December 2, 2020, Jiby J Kattakayam in Jibber Jabber, India, TOI

Driving through Kerala one is struck by the number of young women candidates in the fray for next week’s local body elections. Across the length of the state’s highways and other roads, posters of women candidates dot the road sides.  According to the state election commission, a total of 38,593 men and 36,305 women are contesting this year. At stake are 331 wards in 14 district panchayats, 2080 wards in 152 block panchayats, 3,078 wards in 87 municipalities, 414 wards in six corporations, and 15,692 wards in 941 grama panchayats.

The 50% reservation for women enacted in 2009 by the then Left government in the state is the reason for such high women participation. In the two elections held subsequently, in 2010 and 2015, women have gone on to win 52.96% and 54.3% of the wards respectively. With each election, the trend of incumbent women members holding on to their seats despite the ward not being reserved for them is being observed.  In a week we will know if this upward trend holds true this time too.

Anecdotes also confirm that the women nurture their constituencies just as well as men, quickly getting street lamps installed, flood relief sanctioned, dropping off various application forms for grants and loans at homes, and mopping up every potential vote eyeing a long career in politics. Apparently, they also give back as good as they get at heated panchayat and council meetings. Given the extent of male domination of Indian politics, the Kerala experience is a clear positive outcome of reservation. Perhaps, a time may even come when women push up their numbers to such high levels inviting a male pushback.

Beena Kuriakose, a ward member of Vadavukodu-Puthencruz grama panchayat, arguing with the Kochi corporation officials after blocking their vehicles from entering Brahmapuram soild waste treatment plant. Earlier the police did not permit panchayat representatives, media and local residents to go to the plant during the NGT inspection.

Obviously, that is an overstatement given the poor representation of women in Parliament and assemblies, even in Kerala, which boasts of just nine women in an assembly of 140. Perhaps, reservation is the key to unlocking more positions of legislative and executive power to women. One of the winning women candidates in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Ramya Haridas, was a sitting block panchayat president before skipping many hurdles along the way to contest in a reserved SC constituency.

In contrast to the Kerala experience, in many states it is still common to see the woman panchayat member or pradhan as a proxy for an influential husband, father or brother.  Because Kerala flattened feudalism, there is low tolerance for such practices in the state though women members keep facing  occasional allegations of being puppets. In fact, the dominance of the party organisation and hierarchy, led by men invariably, in the absence of reservation in that sphere of political activity, could be just as bad for women members in asserting their independence. While I must admit this was just a superficial dive into some data I found interesting, no one can have any quibbles with more women entering politics. Reserving 33% of assembly and Parliament seats for women is an agenda worth pursuing.

Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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