By Reserving 40% Tickets for Women, Will Congress Change the Political Game in UP?

Congress’s decision to field 40% women in the upcoming polls is likely to propel its campaign and may come as a breather for the much-weakened party.

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New Delhi: Priyanka Gandhi, the Congress in-charge of the poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, on Tuesday announced that her party will reserve 40% of its electoral tickets for women, in what may be a move that could force all political parties in the fray to acknowledge gender disparities in the state’s largely feudal polity.

Addressing a press briefing with two Congress women at the centre – spokesperson Supriya Shrinate and Congress Legislature Party leader Aradhana Mishra – Gandhi said that the party is the first in India to make such a historic decision. “If I had my way, I would have reserved 50% of the seats for women, and that may happen in the next elections. However, in the upcoming polls, our party has consensually decided to keep the women’s quota at 40%.”

Over the last few years, several other political parties have reserved almost 50% seats for women in local body elections but none of them elevated the system to assembly or parliamentary polls. In 2019, Odisha chief minister and Biju Janata Dal leader Naveen Patnaik was the first to field 33% women among its candidates in the parliamentary elections, setting a new benchmark in the country. Patnaik had also said that his party will take up the issue of the women’s reservation bill in the parliament as one of its top priorities.

In the 2019 parliamentary polls, the Trinamool Congress also fielded women candidates in 40% of the seats in West Bengal, but didn’t term the move as a party decision to implement a reservation system.

Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra with party members pose for a photo at the party office in Lucknow, October 19, 2021. Photo: PTI/Nand Kumar

Congress appears to have borrowed a leaf from Patnaik, but the bold plunge that the grand-old party has taken may have a much greater impact given UP’s staunchly patriarchal social and political setup. After all, UP-based parties have either opposed the women’s reservation bill in the parliament or have only given half-hearted support. Samajwadi Party has been the strongest opponent of the bill, while Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati had advocated introduction of SC/ST reservation within the women’s reservation bill.

Against this political backdrop, Congress’s decision to field 40% women in the upcoming polls is likely to propel its campaign and may come as a breather for the much-weakened party which has been attempting to gain a foothold in the state over the last two years. At the same time, Gandhi’s remarks that the decision was also taken because of the increasing crimes against women during the Adityanath-led BJP government will also foreground gender issues in the state where caste, community and religious considerations dictate voting choices.

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In fact, Gandhi made her point precisely when she said that the historic move is meant to overpower growing tendencies of religious fundamentalism and caste-based voting patterns in the long-run. “This decision is for the girls of Uttar Pradesh… … This decision is for women who want change,” said Gandhi, adding that greater representation of women in the UP assembly will also have a positive impact nationally, and encourage compassion and determination in politics, which, according to her, is currently missing in the higher echelons of the state government.

Gandhi also urged women to join the Congress and show their mettle in politics, while adding that the candidate’s winnability and competence would determine the electoral ticket.

Acknowledging women as a voter constituency also assumes significance in UP for other reasons. Over the last few decades, different castes and communities have asserted themselves by demanding “hissedari” (stake or share) in power. As a result, different political parties have attempted to represent as many communities as possible to chalk out a winning combination. With the decision to reserve seats for women, Congress has now aimed to configure a constituency of women across castes and communities as one of the stakeholders in the political equations based on “hissedari”.

Whether it will be successful or not remains to be seen. Gandhi too had her doubts when she said that the inclusion of women in politics was a process. “Is baar safal nahin hongi, toh agli baar hongi (If they are not successful this time, then they will win next time,” Gandhi responded to a question on whether representing more women was a good electoral formula.

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra at a press conference Photo: By arrangement

When a journalist asked about many men fielding their wives in elections, Gandhi said she saw nothing wrong in it, and greater representation would eventually increase women’s decision making capabilities. She recalled how in Amethi a Congress pradhan had fielded his wife in local body elections but is now tormented by the fact that she makes all decisions herself without involving him.

Also read: Congress May Not Be Winning UP, But Rahul, Priyanka Gandhi Have Galvanised the Opposition

She invoked some of the gruesome crimes against women during the Adityanath regime like the the gangrape of a Dalit woman in Hathras, and the Unnao rape case in which a BJP MLA, Kuldeep Sengar, has been convicted and said that this was time women speak up for themselves by participating in political processes.

While urging women from all professions to join politics, she said, “Don’t wait. No one is going to protect you. People only make false promises. When it is time to protect you, then only those are protected who crush you. Today, the meaning of power (for the government) is that you can openly, in front of the public, mow down people. Hatred and contempt for common people hold sway over politics today. This is wrong. Only women can change it.”

“This decision is for every woman of Uttar Pradesh who wants change, who wants justice and unity, who wishes her state to move forward,” Gandhi added.