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Women in Power?

This paper opens up for further discussion the role of reservations based on caste and gender in the municipal corporations of Delhi and Bangalore. It is centrally concerned with two related issues, the problem of so-called "proxy" women, and the "critical mass" rationale for reservations - whether for women or other excluded groups. Based on a larger research study, the paper argues that while the proxy issue is far more complex than what existing critiques allow, the question of whether women constitute a political identity or force has no easy answers. The relatively neglected world of urban municipal politics presents challenges and opportunities for all those concerned with the relationship of feminism and democracy to questions of politics and power.

Special articles

Women in Power?

Gender, Caste and the Politics of Local Urban Governance

This paper opens up for further discussion the role of reservations based on caste and gender in the municipal corporations of Delhi and Bangalore. It is centrally concerned with two related issues, the problem of so-called “proxy” women, and the “critical mass” rationale for reservations – whether for women or other excluded groups. Based on a larger research study, the paper argues that while the proxy issue is far more complex than what existing critiques allow, the question of whether women constitute a political identity or force has no easy answers. The relatively neglected world of urban municipal politics presents challenges and opportunities for all those concerned with the relationship of feminism and democracy to questions of politics and power.


uddenly, thanks to the United Progressive Alliance’s decision to nominate a woman for the position of the president of India, women in politics have become newsworthy again. When the announcement was first made, Sushma Swaraj immediately reiterated the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) unimplemented but oft-stated declaration that 30 per cent of all party positions in the BJP would be given to women. Meanwhile, a poll among women by Outlook magazine reassured us not only that Patil was the right choice for president, but that women can ensure a cleaner, more committed politics, and even expressed the demand that the women’s reservation bill should finally be passed in the coming parliamentary session [Outlook, July 2, 2007: 59]. It was further acknowledged that politics continues to be a male bastion; in the minuscule group of female politicians, “self-made” women are the exceptions rather than the rule. And yet, the addition of India’s first woman president to the significant number of chief ministers who happen to be women – in Uttar Pradesh most recently, but also in Rajasthan and Delhi, (not to forget Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh a short while ago), turns the spotlight onto an aspect of politics that has always occupied a distinctly uncertain place in our time – namely, the question of women’s relationship to power. Indeed, when we look more closely, the uncertainty only grows – what does it mean today to be a woman in politics?

This paper offers a window into the world of political women, but from a segment that rarely makes news – the world of urban local politics inhabited by corporators and councillors. For reasons that are easy to understand, political decentralisation in India has been associated with the revival of the panchayat system of local self-government (made into law through the 73rd Amendment in 1993) to the point of being practically synonymous with it.1 A considerable amount of interest has been generated in this revival, and especially in the provision of a onethird reservation for women within panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). Campaigns and debates on 33 per cent reservations for women have evolved in two phases. The first was concerned with the degrees of success as well as the obstacles faced by women in entering the system of decentralised government (once again, concentrating on the rural system from village to district). The second phase, from 1996 onwards, focused on the pros and cons of introducing similar reservations in the state assem blies and in Parliament (first tabled as the 81st Amendment Bill). This is now rather well known as a decade long campaign which has been unable even to have the issue debated in Parliament.

In sharp contrast to the public attention devoted to the Women’s Reservations Bill and the entry of women into the PRIs, the urban twin of the 73rd Amendment – passed almost simultaneously as the 74th Amendment or the Nagarpalika Act of June 1993 – remains largely unknown. Very few are aware that the Nagarpalika Act seeks to restructure the municipal system, and includes a provision that reserves for women one-third of all seats in all urban local bodies from small towns to metropolitan cities. The point of departure of this paper is, therefore, the comparative neglect of the urban situation in contemporary activism and scholarship, whether this be in discussions concerning local governance or the role of women in politics. The paper draws on the experiences and findings of a preliminary study on municipal governance in two cities. The larger study looks into the social and political backgrounds of municipal councillors, both men and women, across class, caste and community, and elicits their opinions on a range of issues pertaining to the functioning of the municipal system, and the role of reservations within it. The views of the voting public were also a part of the study, in order to explore what impact and knowledge of the municipal system existed on the ground.

My aim in this paper is to open up for further discussion two issues that have underwritten more general concerns about women’s political participation. The first of these is the problem of the so-called “proxy” women, i e, women who are stand-ins for male relatives, usually politician husbands. The existing scheme of reservations and the rotation of reserved seats over successive elections, it has been said, encourage the election of such proxies, whose presence thus vitiates the basis of reservations for women. The second, related question concerns the very rationale behind women’s reservations, namely, the need to have a critical mass of women in the political arena. While the first issue has been clearly identified as a negative drawback by feminists and political analysts, the second has been more or less assumed to be the positive ground for reservations and has not been subjected to much scrutiny. Our own study, however, muddies the waters considerably on both these issues. I will argue that the proxy problem is far more complex than what existing critiques would allow. On the other hand, it cannot be simply asserted that women in bodies such as the municipal corporations of our major cities constitute, in themselves, a political identity or a distinct force. Indeed, as we shall see, the subject of women in power – at least in the world of urban local politics – turns out to be quite an intractable one, and raises many new questions for feminism and the women’s movement.

