Chennai: Congress MP from Karur Lok Sabha constituency in Tamil Nadu, S. Jothimani distinctly remembers her first political victory. In 1996, she contested the local body elections from a Congress ticket after a 33% reservation was announced for women.
“I don’t think my political journey would have started off if not for reservation in that election” Jothimani said. Expectedly, the opposition to her decision was enormous. “People claiming to be relatives would come home everyday and advice my mother to stop this. Good women from decent families should not enter politics, they would say.”
One particular argument remained fresh in her memory. “Someone said kaliyug (the dark ages) has finally arrived. The world has become so bad that apparently only women can contest this election, she exclaimed and urged my mother to not allow this,” she said. But Jothimani was determined and in reservation, she saw an opportunity that she had been waiting for.
The decision paid off, just as it did for writer Salma. Recalling her first day in office after winning a local body election in 2001, Salma, now with the DMK, said that she had to make many compromises. “I had to wear a burqa to attend the meeting, because otherwise my family wouldn’t have allowed me to. I would have been forced to resign and I did not want to,” she said.
Unlike Jothimani’s family, Salma’s family was fiercely political and had allowed her to contest elections since it was again a constituency reserved for women. But their hopes of remotely controlling Salma’s activities were dashed as the writer saw in her election an opportunity ground herself. “It opened a new world for me. The new found independence complemented by writing, I was able to meet new people. None of this would have been possible without the reservation,” she said
Held after a delay of three years and mired in controversies, the local body elections in Tamil Nadu – the first phase of which will be held on December 27 and 30 – will be the first local body polls in the state to have 50% reservation for women. The reservation was announced by former chief minister J. Jayalalithaa soon after her re-election.
Ironically, in 2016 and more recently, the DMK went to court challenging the announcement of local body polls since the reservation for both women and the SC/ST communities was ‘unlikely to be properly implemented.’ This time, the formation of five new districts in the state was another issue. The Supreme Court had directed the state to hold elections for the remaining constituencies barring the nine districts which would be affected by this formation, following which the first phase of elections for rural local bodies will be held on two days.
The 50% reservation for women – which means that women have to contest over 70,000 of approximately 1,31,000 seats – is now posing an additional challenge to the political parties in the state. Sources say in order to fill the seats, the parties are nominating women relatives of the male party members to contest the elections.
The practice is not new to Tamil Nadu though it might escalate this time. “In fact I came into this through such a system and it is the norm now. The women in the families will be made to contest if the constituency is reserved for women. I managed to break it, but generally women so elected will continue to remain largely at home making appearances only when necessary. The husbands will run their offices,” said Salma.
This, despite the fact that almost all the major political parties in the state have separate party wings for women. “The women come forward to struggle for issues like price rise, sexual violence, TASMAC etc but are never seen in the forefront in primary political struggles,” said Chennai-based journalist Jeeva Sagapthan.
“This seems to be the common character of all political parties.” Sagapthan rued that this was unbecoming of a state that has its base in social justice. “The number of women who took part in anti-Hindi agitation in 1938 were more than those who are politically active from Tamil Nadu today,” she said.
AIDWA leader in Tamil Nadu U. Vasuki said that it was the general state of the society. “The parties think of women only during elections. It is important that women become politically active and that they are given leadership positions. Only then, this situation will change,” Vasuki said.
Admitting that in most cases women act as a ‘proxy for their husbands’, Senthil Arumugam of the Satta Panchayat movement said that despite such constraints, reservations open a huge space for women. “To begin with, they are empowered enough to come out of their homes. That is very significant for many women. I agree there is a long way to where men will have to give the space and women come forward to use the opportunities,” Arumugam said.
As Jothimani pointed out, reservation remains the only way for women to make it in politics. “It is going to take time, and it is not going to be easy for women to actually become powerful, but reservation is the first most crucial step. Unless we take the step, we will never be able to achieve the final goal.”
Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.