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The decision of the Indian National Congress to field 40% women candidates in the coming assembly elections is a missile launch.
If it succeeds even partially (and there are partial successes in science which lead to fuller ones), it will inaugurate a new day in the politics of the Hindi belt.
If it succeeds, the grand old party would have contributed to furthering India’s democratic future incomparably.
For over three decades, the party has found itself dislodged from its customary social moorings.
Its familiar social boxes came to be taken over by other contenders, unburdened by national ambitions, and therefore, wholly committed to their limited turf .
The weltanschauung of national politics over the Modi era has forced the issue: what political alternatives may best make a bid for national validation come the next general election in 2024.
It must say something for the residual prestige of the Indian National Congress that most political observers, including those who disfavour Congress’s “political culture”, find themselves constrained to mention it as the only viable challenger to the Hindutva-led Bharatiya Janata party.
The fact that in recent months its designated leadership in Uttar Pradesh has shown both resolve and stamina has fuelled speculation as to how the strangulated party might side-step the given electoral boxes.
And, admittedly, the party’s think-tanks have come up with a pathway that has been waiting to be recognised and readied towards a liberating political future.
Indeed, both as tactics and strategy, the party’s decision to make women its political/electoral vanguard is admirably astute.
As tactics, the party has thoughtfully come up with a constituency which alone cuts across the given boxes of caste, class, and religion.
Historians of culture have shown how women overall continue to remain an under-class even among the economically endowed sections of society.
Statistics in the matter of bank holdings, property ownership, employment numbers and work site prerogatives all bear out this reality to our day.
And in the matter of caste hierarchies and of the controlling structures of all religions, the subservient or instrumental status of women is far too obvious every day of the week to need elaboration.
Tactically, therefore, the decision to commit itself to a gender constituency is imaginative and one that, after years of stupor and stasis, offers a new way of approaching the overall reality of half the electorate.
And the fact that women’s participation in exercising franchise has been rapidly climbing to match the percentage of men who vote puts a new plausible light on the choice the Congress has made in Uttar Pradesh.
And, as strategy, the move is pregnant with a dynamic that can well proliferate and impact India’s political culture in far-reaching ways across the nation.
Our organised political forces have often claimed to be in favour of women’s political advancement, but what the Congress has decided to do in Uttar Pradesh is not limited to a proforma sentiment but an on-the-ground commitment in numbers — a qualitatively very different fact that carries its own incontestable credibility.
That this newly forged freshness of perspective and nimbleness of action will destabilise the secure social perches of contestants seems a real prospect.
Programme of action
The new course chalked out by the grand old party will not but oblige it to think its manifesto in ways that match the spectrum of candidates it has chosen to field.
This must clearly bear close relevance to the lives of all women as citizen-subjects whose livelihood and social/cultural needs and priorities remain distinct from those of men, even as they coalesce in many aspects of collective life.
It is an incontestable historical fact that the Congress-led freedom movement benefited from memorable contributions by outstanding women.
But now the party having committed in Uttar Pradesh to an assumption of power by women as people’s representatives, the 40% women it means to field cannot be just those who derive their legitimacy from their prior status in the class structure, although this cannot be an absolute deterrent either.
Any likely carping on this score must take into account the fact that finding some two hundred women for the electoral field will be no easy task.
Equally importantly, this new leap will not but test the party’s male leaderships, obliging them to set aside their subjective aspirations and to come out forthrightly to campaign for the women candidates with conviction and heart.
The substance and articulation of the party’s campaign will not be easy, balance as it must the concerns of women across all social formations, and concerns that affect both men and women among the deprived and relegated sections of society.
(Thus, for example, whereas Dalit women suffer as much the contumely of patriarchy as any other, Dalits overall suffer privations that affect both men and women. Same among other social groups, including India’s largest minority, namely, Muslims.)
It will therefore tax the Congress strategist to ensure that false steps of a major kind are not taken that may prove counter-productive to the admirably progressive nature of its new electoral determination.
Given the progressive character of the Congress’s commitment now to foreground women as electoral protagonists, many will hope that ideological groups sympathetic to such an agenda will sieze the moment and aid this fascinating project with far-sightedness, instead of coveting their own separate space without any great hope of a better yield.
One recalls that India’s nascent national bourgeoisie played a progressive role to abet the anti-colonial movement.
Will there be those among them now who will make bold to buy those deviously anonymous electoral bonds to favour this new post-colonial political thrust announced by the grand old party in Uttar Pradesh?
Or will they rather weigh the circumstance that, although no citizen may ever know about their doings in the matter of the electoral bonds, the government surely will have access to the nitty gritty?
Time will tell.
A new suffragette initiative has been launched by the Congress with a resolute and astute Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in the leadership.
Even those who dislike the Congress but subscribe to the unrealised principle of equality must find it in themselves to stand up and cheer the women who will lead the charge in Uttar Pradesh.
It will be of great historical interest and pertinence to see what percentage of women vote for the Congress.
That will indeed be the most telling metric of how apposite the Congress’s thinking has been, and how willing women in general may be to address their concerns as historical subjects and potential agents of 21st-century India. Or how deeply the brainwash of the last seven years has taken hold of their psyches.
Badri Raina taught English at Delhi University.