Tokenistic 'Vikas' for Women in Gujarat

In the Gujarat assembly elections 2017, political parties indulged in tokenism vis-à-vis selection of women candidates and foregrounding a mandate for women’s development. The BJP’s rhetoric of “vikas” and Congress party’s experiment of bringing together three dissenting groups for inclusive development will unravel in time.

Usually, comments on the results of state legislative assembly elections focus on different factors, formula, strategies, campaign content, and political actions of the winning political party, and limitations of the losing political party(s) and independent candidates. The usual units of analyses, in this process, are: caste calculations, performance in rural and urban areas and different regions of the state, electoral statistics regarding poll percentage, voting shares, patterns of voting, etc. This commentary seeks to examine the results of Gujarat elections 2017 in lieu of women’s participation and development, and also to highlight the role and relevance of little understood protesting groups and social movements in Gujarati society. 

Highlights of Election Results 

The Gujarat assembly election 2017 turned out to be a close contest for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and especially so, for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was considered a litmus test for the upcoming state-level elections in 2018 and parliamentary elections in 2019. On the cards were concerns over anti-incumbency factors, particularly popular angst against big-ticket reforms such as demonetisation and the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST). The Victory of the rhetoric of vikas (development) or vikasvad (developmentalism) would determine BJP’s future electoral strategy, whether to continue on a developmentalist plank or switch course to more familiar planks of Hindutva, casteism, communalism, corruption and anti-“dynastic ruling”  in people’s minds. 

The BJP is set to form government for the sixth consecutive term in Gujarat with 99 seats, its lowest tally in 22 years. As against the result of the last assembly election in 2012, the BJP faced a loss of 16 seats. Of the total 182 seats, apart from BJP’s 99, the Indian National Congress (INC) won 77 seats, Bharatiya Tribal Party won two, Nationalist Congress Party one, and independent candidates secured three seats. The option of None of The Above (NOTA), which was opted for by 5,51,615 (1.8%) voters, is believed to have significantly contributed to the loss of seats for BJP (Pandey 2017). Young opposition leaders, including Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor, pointed out a problem of tampering of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT)-fitted Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), which were used for the first time in this election. 

As per the data provided of by the Election Commission of India, 10.46 lakh new voters were registered; out of a total 2.12 crore eligible voters, 1.41 crore voted in this election. Of them, 1.07 crore (68.98%) male, 1.15 crore (64.30%) female and 89 (36.03%) third gender voters cast their votes. BJP has eight winning women candidates and INC, four. 

As for region-wise performance, BJP won 29 seats and INC 24 in north Gujarat (total 53 seats); BJP won 22 and INC 16 in central Gujarat (total 40 seats); BJP won 25 and INC 10 in south Gujarat (35 seats); and BJP won 23 and INC 30 in north-west Gujarat or the Kachchh–Saurasthra region (54 seats). The Congress party’s gains in the Kachchh–Saurasthra region are believed to be a table-turning feat. The BJP continues its dominant presence in urban areas, winning 43 seats of the total 55 in urban areas. It also won 36 seats in the four major cities of Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Rajkot and Surat, except two setbacks in Ahmedabad and Vadodara respectively. 

The Congress lost four high-profile candidates, all of whom were in the race for ministerial posts, namely Arjun Modhwadia, Shaktisinh Gohil, Indranil Rajyaguru, and Siddharth Patel, widely interpreted as a loss of leadership for INC. On the other hand, one of BJP’s heavyweights (Jay Narayan Vyas) lost the election and another, Nitin Patel, won by a narrow margin of 7,000 odd votes.

Examining Election Manifestos

BJP’s manifesto (p 7) claims that the party has provided a role model of women’s empowerment to the country. It further promised to augment women’s empowerment through greater budget allocation for women, extend financial support for higher education of girls, effective healthcare and increase in the amount of widow pensions. On the other hand, the Congress party made promises of guaranteeing house ownership to women (particularly to single women), “single window support centres” at every district and a 24-hour toll-free helpline, 100% free of cost education for women from primary to higher education, loan/subsidy credit up to ₹1.5 lakh to women for small venture enterprises, animal husbandry and self-employment, fast track courts for women-related crimes, and “pink transport” for women.

The Gujarat Mahila Morcha (a state-level women’s forum) prepared and floated a women’s manifesto for political parties to consider this election. Their demands included 50% budgetary allocation as gender budget apart from providing gender-segregated data across ministries, department and programmes; formation of a state advisory committee, with a minimum 50% representation of women/transgender, responsible for the formation, enactment, implementation, and monitoring of all gender-related policies and laws; one working women’s hostel in every block; priority for single women for housing, pension scheme, and transportation; effective healthcare across all communities and regions; adequate employment generation; fulfilling needs of women farmers as per the expanded definition; running anganwadi for eight hours and guaranteed minimum wages to anganwadi workers; provision of crèches at work sites; and allocation of land to landless women. The most common issues of women’s empowerment across these manifestos include employment, healthcare, and housing/pension/employment for single women. 

Women Candidates

This election, a total of 12 (6.6%) women were elected out of 181 contestants across 182 seats. This election had the highest number of contestants in the last 13 elections but the lowest percentage of elected women. Table 1 shows that women’s representation in the last three elections was down to single digits. This data also reveals that different political parties have gradually increased women candidates in subsequent elections; however, elected women’s representation varies from 0.5 to 9% in the state assembly.

