WOMEN PLUS - Chayanika Changkakati and Tanay Choudhury
Women need to be aware of their political rights and their electoral power.
On the eve of the Assam Assembly elections, 2021, it is pertinent that we talk about ‘women’s right to vote’. Voting is the most significant power that common citizens wield in their hands – the power to elect their representatives. It is a symbol of equality in the society – one person, one vote. Elections in a democracy should be a means by which we can augment change in society.
"Thus, after centuries of struggle, led by the likes of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jyotiba Phule, and Periyar, it was a victory for women across space and time in India’s political history when women were given equal voting rights by the members of the Constituent Assembly. On paper, ‘right to equality’ is a Fundamental Right..."
Women have been historically discriminated and marginalised. The woman suffrage movement in India first gathered momentum due to female participation in the freedom struggle, beginning with the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (1905-08). Different provinces of British India had extended limited suffrage rights to women in the 1920s. The Government of India Act, 1935, expanded women’s suffrage, and even provided reserved seats for women in central and provincial legislatures. Full voting rights were awarded with the passing of the Indian Constitution in 1950, which provided for universal adult suffrage.
Thus, after centuries of struggle, led by the likes of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jyotiba Phule, and Periyar, it was a victory for women across space and time in India’s political history when women were given equal voting rights by the members of the Constituent Assembly.
On paper, ‘right to equality’ is a Fundamental Right, enshrined in the Constitution. However, as a society, we are not yet there. We are still striving towards that goal and every small step counts. After all, tiny drops make the mighty ocean. Needless to say, in an election, every vote counts.
To encourage female voters to exercise their franchise, all-women polling booths are being set up across the State this time too, as in previous elections. Assam’s women voters are just inches away from being equal to their male counterparts in numbers in the electoral roll, a feat that has earned a pat from the Chief Election Commissioner of India. Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora has congratulated the citizenry of Assam for the electoral gender ratio, which is as high as 972 in Assam against the average overall ratio of 954 in other states.
The increase in participation of women in formal politics reveals a process of ‘feminisation’ of Indian politics. Women’s leadership and effective participation is increasingly on the development agenda of the government. According to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), gender responsiveness of political institutions facilitates women’s access to opportunities and skills to exercise their political rights, participate in decision-making, exercise leadership, and contribute to the development process. Thus, women’s political participation has been considered a major means of women’s empowerment.
Now, what should be the way forward? As women of the society, what can we do? First of all, go and vote. It is the basic political power that each and every individual exercises equally in a democracy. Second, developing a women-centric political consciousness. It is pertinent for women to build and develop their own political consciousness. Third, active voting, rather than passive voting. Although women enjoy equal voting rights, many a time women turn out to be mere ‘plus one’ vote of the male counterpart. This process will make women’s emancipation difficult. This makes the call for building up women-centric political consciousness even more important.
Men and women have different preferences, and make different choices once they obtain important political responsibilities. Studying the effect of having women policymakers, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and Esther Duflo showed that the gender of the village council president impacts the investments into different kinds of public goods (Chattopadhyay and Duflo, 2004).
Women’s political participation is premised on three fundamental and non-negotiable principles: equality between men and women, to develop potential women’s rights, and self determination and self representation of women’s right. As we have more women-centric influence in the political culture and political debates, we can bring about a just and equal society at large.
The ‘right to equality in voting’ is a basic human right. The fact that more women are voluntarily exercising their constitutional right of adult suffrage across all states in India is itself a testimony to the rise of self-empowerment of women to secure their Fundamental Right of ‘freedom of expression’.