India’s Politicians Aren’t Talking About Women

But everybody else is.

Indian women line up to vote at a polling station in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Via Kevin Frayer / Stringer

India’s general elections, which began on April 7 and span four weeks and 10 phases, are now exactly halfway through. And so far, women voters’ turnout has surged compared to previous years, even dwarfing men’s votes in several regions, including Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Sikkim, Lakshadweep, and Chandigarh, an Election Commission official told AFP’s Bhuvan Bagga. In 1962, the difference between men and women’s turnouts was 16.7%. In 2009, it was 4.4%. This year, it is predicted to be even narrower. In the last few decades, India has had both a female prime minister and a female president. It is safe to say that India’s women are ready to demand a place in the political conversation.

After all, it is a conversation that is increasingly about them. A recent survey found that 93% of Indians believe combating gender-based violence should be an election priority. Eighty-eight percent are more likely to vote for a candidate who commits to strong action countering violence against women.

After a horrific New Delhi gang rape in December 2012 first launched phrases like “rape culture” and “victim blaming” onto Indian primetime, the nation’s media and intellectuals have been relentless in scrutinizing how and why India is so lethally violent toward half a billion of its citizens. Some blame Bollywood’s shameless glorification of sexual harassment and female objectification; others fault India’s ancient patriarchal joint family structures. Either way, in the last year, no single issue has galvanized India as thoroughly as its women, their safety, and their lack thereof. Being a woman in India is often described much more often as a plight than a joy.

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station. Via Kevin Frayer / Stringer

“As women in India, we grow up with constraints; and live with a degree of discrimination and assault,” said Karuna Nundy, a Supreme Court lawyer. “But when thousands of people came out onto the streets and walked in front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace, I think it became clear to me that none of us have to deal with this anymore — that people around the country are standing with us and saying ‘enough.’”

All the elements are there for a public debate on the status of India’s women citizens — but the candidates themselves don’t seem to be interested.

The front-runner Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP) is a divisive Hindu fundamentalist, and represents a party that has proclaimed homosexuality as being “unnatural.” Under his reign, the western state of Gujurat allowed high rates of female infanticide and record low rates of rape conviction.

The main alternative to Modi is Rahul Gandhi, the 42-year-old political heir to Congress, a party both his parents have led in some capacity, and that has been in power for two decades. Under Congress’ political agenda, Indian women’s status and safety went almost entirely ignored.

Under pressure to address women in these elections, both candidates and parties included sections about women in their manifestos. BJP’s manifesto promises women 33% representation in parliamentary and state assemblies, along with several general promises to educate, train, and protect female citizens. Congress’ similarly promises reserved spots in political bodies, along with a general promise of protection. Neither manifesto devotes more than a few bullet points to gender issues, and neither comes close to proposing effective and actionable steps to bettering the lives of Indian women. Neither offers a nuanced enough stance to even allow productive comparison.

And neither party has made issues of sexual violence a major part of its public campaign.

Left: Rahul Gandhi. Right: Narendra Modi. Via Punit Paranjpe/Raveendran/AFP

The Aam Admi Party (AAP) or “Common Man’s Party” is a newer, more progressive third option, whose leadership is characterized by intellectualism, urbanity, and youth. AAP leaders have committed to the “Womanifesto,” a six-point proposal drafted by a coalition of Indian women advocates, which goes much further than both the BJP’s and Congress’ manifestos with regards to actionable measures to achieve gender equality and women’s safety. It calls for education reform, detailed legislation to end violence toward women, a comprehensive scheme to prevent child sexual abuse, more oversight at crisis centers, initiatives to ensure women’s economic upliftment, more women in positions of political authority, police reform, and the criminalization of marital rape, among other demands.

At best, however, AAP is slated to win a few representative seats in parliament, and isn’t in the running to put a prime minister or ruling party in place.

As politics stalls, there has been progress on other fronts. LGBT pride parades march annually through every major city. Homosexuality — although still outlawed by an old British law that the Supreme Court recently ruled to uphold — is on the Supreme Court’s radar, and is a mainstream social issue. As of this week, transgendered people are recognized federally as a third gender, but still retain the right to identify as male or female if they so choose. Stalking and voyeurism are now punishable offenses. Police officers are criminally accountable. Politicians are being lambasted for every regressive comment they make, rapes are being reported at a higher rate than ever before, and more and more every day, “feminist” is finally becoming a badge of honor more than it is a slight.

But AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal is for now more or less alone among the Indian political elite connecting those social changes to the coming elections.

“Real democracy or [self-rule] cannot be achieved without the empowerment of all sections of society, including the over [580 million] women who represent half the population of this country,” Kejriwal said in a statement released on International Women’s Day, last month. “It is unacceptable that six and a half decades after we became free and gave ourselves an equitable Constitution, the gap between men and women remains wider than ever and our women are still not safe on our streets.”

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