1984: Vyjayantimala Bali | 1989: Vyjayantimala Bali | 2019: Thamizhachi Thangapandian.
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And it ends there, this tiny list of women MPs elected from Madras/ Chennai. It took 32 years since the first Lok Sabha election in 1952 to get our first woman MP and a thirty-year wait for the second. Vyjayanthimala Bali was elected from South Madras constituency on the first two occasions and Thamizhachi follows in her footsteps, elected from the same constituency (now South Chennai). This only reiterates the immediate need for passing the Women’s Reservation Bill in the parliament to ensure that at least 33 per cent of seats are reserved for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies.
In the land of Periyar, who strongly supported women’s equality, women score poorly in political participation. The numbers are poor: three women were elected from the entire state of Tamil Nadu this time and four women were elected in the last Lok Sabha. The state has sent only male representatives to the Lok Sabha on most occasions.
The reason is quite simple, says Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Shakti, a non partisan women’s collective passionate about female leaders in politics. “Women are not given tickets to contest. In the 17th Lok Sabha elections this year, only two women contested from the AIADMK-BJP alliance (K Maragatham from Kancheepuram and Tamilisai Soundararajan from Tuticorin)** and three from DMK – Congress alliance (Kanimozhi from Tuticorin, S Jothimani from Karur and Thamizhachi Thangapandian from South Chennai).
Challenges and support
At a recent event in the city — ‘Women’s Reservation Bill: Chennai Dialogue’ — organised by the Centre for Social Research, Global Concerns India, Social Watch and Shakti, men and women parliamentarians pledged their support for the Women’s Reservation Bill.
Strong points about the bill’s history and the backlash it received from across the country were discussed in the session. “Despite mention in the manifesto, the NDA government has not tabled the bill even once in the list of businesses,” said Tutucorin MP Kanimozhi. She mentioned that the percentage of women in Lok Sabha has been fluctuating since independence. “Men create laws for women assuming that we need them. We need the Women’s Reservation Bill to ensure that we decide for ourselves,” the MP added.
Only 8% of tickets are given to women from various political parties in India. “If women are not even contesting, how can they be elected?” asked Tara Krishnaswamy.
Tiruvallur MP Jayakumar promised to push for the passage of the bill in the parliament. Karur MP S Jothimani was also invited, but could not attend the event. VCK MP Ravikumar said that the party is voicing support for 50 per cent reservation for women. “Smaller parties don’t have much say in parliamentary processes. Getting a chance to talk is itself tough. But we will not give up,” said Ravikumar.
The event successfully sensitised participants about the significance of Women’s Reservation Bill, as the speakers delved into its challenges. There has been some impact, too, as MP Kanimozhi raised the bill in the Lok Sabha on 26 July, shortly after the Chennai dialogue. MP Ravikumar submitted a note asking for the bill to be tabled.
Civil society is motivated too. “It is proven that women can be better leaders. The fact that the bill never saw the light of the day proves that men do not need (want) women in positions of power,” said Vindhya Mohan, a political science student.
Shakti has been campaigning for over a year for the enactment of the Women’s Reservation Bill into law. “Public mobilisation is important. In our recent campaign, which started two weeks before the Lok Sabha session commenced, we called up Parliamentarians to support the bill. It is not a random demand, as we are only holding the parties accountable to what they had promised in the manifestos,” Tara mentioned.
Women and politics: What the numbers say
Gathered by Shakti, here is a compilation of data from across the country that speaks about women’s role in politics.
- Woman voter percentage is sharply increasing in India. In the 2009 Lok Sabha Elections, the number of female voters was 10% less than that of male voters. However, the percentage of men and women among voters in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was nearly the same.
- Indian National Congress has 11% of women representatives, while the BJP has 10%.
- A total of 77 women were elected to the Lok Sabha this year, representing 14 per cent of the total members.
- 92 per cent of the people know about Women’s Reservation Bill and 86 per cent of Indians feel women should be in politics, as per a survey conducted last month.
- As part of their recent awareness drive, Shakti volunteers called the newly elected 543 Lok Sabha MPs last week. 63 MPs from 15 different parties across 29 states promised to raise the bill in parliament.
What can we do?
As South Chennai MP Thamizhachi Thangapandian rightly put it, the Women’s Reservation Bill is not a favour to women, but a right. A public outcry is the need of the hour to push this longest pending bill in the history of the parliament. “Sensitising male parliamentarians that it is a gender-equal place is important. It could be right or wrong, women want to decide for themselves,” said Thamizhachi Thangapandian.
Her words were validated by fellow parliamentarians and activists working towards the cause. Dr Ranjana Kumari, director of Centre for Social Research said, “A strong voice from all sections of the society will push for the bill. Women have lost out for 72 years. Women’s Reservation Bill should have been taken as a decision on the eve of Independence.”
Recollecting instances from history, she narrated how back-to-back protests had resulted in greater awareness on the bill. “In 2010, we mobilised women to block the roads across the country to voice support for the bill. Female MPs attended the parliament in black sarees, as a mark of protest. The bill did not see the light of the day, but the fight has not stopped,” said Ranjana Kumari.
Citizens, too, can volunteer with organisations such as Shakti to push for the Women’s Reservation Bill. To start with, they can ask their MP to push for the bill in parliament. If you get to talk to the members of political parties you support, ask them to give more tickets to women to contest. By consistently persuading our MPs, we can ensure that the bill becomes priority for them.
Citing the example of how citizen movement had resulted in lifting the ban on Jallikattu, Tara said, “Once people get behind it, it will happen.”
** Errata: The candidature of Tamilisai Soundararajan had been inadvertently excluded from the first published version of the article. The error is regretted.