Background to the Study

Before moving any further into these extremely important issues, it is necessary to provide some brief background. The study is based on two municipal corporations – the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) and the Bangalore City Corporation (BCC), and was conducted during 2002-03. At the time of the study, the MCD (which covers most of Delhi, barring the small cantonment areas and the central district covered by the New Delhi Municipal Council) was administering a population of over 13 million people. This was spread across an area covering 1,400 square kilometres, and was composed of 134 wards, created by dividing Delhi’s 67 assembly constituencies into two parts.2 The city of Bangalore on the other hand, was about half the size of Delhi, with a population of about six million spread across 225 square kilometres, divided into 100 wards among the 15 assembly seats, all administered by the BCC.

Delhi and Bangalore present a picture of contrasts in more ways than one. A particularly significant aspect for our purposes here concerns the pattern of reserving wards in both cities. Reservations create a set of categories based on interlocking conside rations of gender and caste. In Delhi’s MCD, a total of 25 wards were reserved for scheduled castes, while the remaining were marked “general”. Within this overall structure, one-third of all the wards were reserved for women, producing a final pattern of nine reserved seats for dalit women (SCW), 16 for dalits (SC), 37 for women (W) and 72 general seats. The distribution was mechanically generated and made public in the Delhi gazette as early as 1994, and was to be in force for the next five elections. In preparation for the first elections (which were held in 1997), every third ward was marked for women, every sixth as SC, and so on, and elections were held accordingly, with no woman standing from a general seat. (According to the system of rotation, the existing one-third seats would be de- reserved – i e, become general seats in the next elections – and another set of one-third seats reserved, and so on, in a cyclical fashion.) However, just before the next elections were to be held in 2002, the BJP government then in power in Delhi state managed to freeze rotations (even though this was strictly speaking illegal), thus maintaining the existing pattern and location of reserved wards for all groups. The overall picture has been summarised in Table 1. (The table includes the break-up of winning candidates for the two elections of 1997 and 2002 by political party.)

The BCC presents a remarkably different picture. As a consequence of its history of backward caste mobilisation, the state of Karnataka also has reservations for the backward castes (BC) along with scheduled castes (SC) and women. The BC quota is further sub-divided among two sub-groups: while the BC(A) cate gory includes the entire range of BCs from vokkaligas to yadavas, kurubas, gollas, banajigas as well as backward caste Muslims, the smaller BC(B) category includes intermediate castes such as vokkaligas/gowdas and reddys, coupled with an income criterion. Each of these categories in turn had one-third seats reserved for women, adding up to a total of 35 seats. Thus, in the BCC, one-third of the 100 seats were reserved for BCs (27 BC (A) and 6 BC (B)), 14 seats for dalits, while the remaining 53 were general. The overall distribution of castes has been presented for the two elections of 1996 and 2001 (with a break-up of corporators according to political party) in Table 2. Unlike Delhi, rotation did take place in Bangalore, and for all seats. While the selection of SC wards was determined according to the proportion of SCs in the population of the ward, as far as BCs and women were concerned, it appeared that the absence of demographic data (for BCs) or any mechanical criterion (as in the case of Delhi) resulted in a situation of some arbitrariness. Thus, which wards became reserved and for whom at election time was open to some manipulation, with the ruling party of the time using this to their advantage.

Since it was not possible to interview all councillors, Table 3 gives the gender, caste and community break-up of our sample in each city, totalling 75 in Delhi and 59 in Bangalore.

Beyond ensuring that more than 50 per cent were women, and that all reserved categories were represented in our sample, councillors were randomly selected from different wards. In the case of Bangalore, the figures in brackets indicate the reserved wards selected in our sample – i e, three wards reserved for SC women, five for SCs, seven for BC(A) women, seven for BC(A), three for BC(B) women, two for BC, 19 women and 12 general wards. But, as we discovered along the way, the general category showed greater caste diversity than we had initially anticipated. Thus, our sample included six SC male councillors, one of whom won from a general seat. The num ber of backward caste councillors, both men and women,

Table 1: Results of 1997, 2002 Municipal Corporation Elections in Delhi by Category of Seats

1997 2002
Party Gender and Caste Gender and Caste
BJP 40 20 10 6 76 10 5 0 0 15
Congress 26 16 4 2 48 58 27 16 8 109
Other 4 1 1 0 6 4 5 0 1 10
Vacant 2 0 1 1 4 0 0 0 0 0
Total 72 37 16 9 134 72 37 16 9 134

far exceeded the wards reserved for them, as many won from general wards. Upper castes in Bangalore were in relatively small numbers. The contrast with Delhi is evident, where women and dalits were confined to their respective reserved categories, and upper caste men dominated the general category (our sample had just three OBC men and no OBC women).

