for power.
Major parties have vowed in their manifestos to improve women’s participation in the workforce, with the BJP promising to set aside parliamentary seats and Congress promising a quota for women in government jobs.
The Congress party has also promised to set up a separate agency to investigate crimes against women, with more rape cases now being reported following the 2012 gang rape of a young woman in a Delhi bus, which created shock waves worldwide.
“Women are voting in large numbers, they are becoming an election issue, they are a vote bank,” said senior Congress leader Renuka Chowdhury, who has been a member of both the lower and upper house of the Indian Parliament.
Then what holds parties back from fielding more women?
“Men,” said Chowdhury. “There is male bonding across party lines. The sure-winning seats go to men, (candidates for) doubtful ones are decided on caste and the losing seats go to women.”
Chowdhury, often described as a firebrand politician, said that despite winning the backing of her party’s top brass, local leaders were reluctant to campaign for her.
Indian election campaigns are extravagant, long events with road shows and rallies organized on massive playgrounds, and multiples vehicles used to mobilize and bring people to attend speeches of leaders.
The local party cadre plays a key role in connecting the electorate with candidates, who may not necessarily be local.
“Women candidates don’t get the money they should for campaigning. No big leaders campaign for them and there is no mobilizing on the ground,” said journalist Geeta Seshu, who has tracked candidates and writes regularly on women’s rights.
What the parties lack in numbers, they make up for with star power.
In Mumbai, Congress fielded Bollywood actor Urmila Matondkar, while a West Bengal party, the All India Trinamool Congress, fielded three female actors to a nation mad on movies.
The sprinkling of stardust creates an illusion there are more women running, said Krishnaswamy of Shakti, but political parties denied this was their intention.
“We have fielded women doctors, (a) lawyer and an investment banker, but the media is only interested in the actors,” said Derek O’Brien, a lawmaker from the Trinamool Congress.
Actor-politicians say voters are no longer star struck.
Khushbu Sundar, an actor whose fans built a temple for her in southern India, recalled that when she joined politics about a decade ago, people gathered at her rallies just for a glimpse.
“They now wait for me to say ‘vannakam (greeting in Tamil), I’ll see you next time’ and then leave,” said Sundar, a national spokeswoman for Congress party. “That is a big shift in the way the electorate views a woman candidate or campaigner.”
Political leaders said there is a shift in the way women are perceived even within their own parties, and that candidate selection is rooted in merit and potential reach.
“I can connect more with women, their families. People like it when I hold their children,” said Poonam Mahajan of BJP, who comes from a politically influential family and is contesting her second parliamentary election.
“Women candidates are more approachable,” she said.