India's women feel betrayed by false promises

Male duplicity and caste tensions could sabotage efforts to create more female MPs, reports
It Seemed like a good idea at the time. India has more than 470 million women, so why not snare their votes by promising to set aside a third of all state and parliamentary seats for them?

This revolutionary pledge helped the Prime Minister, HD Deve Gowda, to win power after last spring's election - when only 36 of the 544 members elected to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, were female. But having pushed a women's bill forward to consolidate power, Mr Gowda is now doing his best to scuttle it.

The promise of empowerment for women in the world's largest democracy has become entangled in rows over caste, religion and class, with some accusing the daughters of the country's elite of being more interested in gaining influence themselves than in the plight of their poor, illiterate rural sisters.

"Women's groups are acting high-handedly," argues Sandhya Jain, a writer. "Reserving seats for female candidates will change nothing as long as 40 per cent of India's women remain illiterate."

Vir Sanghvi, a political analyst, maintains that "strident feminists" demanding special treatment risk "appearing venal and opportunistic", since most of them oppose the idea of similar concessions for religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians. In his view, promises of special interest legislation are usually suspect. "Indira Gandhi took office 13 years before Margaret Thatcher, but did any women benefit substantially because of her influence?"

Renuka Chowdhry, one of the few women members of the present parliament, blames supporters of the measure for a failure to anticipate all the objections male MPs would raise. "The men were unprepared, and should have been brought around gradually," she said. "There is a threat perception. But India should set the agenda for the rest of the world." Veena Nair, from the feminist group, Women's Political Watch, added: "Ours is the world's biggest democracy. It could be more representative and participatory if it did not exclude half of us."

Those calling for a constitutional amendment are angry at the months of prevarication and delay which have followed the formation of a minority government. Feminists who had been demanding a 50 per cent quota in state assemblies and the national parliament were persuaded that a third of the seats would be a more realistic target. This matched a system, already in place, that granted rural women a voice in village councils and had drawn rare praise for the Congress Party before it was voted out of office in last year's election.

But despite his personal backing for a bill to amend the constitution, Mr Gowda neglected to consult members of his own United Front party, who were far less enthusiastic. Further misgivings about the quota suddenly arose after Uma Bharati, a Hindu fundamentalist MP from the Bharatiya Janata Party, suggested that, from the seats set aside for women, some should be reserved for the lower castes. This won support from a wide spectrum of politicians, ranging from Phoolan Devi, the former Bandit Queen, to socialist George Fernandez, but it introduced the divisive element of caste into women's issues. Alarmed at the threat to his fragile coalition, Mr Gowda last month sent the bill to a joint select committee, which recommended its immediate implementation. But he has ignored their findings, and opted to delay.

The Prime Minister is in trouble whatever he does. Apart from losing face, some elements of his coalition might desert him if he fails to get the bill passed, which would encourage the opposition to pressure him into quitting. But others fear that the caste issue could be explosive: Vishwanth Pratap Singh's coalition government collapsed in 1990 after dozens of middle-class youths burned themselves alive in protest against lost job opportunities, caused by an employment reservation scheme for the underclass.

Mr Gowda managed to stagger through the last parliamentary session, helped by corruption cases against senior figures in the previous government, including the former Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao. With the press distracted by the upheavals in the Congress Party, which last week chose an 80-year- old, Sitaram Kesri, to succeed Mr Rao as its leader, it was fairly easy to divert attention from the women's bill.

The measure fell away with the end of the session, and Indian feminists are now desperate to find aggressive lobbying tactics that will put it back on the agenda when parliament reconvenes next month.