Due to space constraints it is not possible to go into any detail regarding their social, occupational and educational backgrounds. On an average, women were younger than men, and the Bangalore corporation was more youthful than its Delhi counterpart. In terms of education, a greater proportion of high school and technical degree holders in Bangalore contrast with more graduates and professional degree holders in Delhi. Twice as many women in Delhi were graduates compared to Bangalore, and among the dalit women the differences between the two cities were even starker (This was not the case among dalit men). Business, especially as contractors, developers and factory owners, was the most common occupation among the male councillors in both cities, including among husbands of women councillors. At the same time, class differences were discernable, with proportionately more councillors in Bangalore coming from middle and working class backgrounds, including two factory workers and a bus conductor, a phenomenon quite unthinkable in Delhi.3 Among the women, the largest common category was that of housewife – 75 per cent in Bangalore and 42 per cent in Delhi. (In our entire sample, five women were single compared to two men.) Interestingly, in Delhi only two out of nine dalit women were housewives, and only one of the three Muslim councillors. In Bangalore, on the other hand, all three dalit women were housewives. The most frequent professional category among the women was that of the teacher.

In terms of their political histories, more than half our Bangalore sample were newcomers to politics compared to 22 per cent in Delhi. Of these, the vast majority were women. Among both men and women, upper castes were over-represented among those with longer political involvements, while at the other end of the spectrum seven out of the 10 Muslim councillors began their political careers after election to the corporation. The dalit and BC councillors presented a more mixed picture.

The Figure of the Proxy

It is in connection with questions related to sources of support for entering politics, including from family members, that our exploration of the proxy begins. One must begin by unmasking certain assumptions about the whole proxy issue: this has to do with men’s presumed autonomy in politics versus women’s dependent and place-holder status. One of the reasons why this assumption has enjoyed such wide acceptance is that debates over women’s reservations almost never include men, or more general considerations about political processes and conditions of participation. Limiting ourselves to our own study, it was quite illuminating to see how the question about sources of support was answered. First of all, practically no one claimed that their entry into the field of electoral politics was self-motivated. On the contrary, what did emerge with a surprisingly large number of councillors – 18 women and 34 men, and equally from both cities – was their clear statement that they owed their entry to a political leader or “godfather”.

This is but an indication (culled as it is from interviews) of how relationships within the political system are fostered. It suggests that – for men as much as for women – being a proxy of sorts is the condition of entry into politics. The only question is about the nature of this relationship – for whom is one being a proxy and in what manner? It is important to note, morever, that the family is but a small part of the web of power relations and dependencies that constitute the political sphere. Unqualified notions of autonomy may therefore be largely misplaced for men and women alike, especially at this local level.

The difference lies in the extent to which men acknowledge the role of family members compared to women. Thus, in our study, over one-third (25 out of 73) of the women referred to husbands as their main source of support, and a further 18 mentioned other family members (parents, in-laws, brothers and so on). Very few men mentioned family in this context – just four out of 61. However, some men did have other family members in politics – eight in Bangalore and eight in Delhi (mainly brothers and fathers, but also wives and, in one case, a mother). Indeed, coming from a political family has huge advantages, as we all know. It is therefore noteworthy that in our entire sample none of the Muslim councillors and only two dalit councillors (out of 16) were in this group, so that familial advantages were largely confined to a section of upper caste and OBC councillors.

As we mentioned at the beginning, only in Bangalore did rotation take place prior to the second round of elections. Since this is the context that is said to strongly engender the proxy phenomenon, let us look a little more closely at what some of our Bangalore councillors had to say.

First of all, there is little doubt that some women do fit the proxy label; indeed, most corporators referred to proxies at some point in the course of their interview. One of our interviewees, for instance, sullenly and repeatedly stated that she knew nothing of corporation matters even at the end of her five year term, so much so that the interview petered out fairly soon. In another case, the interview could not even take place because the excorporator, in front of her husband, locked herself into an inner room and refused to come out. (Of course, this could be interpreted in more ways than one.) A more spirited proxy declared that she had been forced to stand “against her will”, turning to her husband to say “you men continue in politics if you want, but

Table 2: Results of 1996, 2001 Municipal Corporation Elections in Bangalore by Category of Seats

Party Caste and Gender
G G W BC(A) BC(A)W BC(B) BC(B)W SC SC(W) Total
Congress 5 6 4 2 0 0 1 1 19
JD 10 6 9 6 3 1 3 1 39
BJP 14 5 2 0 0 1 2 2 26
Others 6 1 3 1 1 0 2 2 16
Total 35 18 18 9 4 2 8 6 100
Cong 19 10 13 3 3 1 5 3 57
JD (S) 5 4 0 2 0 0 0 2 13
JD(U) 4 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 6
BJP 4 4 4 2 0 0 1 1 16
Others 3 0 1 2 0 1 1 0 8
Total 35 18 18 9 4 2 8 6 100

don’t drag us women into it”. She went on to tell us how much she missed her children. However, as it turns out, these were the rare cases.

Among those in Bangalore who did not stand again when the ward was dereserved for women, including among both scheduled castes and backward castes, we were often given a different version. We were told by women councillors, often with great poignancy, that it had been their husband’s lifelong ambition to stand for election, so how could they prevent them from doing so when the ward was dereserved and made an open seat in the next election? Thus, far from being motivated by a lack of interest or of ability in politics, the withdrawal of such women from elections pointed to the dilemmas they were faced with sharing political opportunities within the family.

