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India’s biggest loss as a democracy is that for 74 years we haven’t heard women’s issues: Tara Krishnaswamy

Founder of non-partisan activist group Political Shakti, Tara Krishnaswamy shares the challenges women face in Indian politics.

By Pragya Narang

Bengaluru-based Tara Krishnaswamy is a software director, activist, author and co-founder of Political Shakti, a non-partisan group dedicated to enabling more women to find the path to political power. Both a dreamer and a doer, she endeavours to create a world where women will have their rightful representation and equal numbers as lawmakers.

Krishnaswamy has had first-hand experience with politics. Alongside her career in software, she started out with a small political party called Loksatta 11 years ago, and had the experience of running campaigns all the way from Lok Sabha and state assembly campaigns to local bodies.

After this small liberal party wound up, Krishnaswamy continued with her activism, especially related to violence against women. She also co-founded a group called Citizens for Bengaluru, that works on civic issues and has run impactful campaigns to increase public transport towards a more sustainable Bengaluru. She has consulted with the Justice Verma Committee and is part of a citizen consultation group in the city.

In 2018, she decided the time was right to launch Political Shakti. It was just a few months before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and women’s representation was a long-standing issue.

We asked her about her work and mission to encourage fair representation of women in politics.

Tara Krishnaswamy

Tell us about Political Shakti, the campaigns and work you do, the tools you use, and the impact you have created till now.

Broadly our campaigns have fallen into three or four categories. One is about trying to demolish the myths and false narratives around women in politics. We have been involved in podcasts and TedX to organising public events where we had female politicians on stage go through questions on how it is to be a woman in politics, what is the party structure and atmosphere like, what it takes to get a ticket and be a candidate, how different are women’s election campaigns compared to those of men, and what are the challenges after being elected in terms of how they are treated. We pool these under the “awareness building campaigns” and ensure that the media understands, spotlights, and publishes these findings.

The second category is targeted campaigning and outreach towards political parties. These are aimed at persuading and pressuring them to field more female candidates.

For example, we did a “selfless selfie” campaign for the Bihar elections, where we engaged the local panchayat women to take selfies with a note saying “I also want political parties in Bihar to give 50 percent tickets to women.” These selfies were then sent to the media. Hundreds of elected women representatives used the selfless selfie as a tool to communicate this, and in Bihar every party gave more tickets to women than previous years. In particular, the ruling party Janata Dal United or JD(U), gave 19 percent tickets to women which was unheard of! The India average is about 9-10 percent.

Similarly, in the Lok Sabha elections, both the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) headed by Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) headed by Mamata Banerjee in Bengal gave 33 percent and 40 percent tickets to women! The number of women in Lok Sabha increased because of these actions. While I cannot claim that Political Shakti was solely responsible for it, we consider this one of our stronger campaigns.

The third kind of campaigns we run are towards the women’s reservation bill for which we did a huge old-fashioned phone campaign called “Call your MP”. Over 500 volunteers from each state in India called all the 543 members of parliament, and asked them to table the women’s reservation bill; 127 of the 130 MPs who picked up the phone agreed.

This was an incredible campaign because, for the first time in the history of India, ordinary people have called all MPs simultaneously during the parliament sessions. It resulted in MPs across party lines saying they supported the bill. Unfortunately, it didn’t get tabled.

The fourth campaign category uses cinema as a medium. We released a series of short films, the first of these during the Bihar election campaign, on the importance of women’s reservation. This film received half a million views and was shared extensively by a lot of celebrities including ex-chief ministers, people in the entertainment industry, politicians, and mediapersons.

What kind of opposition do you face while promoting women to get their rightful representation in the Parliament?

It is considered that men, by default, can occupy 100 percent of the seats that are available. Whereas a woman has to prove herself to get any seat at all or has to prove herself on the first seat she is given to be able to get the second or the third or fourth seat.

Patriarchy is so deeply entrenched that women have to prove themselves before even getting their rightful share. That share has been usurped by men and they don’t want to part with it. That is the biggest opposition. Each time, whether at an event or a Twitter campaign or on TV, I have insisted that women should be half the candidates on the ballot, the question comes, “But there was a J. Jayalalithaa (former chief minister of Tamil Nadu) or there was a Mamata Banerjee (chief minister of West Bengal) and what did they do for other women?”

This is not just a women’s issue. It is an issue of the quality of Indian democracy. The blindness, the patriarchy, and the pushback are essentially the biggest roadblocks. If an elected woman leader makes a mistake, if she fails, then all women are judged for it, whereas when a man fails, all men are not judged for it. Instead, another man is chosen to replace him.

What can South Asia learn from the rest of the world when it comes to bringing gender equality to the table?

Both in terms of South Asia and worldwide, countries that are better than India for women’s representation are mostly better because they have reservation of some form or the other. It is not that you are setting aside seats for women, but rather you are circumscribing or setting a boundary on how much men can occupy.

So, parties self-regulate and make sure that their candidate list cannot have zero or 10 or 20 percent women. Different countries do it differently. Countries torn by civil war such as Rwanda – or Cuba with its sanctions – have a greater percentage of women than India because there is some kind of reservation there (50 percent in Rwanda). Even Pakistan has women’s reservation. That is how women end up in public offices.

If you go beyond numbers, and look at many countries in Europe or even the US, you see that once a woman is elected to senior leadership, it creates a pipeline for so many more women to keep growing. They start at the bottom as cadres and keep growing until the point that there are enough women to promote and fill up the top slots.

Tara Krishnaswamy was one of the speakers at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women

What are the challenges that women face when they try to enter politics?

Political parties hardly field 10 percent women candidates in India. Some people say that if women want to join politics, they can run as independent candidates. However, Indian history indicates that less than 1 percent of independent candidates have won elections and this is the number for men. Indian voters don’t vote independents. We are a parliamentary democracy with a party-based system so we vote for parties. So, unless the existing parties provide a platform, realistically, no one can compete!

Then you have economic and social issues. In some states, women are not even allowed to remove a veil, or look men in the eye or sit in front of them, so how does a woman campaign with these limitations?

Women don’t own land either. They own less than 20 percent of national assets and control very little capital, and campaigns involve a lot of money. Owing to all these impediments, the playing field is not at level. Unless you take the trouble to bring everyone to the table, you are going to have an unrepresented democracy.

Women, unfortunately, are the largest minority in this country because this 50 percent of the population hardly has any representation.

It is not a question of having more women leaders, rather a question of the women electorate and whether their issues have been heard at all in the past 74 years. If 50 percent of Parliament is not women, who is listening to those 50 percent voters?

India’s biggest loss as a democracy is that for 74 years we haven’t heard women’s issues. We haven’t mined women’s perspectives towards law and policymaking. We haven’t harnessed the 50 percent talent out there to improve the governance of the country. Naturally, the state of governance leaves a lot to be desired.

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