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How will women in India fare under a Modi BJP government?

Narendra Modi has sent out mixed messages on women’s rights. EPA/Money Sharma

Narendra Modi’s BJP has won a massive election victory in India – the first time any party has secured an outright majority since the Congress Party won in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

Some 540m people, 66.4% of eligible voters, voted in India over the five-week election campaign, which was a record turnout and a large increase from the 58.2% and 417m voters in 2009. Indian women represented 49% of the electorate and therefore at least 250m of them voted.

It is clear that the BJP received support from broad sections of society, including women. But will women’s voices be listened to in the new government?

Though men and women voted separately, and despite special observers, there were notable acts of violence around polling stations throughout the campaign which continued until the last day of voting. Apart from continued violence in border states such as Assam and the India-controlled part of Kashmir during the election period, large-scale violence marred voting on May 12 in West Bengal. Nine people were injured, three of them, including a woman, received bullet injuries in the Basirhat constituency and a pregnant woman was injured in Kolkata.

Concerns about voter intimidation around the election should not be taken lightly. During the time of Empire, imperial politicians argued that purdah and illiteracy were barriers to granting Indian women the vote. But the lengthy queues and the size of the turn-out suggests that the majority of Indian women were neither afraid nor unable to exercise their democratic right.

The question remains as to what extent Indian women were active participants in local and national political debate, or to what degree they were passive recipients of enforced direction from male relatives or local party representatives.

According to the 2011 census, only 65.46 % of women are literate, compared to 80% of men – and this discrepancy is something the next government must address. This also means that much of the political debate was not about what was written in the manifestos (the majority were only published days before polling began, or in the case of the BJP on the day that polling began), but on local issues or symbols.

In some respects, women’s political participation and representation at the village level has been addressed. Since 1993, a third of all seats have been reserved for women in local village councils (“gram panchayats”).

However, there is a long way to go to achieve a similar proportion in the national government. All the main parties, including the BJP, included in their manifestos the Women’s Reservation Bill, which mandates for 33% of seats in the Lok Sabha to be reserved for women and was narrowly defeated in February – so it seems likely this will now be passed.

To achieve the 33% quota they would need 181 women out of 543 MPs. In 2009 only 58 women (11%) were elected. This number has not nearly been reached this time round (although final numbers are still to be confirmed). But the election of 181 female MPs would have been impossible even if all female candidates had won their seats. Only 9% of BJP candidates were women (and only 12% of Congress candidates).

Former BJP leader Sushma Swaraj is expected to be included in Narendra Modi’s cabinet. EPA/Harishi Tyagi

The BJP does have some notable female members. Sushma Swaraj is a former leader of the BJP in opposition, but is well known to have been privately critical of the leadership, including Modi. It remains to be seen whether he will promote her to defence or to the foreign ministry post as widely speculated. The BJP national spokesperson, Nirmala Sitharam, is also a woman.

Two female-led parties have had strong showings too. J. Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress Party have both won more than 30 seats, but there has been a notable defeat for Mayawati’s BSP in Uttar Pradesh.

Rejection for Gandhi

One of the clear reasons for the BJP victory was that Indians were concerned about political corruption and looking for wholesale change from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty – with the Congress bid this time led by Rahul Gandhi.

A study by the CMS Media Lab analysing the coverage of five major news channels from March 1 to April 30 found that Modi received the most coverage (2,575 minutes or 33.2% of the coverage); his closest competitor was the now defeated Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal with 10.3% of the coverage.

Media star: Priyanka Vadra (Gandhi) and her husband Robert. EPA/Stringer

The woman with the most television coverage, however, was Priyanka Vadra, sister of Rahul Gandhi (with only 2.2% coverage or 171 minutes). If there are any elements still looking to maintain a Nehru-Gandhi dominated Congress, though that seems unlikely right now, it appears as though Priyanka might be pushed forward once they have recovered from this defeat.

Seen as domestic objects?

But in the meantime, we need to look to the new government. How will it include more women and address the concerns put forward in the much-vaunted Womanifesto?

Although Modi has advocated greater female political participation, notably through his television show “Chai Pe Charcha”, many are likely to be concerned about ensuring the public and private safety of women in India.

The BJP has been praised for its education programme for girls in Madhya Pradesh on the one hand, and yet there is no denying that the Hindu Right more broadly has been responsible for numerous cases of rape and violence against women, not only in 2002.

It is evident that women are commonly viewed as domestic objects by Modi and the BJP. Information about Modi’s wife, Jashodaben, came to the fore during the election and though it may have been an arranged “child” marriage, the way in which he abandoned her raises concerns about ingrained patriarchal attitudes.

Will there be an extension of protection for women, legally and institutionally, as demanded by activists? And will these protections be extended to Muslim women?

It is evident that patriarchal attitudes towards women are not going to disappear overnight, inside or outside government. Grassroots campaigners will need to continue to address LGBT rights, campaign against domestic abuse and sexual violence, and agitate to improve literacy levels and educational provision for women.

Activists should take heart from the high turn-out of female voters. Indian men and women have called for change, but if India is to have a more proportionally representative government in 2019 then potential female candidates need to be identified and brought forward now to ensure more noticeable progress the next time round.

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