A conversation with Tara Krishnaswamy as a part of a series of interactions with eminent personalities in our effort to enhance the understanding of the current situation pertaining to women in Indian politics.
In light of Tara’s understanding of gender and society and her work for women’s political representation through Shakti, it is imperative to highlight issues which are deeply rooted in complex social and institutional structures. Further, the focus is on matters which demand immediate reforms. We begin by asking our first question:
Tara begins, “There are three major structural barriers that women face while trying to enter politics”.
- Lack of internal democracy within political parties;
- Second being flawed electoral laws pertaining to the financing of elections and
- Lack of any true vigilance powers with the Election Commission.
- In India, political parties face no scrutiny as compared to other non-governmental organisations. Given that parties are not private entities and exist with the ambition to form governments and govern public, the existing undemocratic structures and practices rampant within parties is a matter of concern. There are no laws governing the internal affairs mechanisms or candidate selection during the elections. These are relatively lawless in their internal operations and do not undergo independent audits. With the introduction of electoral bonds, any possible auditing sources of funding has become almost impossible.” She added, “The undemocratic nature of the political parties which are expected to form democratic government is puzzling”. “This is the biggest structural incompatibility we are stuck with. In political parties, all important positions can be given to males without question, and no standardised procedure exists to distribute tickets, therefore, there is no way to ensure representation of women or other minorities. Similarly, there is no formal procedure that citizens can follow to ensure that candidates they like are nominated. For instance, every election cycle there is an increase in the number of persons with criminal records being elected as Members of Parliament in India parliament. From 2014 to 2019, a 26% rise in the number of MPs with criminal history. The current parliament therefore has nearly 43% MPs with criminal records (ADR Report), including charges of serious crimes which constitute of rape, attempt to murder, crime against women. While women only constitute 14.3% in the 17th Lok Sabha. And unfortunately, our parliament is the reflection of the internal composition of multiple political parties.”
- Secondly, we have the problem of campaign finance. While access to media and social media presence are also crucial, the signal largest determinant is electoral financing, the records of which are now opaquely veiled behind electoral bonds. Elections in India are not publicly funded, and the role of corporate lending is rapidly increasing. In such a situation, for any new entrant, and not only women, it becomes a herculean challenge to source large sums of money. Parties do not observe any restraint, and the gaping loophole is that, that there is a cap on individuals but not on parties.In recent elections, the political consultancy market soared to become a Rs.50,000 crore industry. 88% of current MPs according to an analysis by ADR are “crorepatis”. We cannot clear the deck for any new entrant, independents or women without campaign finance reforms.”
- Finally, Tara believes the lack of any vigilance powers with the Election Commission, especially in terms of internal governance of political parties continues to hamper any increase in diversity in the candidates nominated. “Structurally EC by law has the powers and gates the formation of the political party, however once the party is established the commission cannot take them to charge on roguish or undemocratic behaviour”. The political parties are supposed to submit an affidavit declaring their confirmation to the constitution of India. However, later a party is hardly ever disqualified by the EC on not adhering to the constitutional principles or violating the enshrined values.
Women do not have economic means in the first place given our society’s structures. This informs our second question-
According to Ms. Krishnaswamy these two aspects are absolutely critical. “Social, economic and political equality are the three pillars of successful democracy”, as was emphasised by BR Ambedkar. The three are intrinsically connected. Let us say, education and economic empowerment is necessary but not sufficient conditions for political aspiration and success. Like we discussed before with respect to campaign financing, if a woman cannot generate and operate her finances, it is very difficult for her to succeed politically. However, there is a difference between a rich man versus a rich woman. Even an economically empowered, wealthy woman might lack the agency to decide that she is determined to spend all her assets in chasing her political ambition, whereas it is seen very commonly with men. For women, it is usually the family who controls the finances.”
Interviewer: Most of the newer generation of women in rural areas might have achieved basic education but are probably not encouraged to put that education to use.