In another case, the wife of a Janata Dal worker (a gowda running a small shop) who had been made to stand in a true proxy fashion in 1996, actually stood again when the ward was dereserved five years later, but then lost to the (male) Congress candidate. In yet another interview with a Reddy ex-councillor, the husband, (who was not a politician himself and sat in on the discussions), proclaimed that he was fully in favour of reservations for women, because, in his words “you get two for the price of one”! (While she attended council meetings, he helped supervise development work in the ward.) We see here a clear repudiation of the zero sum approach presupposed by the proxy argument, presented in the form of an alternative, nuanced perspective on how political work may be shared between men and women.

Yet another perspective is provided by the only woman corporator in Bangalore to win again from an open seat in 2001. (She had contested the 1996 election in a BC(A) women’s ward as an independent candidate.) Claiming that she started out with absolutely no interest in politics, this seasoned corporator now preferred to work on her own, in spite of family responsibilities. Her husband played no part in her political life, she said emphatically, not even to accompany her on her rounds. Interestingly, one of the strongest criticisms of the proxy came from a widow, who contested but lost in 1996 from a neighbouring ward reserved for women, and in 2001 stood successfully from her own ward which was reserved for BC(B) women. With 10 years of political experience behind her, she spoke at length about the difficulties of the work involved, the interference of rival male politicians, and the need for capable women; even reservations were but a “pretence of equality”.4 Compare this stand with that of the only ST corporator, who, while acknowledging that she owed her entry into politics to her husband, placed far greater emphasis on the enabling role of reservations. She was disturbed, she said, by the frequent talk (by men) of trying to scrap reservations for women. She was very clear that she would have made no headway in local politics without reservations. There was such a strong caste hierarchy in the municipality that she feels she would have been kept out of any standing committee, but for the fact that the Social Justice Committee was reserved for SC/ST.

The proxy then, turns out to be a complex rather than a straightforward phenomenon, open to varying degrees of negotiation once the classic housewife relationship has been destabilised through accession to the public post of a corporator. At the very least, the real life instances cited above make it evident that there are a number of shortcomings in existing critiques of the proxy.

A common assumption has been that such women would be passive place-holders for their men – but instead, a whole spectrum of possibilities emerged. There were, no doubt, the few who remained victim figures throughout their term. But there were many more women who developed in different ways in the course of five years in office, some becoming significant political players in their own right.

Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that the housewife is – or ought to be – an important figure for a feminist politics. Rather than offering premature condemnation, feminists should be trying to understand the process that is engendered when such a person gains a modicum of power within the system. This does not imply, of course, that such women be privileged at the expense of others, but to insist that the problem needs to be posed very differently. This is especially true in the world of politics, which is all about having the “right connections”, including familial ones. We need to pay more attention to what happens after women gain entry – especially women from the backward and scheduled castes.

Views on Reservations

We now come to the more difficult questions. In what ways do “women” emerge as a subject within the field of local urban politics? Before getting further into our study, let us look at some recent considerations. In the context of a parallel study of women’s reservations in urban metropolitan India, Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal (2000) has presented some of the main arguments that support women’s reservations. These include – considerations of gender justice (women’s political presence should be proportional to their presence in society); arguments focusing on women’s interests (a sizeable presence of women is necessary for their interests to be adequately represented); and a resource argument (women have specific qualities that ought to be part of political life). From a very different perspective, Nivedita Menon (2000) has critiqued the very notion of the category of “women” in debates over the Women’s Reservation Bill. Her argument is that it is necessary to go beyond quotas (which are but the

Table 3: Gender, Caste and Community Break-up

Caste Female Male Total
SC 9 (9) 10 (10) 19
OBC 0 3 3
Jat 5 1 6
Sikh 2 1 3
Muslim 4 1 5
Upper caste 21 18 39
Total 41 34 75
SC 3 (3) 6 (5) 9
BC(A) 15 (7) 11 (7) 26
BC(B) 9 (3) 4 (2) 13
Muslim 2 3 5
Upper caste 3 (19) 3 (12) 6
Total 32 27 59

Notes: Figures in brackets indicate number of reserved wards selected in the sample for the relevant category (including the ‘general’ category). However, in Bangalore, many reserved category candidates contested from the ‘general’ category wards – hence among women, only 3 of the 19 selected from the general-women wards were upper caste, and among men, only 3 of the 12 selected from general-all wards were upper caste men.

beginning) to question the tendency of treating women as “a neutral category that exists independently of all political considerations” [Menon 2000: 3842]. The category of “women” does not precede other forms of social identity and mobilisation. And since identities such as class, religion and caste have tended to prevail over gender in contexts like ours, “women” are at best the goal of feminist politics, a category to be constructed.

It seems to me that both these sets of claims need to be addressed within specific contexts, and the political world of the metropolitan municipality provides a good instance of just such a context. After all, questions of the putative identity of women and the raison d’etre of reservations are best tested by the men and women who are the subjects of local urban politics themselves. Clearly there are no neutral spaces where women (or any other group for that matter) are predefined. Indeed, I would state the problem from the opposite end – that the challenge for feminism is precisely to be meaningful in contexts predefined by fields of power. How, then, has the reservation or quota system produced a discourse of caste and gender among the councillors? What is the role of the municipal system of political representation? Where, if at all, do feminist considerations find a place?

