Sunil Gatade | Women's power on the decline in Modi's BJP?

Update: 2023-09-29 18:40 GMT

At last, the Women’s Reservation Bill has sailed through Parliament. Despite much talk, it has not led to a feeling of a new dawn for the Indian woman or a fair deal for her. It is understandable given the fact that there are several ifs and buts before its implementation. Some experts claim it could be implemented only in the 2039 elections, 16 years from now. So, it is but natural that women and a sizable political class have taken the Narendra Modi government’s landmark measure ahead of the Lok Sabha elections more than with a pinch of salt.

Interestingly, the occasion warrants a look at the status of women leaders in the BJP, which proclaims it is the world’s largest party. This unmistakably shows that under Mr Modi’s watch, women’s power is on the decline. The influence and authority of women leaders, especially those in the BJP, are diminishing in an era of the “strong leader”.

Despite crying hoarse by the powers that be about “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”, the last 10 years might be the period in Independent India when the fair sex could be at its lowest ebb. The law on triple talaq as well as the campaign against the hijab in educational institutions was more of a gimmick in the “New India”, out to make a political buck through the communal divide. The Manipur ethnic strife and the handling of the women wrestlers’ protests against controversial MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh did not exactly endear the BJP with women.

This is not to say that it was all milk and honey for the fair sex when the Congress was in power.

omen have taken a secondary position in the BJP. However, it must be admitted that Mr Modi handed over Gujarat to Anandiben Patel as CM when he moved to New Delhi in May 2014. It had more to do with the excellent chemistry enjoyed by the PM with Anandiben, the seniormost minister in his government in Gujarat. 

No doubt, India now has a woman President in Droupadi Murmu. She is the second woman President after Pratibha Patil. It looks like Ms Murmu has been given the top post for being a tribal. Her being a woman has become an added advantage. She is the first President hailing from the Scheduled Tribes.

Strange, but true. Women are increasingly taking a backseat or are being forced to take a backseat in politics. There are very few who are calling the shots. At present, India has only one female chief minister, Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal. Jayalalithaa used to be the other CM who died some years back. Mamata Banerjee is one of the tallest women leaders in the country, who had carved a niche by being a streetfighter when the CPI(M)-led Left Front was entrenched in power in West Bengal. 

Mayawati was once seen as the first possible Dalit PM, but the graph of the BSP supremo has been declining for the past decade since she ceased to be the chief minister of the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. Without naming Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati had once boasted that she was a far bigger leader than the former Congress president, who had got the position due to her legacy.

The tragedy is that women leaders in the BJP are seen more as those with the blessings of the top leadership instead of being leaders in their own right. Finance minister Nirmala Sitaraman is the lone woman in Narendra Modi’s kitchen Cabinet. She is a political lightweight and a relative newcomer to the BJP.

Smriti Irani is another minister who has had “passenger” ministries in the past decade, except once when she was put in charge of the key HRD portfolio. It created a huge controversy. Ms Irani’s claim to fame in more recent years was the defeat of Rahul Gandhi from his pocket borough of Amethi in the last Lok Sabha elections.

Sushma Swaraj, one of the BJP’s seniormost women leaders, died soon after the last Lok Sabha polls. She was ailing for some time and was kept out of the Modi 2.0 government despite her making it known that though she was not contesting the Lok Sabha polls, she was very much in active politics.

Vasundhara Raje is possibly the only BJP leader who has made a place for herself in politics. The 70-year-old leader has been the chief minister of Rajasthan for two terms. She was not made the CM candidate. 

In poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, it looks like the BJP has long forgotten former CM Uma Bharti as well as former Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan.

Maneka Gandhi was not included in the Modi government 2.0 and has never been known to be a force in BJP internal politics. Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, a BJP MP from Bhopal and the prime accused in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case, has more than survived due to the apparent blessings of the leadership.

Now, Sonia Gandhi has taken a backseat after being at the helm of the Congress for over two decades since 1998. She carries much influence and respect across the political spectrum after heading the UPA for 10 long years from 2004. Her daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has not been able to make much of a mark as a leader despite having charisma.

Mahua Moitra of the Trinamul Congress has emerged as a firebrand orator in the Lok Sabha. There have been promising women leaders including Mehbooba Mufti, who had been J&K chief minister, Supriya Sule of the NCP, K. Kavitha of the BRS and Kanimozhi of the DMK. Like Vasundhara Raje, they all hail from political families.

That was not the case with K.K. Shailaja, who was Kerala’s health minister during the Covid-19 pandemic and did commendable work on public health. The Marxist leader had declined the Ramon Magsaysay award for herself.

In Maharashtra, that the BJP and its Shiv Sena ally led by CM Eknath Shinde do not have a single woman in their Cabinet despite many rows is itself a sad commentary.

Notwithstanding some photo ops and grand announcements, the last nine years have not seen much action for a better deal for women in various fields, including in politics. If winning the hearts and minds of women voters is central to the BJP’s growth strategy to stave off electoral stagnation after a decade in power and cement its dominance at the ballot box, then much more needs to be done. Only event management will not be enough.


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