Tara asserts, “Correct. Women also need to achieve social empowerment. Apart from being a social actor they also should be accepted as individual actors. Becoming a part of decision making on matters which are life altering and may or may not concern finances, like who to speak to, where and how long and what to study, which job to apply for etc. is a part of their social empowerment. Aside from the 3 structural challenges, women’s political progress is being held by these factors of lack of education, economic means and social agency.”
Tara: There is no perfect answer to this. We often see all sorts of people getting elected and then there are a lot of seemingly capable people who end up losing. However, the point to keep in mind is that without basic analytical and comprehension skills as well as the ability to understand the jargon and conversations that surround people in political life, it is difficult for anyone to contest election or even to govern. The problem of illiteracy is not specific to women, as since independence we have had many male politicians without formal education who have been elected. And in the current times, the various primary education programmes for the younger generations has contributed significantly in bringing down the illiteracy percentages across the country. That said, this is a long-standing problem that these systems and documents, not just in India but around the world, are deliberately made inaccessible by making them complicated for the common masses to comprehend without an expert’s advice.”
Tara: Definitely. As a male, their interaction with the outside world is much higher over the years which helps them build their own network of people, something which women rarely get an opportunity to create. And herein lies the difference. I use the term “purdah” loosely to describe how women always have to keep a veil over most aspects of their life. Their thoughts, aspirations, body, face, voice and even their presence. To share something from the writings of Indira Gandhi, in which she describes when she had to leave her house, she covered her face, got into a palanquin which was further covered by curtains on both sides, and this was her in New Delhi. She reflects, how this is her life, when a lot of women do not even have the freedom to go out.
Tara: “Crime and assault will only go down when lots of women join politics. It is difficult for men to be able to understand the kind of threats women face in the outside world and therefore the laws made by a male dominated legislature have been highly skewed.”
Tara : “I reiterate, that all the three pillars of empowerment have to be strengthened simultaneously”. You cannot economically empower without basic education. If we don’t politically enable women, the laws and policies will continue to keep women marginalised and oppressed. Creation of social agency is necessary for them to accomplish basic things which is an existing challenge for most of the women even now. With economic freedom they can gather the resources to accomplish and access the means to fulfil their needs. All these concentrated efforts must be synced together.” in addition to basic changes in the governance machinery, it is also important to remember that “For large scale democratic issues like these require universal solutions. Poverty eradication with PDS system, large-scale implementation of various education-policies are prime examples of such corrective policies which helped in achieving goals at a much faster pace in comparison to the results phased-out implementation of the same policies would have yieleded.
As NETRI and SHAKTI and other initiatives resolve to work on women’s political mobilisation, work on their social and economic access must also go hand in hand.”
Tara lifted the altruistic burden of “empowering women” from the woman’s shoulder and slated it as a responsibility of the whole society. Equality is a mark of a healthy democracy.
“Bringing more women and ensuring equal representation is a democratic duty of all of our representatives, including men who have been at the helm of power and governing for decades”. She also emphasised on the role of a representative is to govern well. Quoting her own example, she says, when a woman is hired in an organisation her duty is to stay true to her designation and deliver an efficient performance. It is given that more women presence will make the organisation conducive and encouraging for other women, but this is not the burden of that single woman to bring more women on board. “ Anyone who sits in a position should be based on their ability and credentials but this not to discount for the fact that reservation provides opportunities otherwise inaccessible to women due to societal barriers”.
“Women with political familial ties are usually disregarded as dummy candidates, but this is not the problem of the woman. In this case, a woman is not dynastic, the men who nominate a woman for a seat with the intention to retain it are dynastic. One would hardly see a woman in the decision making role in party offices, committees or within families. It is unlikely that a Jayalalitha would leave behind an heir, but a Karunanidhi would. It is also important to see that dynasty is not a feature of one or the other party, it is a value system of Indian politics. There are many cabinet ministers today who do come from political families, but there is a differential treatment between men versus women who come from such families.
Tara Krishnaswamy is a co-founder at Shakti Initiative and is a Software engineer by profession based out of Bengaluru, India. She is passionate about Filter Coffee, Gender, Caste, Politics and Public Policy.
Feature Image- Sourced from DowntoEarth.com