 

Largely, the women who contested elections have been supported by their families. In this election, two sitting members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) were supported by the BJP because their husbands are in jail or facing criminal charges, one was supported after the demise of her father, and three were chosen for reserved seats. All of them own property/assets worth crores and liabilities worth a few lakhs (the highest is `41 lakhs).  Until now, only a few women MLAs (Neema Acharya, elected for the fourth time from Kachchh district), Anandiben Patel (four terms MLA), Vibhavariben Dave (third-time elected MLA from Bhavnagar city), and the late Bhavnaben Chikhaliya have been known to contest elections on individual capacity. These MLAs worked for political parties as cadre and rose their way through the ranks; as such they do not have any significant social or political contribution in Gujarat. 

The above-mentioned details regarding the selection of women candidates and their performance as elected representatives indicate tokenism in the name of women’s political participation. Selecting women who are supported either by their father/brother or husband/father-in-law seemed to be part of the larger political scheme. The elected women MLAs have not/are not able to take up any social issue for policymaking or change in existing policy showing that political parties do not invest in their grooming as political leaders. Rather the parties continue to consider women leaders merely as a part of cadre, who continue to be directed by male members. Bakula Ghaswala-Desai, founder-member of Astitva (a women’s group in Valsad, Gujarat) and a feminist writer, calls it an act of “objectifying women.” She says, 

[I]n present times, women are treated as objects not only for sexual pleasure but in every sphere of life. The objectification process needs to be severely criticised when it is related to public life and public policy. Women need to be more aware about its process, then only they will be able to elevate their status and performance in the society. (Personal Interview 2017)

Every political party reflects a mirror image of a patriarchal society in its ethos and functioning. While the manifesto of political parties seems intent on women’s development, neither has any mechanism nor any specific role for women elected leaders been mentioned. Thus, women’s empowerment seems a distant dream in such a scenario.

Women Voters

The incidence of women casting votes in elections has gradually increased since 1962, barring the 1995 and 2012 elections (see Table 2). Social media platforms, especially Twitter and the Modi app have contributed significantly to the mobilisation of women. Ketan Trivedi, a senior journalist working with the Gujarati magazine Chitralekha, explains the trend of increase in women voters after 2007: 

Narendra Modi started organising women sammelans (large conferences) across the state. After 2010, he organised Sakhi Mandal Sammelans (conferences of women’s small saving and microfinance groups). He, thus, built and maintained a personal rapport with women from different parts of the state. This activity inspired women to think independently and that had led to observed change in voting patterns. If we look at the Swachchh Bharat Mission and building individual toilets, this activity also aims to attend women’s agenda of safety…women, as a target group of BJP, are not aware of such political ploys and moves. They do not understand that whatever is happening with them is part of a larger strategic plan. 

Thousands of sarpanches and elected women representatives were felicitated after the launching of Samras Yojana  in Panchayati Raj by Narendra Modi (Bhagat–Ganguly 2013).

Role and Relevance of Protesting Groups

Contemporary Gujarat is known for its mercantile ethos; it is neither known for debating culture nor has it encouraged protests and social movements. However, it does have a rich historical legacy of protests, namely the statewide Navnirman movement (1974–75), two anti-reservation agitations (1980–81 and 1985), Narmada Bachao Andolan against Narmada Valley Development Project (1990–91), mass mobilisation against Nirma Cement factory in Mahuva taluka of Bhavnagar district (2009–15), and latest Patidar Andolan in 2015–16 demanding reservations on economic basis under Hardik Patel’s leadership. Whether these protests addressed the needs and concerns of women and/or the marginalised/subaltern groups is a matter of debate (Bhagat–Ganguly 2015). Alpesh Thakor formed the Thakor Kshtriya Sena and organised rallies in the last two years for larger mobilisation of the community and a larger platform of socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs). In the aftermath of the Una atrocity, Jignesh Mevani championed the cause of atrocities on Dalits and led the demand for land for Dalits. However, Patel, Thakor and Mevani all represent the primary interests of their own respective communities, and are inherently mutually conflicting.

The INC initiated a move seeking the support of the three young leaders—Hardik, Alpesh and Jignesh (HAJ). On the one hand, this support appears to be the need of the hour, raising the hopes of some sections of the citizenry that such an alliance of young blood armed with ideological and mobilisational prowess could appeal to and address the needs of various segments of Gujarati society. On the other, some viewed the same with apprehension given the starkness in their ideological standpoint and implicit contradictions between them. Various reports have detailed the discrimination practised against Dalits in rural Gujarat in the form of separate water sources for Dalits, separate garba functions during Navratri festival, hijrat (expulsion/forced migration from villages) of Dalit families, separate food joints and hair cutting saloons, etc (Desai 1973; Desai 1976; Behavioural Science Centre 2003; Navsarjan and Kennedy 2009). These villages are dominated by Patels and different communities belonging to the SEBCs. Patels are not SEBCs and yet they want to have a reservation policy along the lines of that for SEBCs. If Jignesh Mevani is considered a symbol of progressive force and an Ambedkarite championing the cause of Dalits, can Alpesh and Hardik be considered forces or leaders who would bring about progressive changes or reinforce/widen inter-caste divides in Gujarat? Can every protest and alliance of different protesting groups be considered as a game changer for any society? 

Concluding Remarks

When the results of this election are analysed from women’s perspective and the potential of protesting groups, several concerns come to the fore; in terms of its substance, strategy and operationalisation. In regard to women’s empowerment, political parties’ intent seems very blinkered, cliché and repetitive. No innovative agenda, strategy, initiative or mechanism has been put in place. Selection of women candidates and their performance-related concerns reveal tokenism under the rhetoric of vikas by BJP. The initiative of INC to bring three protesting groups together will be tested in time.

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