So much has been said about the dominance of caste in Indian politics and the ubiquity of vote banks, that it might surprise readers to hear about its relatively muted place in our interviews with councillors. Of course, since we are dealing with people’s opinions, and that, too, on a theme surrounded by high levels of “political correctness”, the views expressed here must be taken with extra caution. With this caveat, we found a distinct difference in the style of answering questions about reservations for women compared to caste based reservations. Broadly, councillors had much more to say about women, often providing a contradictory mix of reasons in the course of their response. There was also a palpable contrast in the two cities – while Delhi spoke more favourably on women than on caste-based reservations, the balance went the other way in Bangalore.

We were particularly struck by the flatness of the response to our questions on caste-based reservations, whether for SCs or OBCs. In Delhi, a stronger antipathy was palpable; in many cases our question was even misunderstood as referring to Mandal, that is, to reservations in education and government jobs, such was the remoteness of political reservations from the minds of this city’s municipal councillors. In Bangalore, a kind of political correctness on caste prevailed up to a point, so much so that it was the dalit corporators themselves who voiced strong criticisms. One of them said that the SC reservations were not working as they should; another that they were unable to help their own people, and a third that his success depended on “not looking or behaving like an SC”. On the other hand, a number of non-dalit corporators in Bangalore, both men and women, who claimed to support caste-based reservations, subsequently referred to the “problem” that SC corporators were standing from general wards, implying a “lost opportunity” for “capable” candidates. In other words, one got the distinct impression that SC reservations were tolerated, so long as they did not extend beyond their assigned place.

Among dalit women councillors we often came across a sense of uncertainty about their status and right to reservations, as though their double marking by both caste and gender served to underscore their transcient presence. It was uncommon to find outspoken women among them; even the high levels of education and professional qualifications in most of our Delhi sample did not substantially change this picture. Only one dalit woman councillor in Delhi seems to have made a political career for herself; she was also the only dalit from her party – the BJP – to be given a ticket to stand again in 2002.5

The subject of backward caste reservations in Bangalore also elicited surprisingly brief responses, with very few corporators wishing to be drawn into further discussion. Only a very small number referred explicitly to the diminished presence of upper castes in the Bangalore City Corporation, whether positively or negatively. In a unique instance, which must be cited here, an ex-councillor, a developer from the nayanaja kshatriya caste, which comes within the BC(A) category (he started out as an independent but then followed his godfather into the Congress; his wife is the current corporator), spoke at considerable length about the positive value of reservations, especially for women from the backward castes:

It is not just my wife getting a chance… Backward class women are not in politics. Women from a community like the brahmins got chances previously whereas women from backward communities were unable or not inclined... [She] might not perform for three to four years, or might not know the work, or someone else might work on her behalf… [but] she will finally know the worth of that power. Her children, relatives and friends too will learn to face the future. It allows everyone to grow.

What, then, did councillors have to say about reservations for women? Far more, as we have already said, than on the subject of caste. Women spoke more in favour than men, and more so in Delhi than Bangalore. Interestingly, it was in Bangalore that both women and men said most frequently that women needed to be given a chance in politics, whereas in Delhi the most common grounds were different, namely that women possessed special qualities – whether of sincerity or honesty, or the ability to get more work done – that justified reservations. Just four women in Delhi justified reservations because women “felt more free” to talk to another woman. Interestingly, this is the closest reference made in this context to women as voters and to women councillors’ possible role as women’s representatives, a matter we will return to later. If we go back to the types of justifications for reservations provided by Lama-Rewal, the closest to a gender justice argument was articulated by those who felt women deserved to get a chance. Arguments related to women’s interests figured nowhere. The resource argument about women’s special qualities was particularly popular in Delhi. How might we respond to such views?

It seems to me that we need to be wary of arguments that rely on women’s ascribed positive qualities. The extent to which they depend upon conventional constructions of good womanhood is itself part of the problem. Moreover, opposition to reservations for women (openly articulated by a small number of both men and women councillors from all social groups) is easily able to turn such arguments on their head – women are less capable, unsuited to the job, unable to function because they lack the right qualities, and so on. Two women councillors in Delhi went further to say that women were even more corrupt than men. A much stronger starting place for any feminist discussion of the place of “women” in the world of local politics would be in relation to experiences and perceptions of gender discrimination. This is also how the proxy issue ought to be tackled – rather than worry over the role that men may be playing, it is whether women councillors feel the need to name problems they or others might be facing as women that is relevant.

All councillors were initially asked an open-ended question about any experiences of constraints in carrying out their work. Interestingly, at this general level councillors only brought up problems related to the functioning of the municipality – neither gender, caste nor minority issues came up. Instead, they voiced constraints created by administrative interference and the functioning of municipal officials, lack of financial power, corruption and so on. If control by others was a problem, this took the most frequent form of interference by the local MLAs, especially in Delhi.

