The charismatic Sonia Gandhi is the strong hand behind Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Her stepmother, Indira Gandhi, was twice prime minister of India. Female politicians such as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Mayawati have also made a name for themselves at state level. Priya Esselborn finds out if women’s power is really all that it’s made out to be in India.
Sonia Gandhi renounced the office of prime minister in the 2004 elections
Long after imposing emergency rule in India in 1975, Indira Gandhi continued to justify her controversial decision: “The decision I took was ratified by the cabinet and by the parliament. It was not only accepted it was applauded by the entire nation.”
Known as the “iron lady”, Indira Gandhi ran India for 15 years in total. By international comparison, this was a great success. But the daughter of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was always accused of having only reached India’s political heights because of her family name. Moreover, many women claimed she had not done much to improve their lot, despite her sex.
“Indira Gandhi was a strong and powerful woman,” says Madhu Kishwar, a women’s rights activist. “That’s true. But in politics she put pressure on women who might be dangerous for her, women, for example, who had fought for India’s independence and freedom. She wanted to show that she was the only real man in the cabinet amid all the women so to speak. All men were supposed to shake in their boots before her.”
Women are underrepresented at all levels
Although Indian women got the right to vote in 1949, 60 years later they remain underrepresented at all political levels.
In the parliamentary elections that are currently underway, Manmohan Singh’s Congress Party has put forward 372 male candidates and only 45 female ones. The numbers are similar for the biggest opposition BJP party.
Madhu Kishwar is not surprised: “No party in India can be described as women-friendly. Women don’t even have a lobby. Not like the members of underprivileged castes, for example, who are organised and whose voice is listened to. When it comes to women in politics, it’s always the same. They are put in charge of the interests of women and children, or culture. Nothing more. Look how much they do in agriculture! And yet nobody would ever think of making a woman minister of agriculture.”
Nonetheless, things have changed for women over the past few years. Especially in cities where as many girls as boys now go to school. Legally, there has been considerable progress as well. Women’s rights groups have secured more protection against domestic violence, for example.
Debate about women quotas in politics has raged for years
A debate on legislation reserving 33 percent of the seats in parliament for women has raged for over a decade now. And although at a local level, women are well-represented -- in the state of Uttrakhand, for instance, 50 percent of village council seats are reserved for women -- Brinda Karat from India’s Communist Party (M) says it will take time for change to occur at a national level.
“The main reason why the law reserving 33 percent of seats for women has not been passed at a national level is that everyone wants to keep the status quo. Nobody wants to give his seat to women.“And because in 2004, the female head of the ruling Congress Party, Sonia Gandhi, let Manmohan Singh take office instead of her, it seems it will still take some time before a woman rules India again.