Ripples of Change

A version of this is up at Guardian Cif. (The headline and tagline there are not mine.)

As India went to elections over the last few weeks, a small section of Indian women exercised their vote to protest against regressive gender stances. A recent spate of attacks on women by Hindu fundamentalist groups in Karnataka probably brought home the need to do so. The vigilante groups are widely believed to enjoy the support of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which explains why some women among India’s educated middle classes adopted an anti-BJP ballot philosophy. A first-time voter said, “Certain parties have more absurd ideas about what women should or shouldn’t be doing than others. The sort of thing that happened in Mangalore worries me and I kept it in mind while voting.”

Another expressed similar antipathy on her blog: “The one party I would absolutely not vote for is the BJP because I believe their Hindutva ideology is regressive to the point of slotting women in historically repressive domestic roles and they’ve taken the country back to the dark ages, with their heinous crimes and divisive rhetoric.”

Noted feminist author Ammu Joseph said: “I did choose to vote for a candidate I perceived as on the whole progressive and possibly ‘winnable’. I have long ruled out ever voting for a certain party (the BJP) because of the whole package that they represent in terms of ideology and attitudes towards women as well as other sections of society.

Meanwhile, some candidates of other parties addressed issues such as women’s freedom, mobility and safety this time. Even if this was just a way to strike at the opposition’s knees, it is a welcome sign that such issues found space in political discourse at all. In India, there is usually little on women’s issues in party campaigns and manifestoes. Most women vote without taking gender-related needs into consideration.

Among the poor and rural, other factors—caste and religious affiliations or more basic needs—trump gender. The urban and educated seem sceptical about the government’s ability to ensure safety or freedom, or resigned to the fact that they are a minority demographic. In a country where many lack basics like food, water and electricity, there is also a certain guilt associated with asking for anything more. But given our dismal tract record in terms of gender development, women’s problems need to be given more attention. And it’s time the country’s elite realised that they should take the lead in demanding this for all women.

At the other apex of the gender-and-politics conundrum, gender skew remained a cause for worry but there was some hope in the form of a candidate like dancer and activist Mallika Sarabhai. Sarabhai, who faced BJP head honcho LK Advani in Ahmedabad, was eagerly cheered by liberal intellectuals across the country. In the past, Sarabhai has used art to focus attention on gender bias and communal hatred. Her choice of logo—the harmonium in red and purple—is careful of what it reflects. Purple is the international colour of women’s rights and red, she explains, is the colour of human blood, regardless of faith, caste or wealth. Cast and communal politics typically play a huge role in determining who India’s largely poor, rural and immensely caste-conscious vote bank will choose. By putting women at the centre of her campaign, Sarabhai departed from the general trend.

There are other signs that women in India are preparing to play a larger role in politics, either as voters or as candidates. In some places like south Karnataka, there were more women voters than men. Then, politics has long been viewed as too dirty or corrupt for women to enter but now in small towns, many women are wetting their feet in local political bodies. In the coming years, they are likely to become a stronger force and enter national politics. All these are small arrows hurled in the right direction. It’s too early for unbridled optimism especially in the context of low voter turnouts but perhaps these ripples of change will become a whirlpool at some point. One lives in hope.