What happens when the focus of the question of constraints is specifically turned onto experiences of disadvantage? In order to probe further, all interviewees were asked a series of questions that sought to determine the presence of discrimination, whether in their work and interaction with colleagues and officials, in the kinds of responsibilities entrusted to them, as well as in relation to their families. Only some spoke up on these issues, whether on their own behalf or for others, with significant numbers in both cities denying the importance or relevance of discrimination in their lives as corporators. This is by no means an easy issue to interpret. Are we dealing with the genuine absence of such experiences for most people, or is it that such experiences are disavowed and denied? We obviously cannot say for certain, but then, this problem is by no means unique for this kind of question, since it structures to varying degrees all the responses received in the interviews.

To put this differently, methodologically speaking, we cannot be overly concerned with determining just what the councillors might be holding back (a matter that came up earlier in discussing degrees of “political correctness” on the subject of reservations); we must lay greater stress on comparing what they do say in the course of a structured interview. In Delhi, for instance, only six women spoke up on the issue of public discrimination, such as being given smaller jobs, being removed from responsible posts, or being harassed. Others said that, regardless of their own social status, what mattered was having a godfather; that women were as guilty of pulling each other down; or that too much power was vested in the ruling party. Yet others said that colleagues, male or female, were of little consequence, one just had to get the work done, especially with the cooperation of officials. It is particularly telling that the dalit women councillors in Delhi were the least forthcoming on the subject, with the exception of the sole representative of the BSP, a newcomer. Among dalit men in Delhi, three spoke out about caste biases among colleagues and bureaucrats. One said that “they want bonded SC members who would be like a pet dog”, and another that he was humiliated by never being given an important post.

The one question in Delhi that elicited the largest number of positive responses (from practically 50 per cent of women councillors) was the role of family responsibilities and constraints from family members. “Home life is finished!” declared two newly elected upper caste women councillors. Women spoke about disturbances caused by the intrusion of corporation issues, lack of attention to family matters, or that daughters and husbands needed to help them, whether at home or at work. Never speaking in the first person, a number of women (and men) said that the husbands of younger women were jealous of their wives’ movements, especially among strangers, and reported cases of separation due to lack of support and understanding. Much depen ded on how family members handled the situation – one dalit woman councillor said that a new division of labour was required within the family. While it is clear, therefore, that the sphere of the home elicited far more than the public sphere of work insofar as issues were frequently acknowledged and dwelt upon, barring some exceptions they did not appear as major obstacles either. It should also be remembered that the remaining 50 per cent claimed they faced no difficulties in carrying out their tasks as councillors – husbands were cooperative, cooking was taken over by others, children adjusted. In conducting interviews we discovered that while women frequently turned the front rooms of homes into offices to maintain a continuum between home and work, men had separate offices located in market areas.

In Bangalore, on the other hand, proportionately more women talked about the problems they faced in their public lives, sometimes in the first person (“when we speak we are simply not heard by the officials, we have to learn how to become loud and aggressive”), but more frequently, adopting a third person position, referring to what certain other women, whom they sometimes mentioned by name, had suffered. A common refrain was that new women corporators in particular were discriminated against and that only experienced women counted. A small number of women and men emphasised that husbands could be a problem – their jealousies (one particularly goodlooking woman corporator was practically stalked by her husband and never allowed out of eyesight), their manipulation of their wives, and their desire to be in control. This lack of freedom was occasionally turned into a reason as to why reservations for women were pointless if not counterproductive.

Two Muslim women corporators in Bangalore, as it turned out, had much to say on the subject of discrimination. One of them, who had stood successfully since 1990 from a Muslim populated ward every time it was reserved for women, and was now councillor for the third time, claimed that male domination was rampant, especially in her community. Not only did muslim leaders attempt to scuttle reservations for women in her ward, but even women did not find it easy to accept women leaders. The other, a teacher and a newcomer to politics, spoke of the advantages of being unmarried – not only had she faced opposition from party members and ward members, but even her own brother-in-law attempted to wrest control and harassed her repeatedly – she was only able to talk about this when the interview was officially concluded.

‘Women’ as a Political Category

Given all that has been said so far, it is perhaps not surprising that when we posed the question whether reserved candidates were able to constitute a group or force within the corporation, this was overwhelmingly answered in the negative. An important assumption has been the “critical mass” theory, namely that the presence of a minimum of one-third women in political bodies would make a significant difference towards influencing proceedings, instead of a few token women having to act in isolation. However, if the experience of local urban government is anything to go by, then this concept is not working, at least not directly. In fact, when the question of acting as a group was posed to the councillors, many of them did not even understand what we meant.

Just one councillor from Delhi, an older BJP member who was dropped by the party in 2002 and who was unique in her openly professed concern about women’s issues, claimed to have tried to bring all the women in the corporation together – across party lines – to enable them to act collectively when important decisions were being taken. However, these efforts failed – at best, she conceded, women came together at times of crisis. One incident in particular appears to have been a rallying point, since it was also mentioned by three others – the widely reported case of a Mumbai woman corporator who was attacked and killed in the course of her work. The issue was discussed in the house and a resolution passed that women councillors should be provided with a security guard. There was also an incident of sexual harass ment by an official of a Muslim councillor, and a reported case where a woman councillor was stabbed by her husband, which were brought up in the municipal meetings. Three others mentioned the existence of a Mahila Kalyan Committee. But the vast majority said that women could not be expected to act in any concerted way – they performed individually or as members of their respective parties. All that the men were willing to concede was that some women could be effective (sometimes giving their names), or, as they put it, a handful of women had “personality”.

