Naveen Patnaik's Decision to Reserve 33% Seats for Women Could Be a Game Changer

Women voters played a key roll in the state assembly polls held last year.

By reserving 33% (seven out of 21) of the seats in Odisha for women candidates in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, chief minister Naveen Patnaik has issued a challenge to his compatriots. Will they follow suit?

Never one to say no to a challenge, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has gone a step further and announced 41% (17 out of 42 seats) reservations for women.

Patnaik has been in power for the last 19 years. During the 2014 elections, when both assembly and Lok Sabha polls took place simultaneously, he won 20 of the 21 parliamentary seats and 116 of the 147 assembly seats. Needless to say, women voters played a key role in his victory.

Banerjee stormed to power in 2014, winning 34 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats, and she expects to do even better this time. Again, she has cultivated women’s power, which has paid her high dividends.

Both leaders are only too aware that naari shakti is playing a key roll in the electoral battlefield. So much so that in the several assembly elections held in 2018, not only have women voted in larger numbers than their male counterparts, they have also played a decisive role in ensuring their candidate wins.

Naveen Patnaik. Credit: TeachAIDS/Flickr CC by 2.0

In the Dhanpur constituency of former Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar, Election Commission results show that the female voter turnout was 95.26%, against 90.09% for men voters, according to Tripura’s deputy chief election officer Taposh Roy. That was the story across several constituencies of Tripura, where CPI(M)’s inability to control the high crime rate against women was one of the key factors that led to their defeat.

It was also women who ensured former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje’s defeat last year. Not is she believed to have unleashed a host of anti-women policies, including the closure of girls’ schools, she reportedly showed no sympathy for aggrieved women when they attempted to meet her. Worse, she did little to curb the growing rate of crimes against women.

Renuka Pamecha, head of Jaipur’s Nari Chetna Sangathan, said, “The women of the state decided to strike back. She did not stand by us and so we decided to teach her a lesson.”

Former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was a much smarter politician. He distributed two crore letters at rakshabandhan to women in his state, asking them to vote their “brother” back to power. But his sisters were not convinced – primarily because Chouhan, at the Centre’s behest, agreed to slash funding for a slew of pro-women schemes, in addition to shutting down government schools and allowing private schools to mushroom in their place.

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In Madhya Pradesh as well, crimes against women played a key role in making women voters opt for the Congress, observers believe. Bhopal-based Nirmala Buch, head of the Chetna Vikas Manch, quoted National Crime Record Bureau to buttress her argument, pointing to how in 2015, 3.3 lakh cases of crimes against women were registered, and this number increased to 3.4 lakh in 2016.

This reality is not lost on the women voter, who has become more vocal and conscious of her rights. This reality should also not be lost on our political leaders, who must realise that electoral politics has changed substantially in the last five years.

The last parliament did see an under-representation of women. Women’s representation in the 542-member Lok Sabha and the 245-member Rajya Sabha saw 11.6% and 11% women cent respectively. No wonder the Women in Politics 2017 Map launched by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women ranked India at 148 of the 193 countries in terms of women’s representation in politics.

Communist Party of India leader Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, has welcomed the moved by Banerjee and Patnaik. “Women were not given seats in the past because they were not seen as winnable candidates. That phase is now over. It is the political parties’ job to ensure that a woman candidate wins. If they are willing to walk the last mile for a male candidate, they have to do the same for the woman candidate,” said Raja.

“Nor should women voters be considered pushovers who can be brow-beaten to vote for a particular candidate. Go to any village in India and you will see how strongly women voice their preferences today,” she continued.

All India Mahila Congress workers, led by Sushmita Dev, raise slogans as they take out a jeep rally to protest against the centre over the passage of Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament, in New Delhi in July 2018. Credit: PTI

Akhila Shivdas, director of the Centre for Communication and Research, concurs. “The Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha way back in 1996 and although it was passed by the Rajya Sabha, it got held up at the Lok Sabha. Many of our political parties are not able to see how the situation on the ground has changed. It is now only a matter of time before the Bill becomes a reality.”

Shivdas believes every political party, in order to survive, has been forced to introduce a plethora of schemes for women. This demand for affirmative action has only grown louder, and to seek re-election, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trumpeting the work he has done to uplift women. “Gender political representation and sensitivity to their needs must go hand in hand.”

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Kakoli Ghosh of the Trinamool Congress, who has been nominated the candidate from the Barasat constituency, believes that a 50% male-female ratio must be kept in mind when ticket distribution is done.

There is little doubt that Patnaik has taken a bold step. With lists of candidates still in the process of being announced, it is difficult to calculate just how many seats women candidates will succeed in wresting.

Patnaik’s move could well prove a game changer. Already, almost on cue, Congress president Rahul Gandhi announced on Wednesday that if his party was voted to power, he will go ahead and implement 33% reservation for women in both the parliament and the Vidhan Sabhas, and also reserve 33% of all posts in the Central government for women.

The ball has been set in motion. Let us see who else follows suit.

Rashme Sehgal is an author and a freelance journalist based in Delhi.