Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - - HTNATION -

In case you were wait­ing with bated breath last week­end for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) na­tional ex­ec­u­tive to make some sub­stan­tial state­ments on how the party plans to im­prove women’s rights as it goes into elec­tion mode, you must have been dis­ap­pointed. How­ever, the Modi gov­ern­ment could have spo­ken of the many schemes it has in­sti­tuted which have ben­e­fit­ted women though not as much as they should have. The Ujjwala Yo­jana, which pro­vides cook­ing gas con­nec­tions to poor house­holds, has meant much less man­ual work for many women and less dan­ger of con­tract­ing re­s­pi­ra­tory dis­eases. The Swachh Bharat pro­grammes have im­proved hy­giene and safety for women. This is to men­tion just a few.

But it would have been re­ally heart­en­ing for the half the pop­u­la­tion had the party and oth­ers in the fray felt that women’s is­sues were im­por­tant enough to feature as an im­por­tant as­pect of their elec­tion blue­prints. For one, all par­ties re­ally need to sit down with their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives and tell them that there has to be a cul­ture of re­spect when speak­ing of women. A BJP MLA from Ghatkopar re­cently grandly of­fered to kid­nap girls who re­fused of­fers of mar­riage from young men. The MLA felt it was his duty to ful­fil the wishes of men who were re­jected suit­ors and use force to make women com­ply. Then we had an in­de­pen­dent MLA from Ker­ala who dis­missed a nun rape vic­tim as a whore. This dis­re­spect cuts across party lines.

The mes­sage should come from the party lead­ers that any leg­is­la­tor found dis­parag­ing women will face the con­se­quences within the party and within the law. Th­ese re­marks can­not be dis­missed as just loose talk. They are taken as li­cence to mis­be­have by the lumpen el­e­ments in all par­ties.

How heart­en­ing it would be if po­lit­i­cal par­ties gear­ing up for elec­tions were to dis­cuss se­ri­ously how to push up the num­ber of women can­di­dates. Data from the In­ter-par­lia­men­tary Union ranks In­dia 147 out of 188 coun­tries when it comes to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in par­lia­ment.

There is still time be­fore real elec­tion fever kicks in. The BJP should lead the de­bate on how much the lack of in­clu­sion of women in the labour force has hurt the econ­omy. In­dia’s fe­male labour force par­tic­i­pa­tion is among the low­est in South Asia, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est Eco­nomic Sur­vey data. If Indian women had equal em­ploy­ment and work op­por­tu­ni­ties, Mckin­sey Global In­sti­tute es­ti­mates that it would add $ 770 bil­lion to the econ­omy.

If the last elec­tion was about de­vel­op­ment, this one could be about de­vel­op­ment plus women’s rights. It is amaz­ing that all par­ties feel the need to in­sti­tute women-cen­tric schemes but feel no need to ei­ther show­case them or build on them. When elec­tions come around, the dis­course usu­ally re­volves around se­cu­rity or class-caste pol­i­tics. The feel­ing is that women’s rights just don’t get you votes and that women are, by and large, not winnable can­di­dates.

It is no one’s con­tention that elec­toral rhetoric should be fo­cused only on women but half the pop­u­la­tion de­serves much more at­ten­tion than it gets now. As men­tioned be­fore in th­ese col­umns, there is no women’s vote like, say, a Ya­dav vote or a Bhoomi­har vote. Women are frag­mented and marginalised in all sec­tions of so­ci­ety, so they have less po­lit­i­cal lever­age. Per­haps civil so­ci­ety and women’s groups, who are ef­fi­cient in­flu­encers as seen in the Ar­ti­cle 377 strug­gle, should put their minds to at least push­ing for more women to en­ter pol­i­tics. It may not bring about a rev­o­lu­tion, but cer­tainly women’s rights would get a boost. And it might just make elec­tions that much more in­ter­est­ing and var­ied.

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