In Bangalore the story was much the same, if anything even more so. Just two women corporators said that women come together on certain welfare issues – for widow pensions, distributing free sewing machines -- but for little else. There was no scope for being a collective force – the women worked on their own, some were dependent on their husbands, and, in any case, primary loyalty belonged to one’s party. The men concurred. With so much unanimity here, across gender and social groups and in both the cities, this is surely an issue calling for further reflection. The idea that women share, much less cultivate, a common identity as women in the process of becoming local political leaders is thrown into serious doubt. As already mentioned earlier, none of the women councillors brought up their possible representative role towards the women ward members or towards the women’s interests more generally.

Concluding Questions

The issues we have been raising in the course of this paper barely scratch the surface of the world of local urban electoral politics. Nonetheless, our experiences have not followed certain commonly held expectations. We encountered more political housewives than passive proxies, most of whom developed a strong relationship to the municipal system, if only for a fiveyear term. The title of a study of all women panchayats in Maharashtra – ‘And Who Will Make the Chapatis?’ – has offered one important view of the kind of opposition and double burden that women are likely to encounter, should they enter the electoral domain [Dutta 1998]. However, families did not emerge as major sites of strife in our study – indeed, barring specific cases of conflict encountered by younger women, especially in Bangalore, accommodation if not support (through the presence of daughters or daughters-in-law, domestic labour, and some cooperation from men, without implying revolutionary changes in gender relations) appeared to be the more common situation.

Nor did collective identities such as those of caste play a prominent political role. Rather, we encountered the muting effects of scheduled caste reservations among dalit women, supplemented by outbursts of resentment or expressions of resignation by some dalit men. The undoubtedly major shifts inaugurated by backward caste politics in Bangalore also did not yield a corresponding willingness to engage with these processes to any significant degree. (The point is not that caste groups and associations were never mentioned, but rather that these jostled for importance with any number of other important organisations – religious bodies, traders’ associations, the local Kannada Sangha in Bangalore.) Women, for their part, were particularly eager to lay claim to the language of abstract universalism in their representative function and did not wish to be either identified with some putative constituency of “women”, or with the advancement of women’s issues and interests. They measured their success by their ability to be players in the municipal system, and drew on both masculine and feminine codes and norms in the process. While one successful corporator disavowed even the problems of irregular hours and being called out at night, another “held court” in regal fashion, with her husband among those in attendance. Their careers – barring the tiny number of independents

– were shaped by their allegiances to their respective political parties.

One of the reasons why the urban situation is so important – compared to most accounts of the experiences of women in the rural panchayats – is that it includes many more dimensions of the political arena. These include the dominance of political parties in the electoral process, the high stakes of municipal governance with large financial outlays, the significance of various local organisations, leaders and localities, and displays of power on the part of councillors. As I noted at the outset, the domain of decentralisation in India has been synonymous with the revival of rural panchayats. Efforts have been launched by different insti tutions to assist in this process. Women’s organisations and gender-sensitive NGOs have been second to none in promoting the participation of elected women panchayat members by monitoring their problems, organising meetings, and, especially by providing them with training. Empowering women through the panchayats is a major plank of contemporary rural development. It is striking that nothing equivalent exists in urban India, a few exceptions notwithstanding. The contrast is instructive in ways that may have escaped attention. For one thing, political parties have been officially debarred from backing panchayat candidates. For another, a number of urban-based organisations – whether state supported or with international funding – have made the effort to link up with the panchayat system, aided by relations of power and the perception of being part of a larger developmental and anti-poverty initiative. Even though cities like Delhi and Bangalore boast of major women’s organisations and NGOs, they have shown little interest in reaching out to the women in the urban local bodies of these cities, who might even be the local councillors of the very wards where these organisations are housed.

I do not think that this is an oversight. The problems involved in gaining a foothold within urban politics are daunting. Indeed, relations of power between “people like us” (or the typical urban middle class researcher) and many councillors could well be structured in their favour, as we ourselves discovered in the course of our work. In their study of women in municipal politics, Ghosh and Lama-Rewal (2006) have gone so far as to identify a “blatant contradiction” between the “prevalent distaste for the particular mores of politics – its murkiness, its violence, its corruption” among many women activists and the active support provided to the Women’s Reservation Bill (WRB). Given that there has been considerable debate amongst feminists on the WRB, the contradiction may not be a blatant one for everyone. Groups identifying with the women’s movement have included the women’s wings of left parties. Feminists have also become known for their critiques of the Hindu Right, including especially the violent agency and communal incitement displayed by its women leaders [Sarkar 1991; Sangari 1993]. However, there has been little sustained reflection on changing forms of political and civic mobilisation. Cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore have been witnessing what Janaki Nair (2006) has aptly called “social municipalism”. The term refers to initiatives by middle class residents, especially women and retired people, to improve their neighbourhoods in the face of “the failures of local governance”, initiatives that seek to bypass or supplant both the electoral process and popular local politics.

Clearly, the world of urban politics offers numerous challenges and no easy points of entry. However, it is important to resist middle class conceptions – also stoked by NGOs and hyped by the media – of politics as essentially corrupt and dirty. For such conceptions are frequently expressions of the frustration of powerful people whose power is not working. Instead, the presence of reservations based on caste and gender in our municipalities needs to be turned into an opportunity. Councillors and corporators occupy little understood positions within a dense network that ranges from “the politics of the governed” [Chatterjee 2004] at the margins of the metropolis to the new dispensers of governance via mega projects and public-private partnerships. More sustained interactions with this world over a longer period of time – through ethnographies of municipal life, for instance – are sure to yield deep insights into the everyday exclusions, conflicts and forms of empowerment that constitute democratic political processes and their effects on people’s lives. As I have argued above, the challenge lies precisely in learning how to make the subject of women and feminism meaningful within contexts already defined by politics and power. After all, those supporting the demand for similar reservations at the state and national levels can ill afford to hold on to illusory notions of “women” as a social or political identity. The problems and possibilities of “women” within the politics of urban local governance thus deserve much more space than we have granted them so far.




[This paper draws from a study undertaken when I was part of the Women’s Studies Programme, Jawaharlal Nehru University, which was partly funded by UNIFEM, New Delhi, and has been taken forward at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies. My thanks to Zoya Hasan for her strong encouragement to embark on this project. Janaki Nair agreed to coordinate the work in Bangalore, and P Sudarshan, Veena H S and D Tharamathi were able and dedicated research assistants. Sonali Chatterjee, research associate at the Women’s Studies Programme, played a central role in conducting the interviews in Delhi and organising the data. But for all their participation, this study would never have been possible. Different versions of this paper have been presented at venues in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, San Francisco, and Hyderabad, and I am grateful for the discussions and comments received. Anupama Roy, Janaki Nair and Satish Deshpande provided valuable comments on an earlier draft. In spite of many accumulated debts, I remain responsible for the views expressed here.]

1 The 73rd Amendment represented the fulfilment of a constitutional provision, a directive principle for establishing local self-government. Panchayati raj thus occupies a special constitutional status compared to that of the 74th Amendment. I am grateful to Anupama Roy for bringing this to my notice.

2 In the recently concluded MCD elections conducted in March 2007 the wards were delimited afresh, their number more than doubling to


3 The class segment in Delhi from which the councillors came was much more homogeneous, and did not include anyone from a working class background, with much larger financial outlays being involved in the campaigning process. There is a definite class-caste distinction between the two cities, which is even more visible among the women. The large presence of backward castes in Bangalore has thus also made its corporation far less elite. Interestingly, the elite structure of the Delhi Corporation seems to have affected the choice of successful dalit corporators, especially among the women, some of whom were more educated than their upper caste counterparts.

4 In a shocking development, this corporator was in fact murdered a year after our study was completed. Newspaper reports mentioned that a political vendetta may have been the cause of the murder.

5 In this paper it has not been possible to discuss the huge role played by the various political parties as well as the large swings at the time of the elections. Parties are decisive in terms of who is dropped, who is allowed to stand, and elections, of course, decide who wins. In Delhi, for instance, prior to the 2002 elections, the BJP (which had been in power in the MCD), dropped all its sitting dalit councillors barring one, and many of its women. In spite of these and other tactics, the Congress won with a resounding majority. (This has been reversed yet again in the 2007 municipal elections.)


Chatterjee, Partha (2004): The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most Parts of the World, Columbia University Press, New York.

Dutta, Bishakha (ed) (1998): And Who Will Make the Chapatis? A Study of All Women Panchayats in Maharashtra, Stree, Kolkata.

Ghosh, Archana and Stephanie Tawa Lama-Rewal (2006): Democratisation in Progress: Women in Local Urban Politics, Tulika Books, New Delhi.

Lama-Rewal, Stephanie Tawa (2001): ‘Women in the Calcutta Municipal Corporation: A Study in the Context of the Debate on the Women’s Reservation Bill’, CSH Occasional Paper, No 2.

Menon, Nivedita (2000): ‘Elusive Woman: Feminism and the Women’s Reservation Bill’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 35 (43-44), October 21-27, October 28, November 3, p 3842.

Nair, Janaki (2006): ‘Social Municipalism and the New Metropolis’ in Mary E John, Praveen Kumar Jha and Surinder S Jodhka (eds),

Contested Transformations: Changing Economies and Identities in

Contemporary India, Tulika Books, p 130, New Delhi. Outlook (2007): ‘The New Patil’, July 2. Sangari, Kumkum (1993): ‘Consent, Agency and Rhetorics of Incitement’,

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 20 (10), May 1.

Sarkar, Tanika (1991): ‘Woman as Communal Subject: The Rashtra Sevika Samiti and Ram Janmabhoomi Movement’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 26, No 35, August 31.

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