Women's voices get louder in India; Parliament: In spite of the feminization of poverty and the dominance of government by men, women are increasingly active, and successful, in politics.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TILAIYA BASTI, India -- Ask the women of this village of 1,000 people what they want from the Indian government currently being elected and the response comes fast and loud.

With their saris wrapped loosely around their heads and hoes resting on their shoulders, they swarm around and yell in quick succession:

Electricity. A school. A paved road to the village. A dam for irrigation. Back wages owed by the government.

The demands are loud, simple and basic, the expectations low.

'They forget about us'

"Politicians come here only at election time," says Deku Devi, a 35-year-old farmer in this rural village in Bihar, the country's poorest state. "After they're elected, they forget about us."

The village men don't worry about the women's views. "In the end, the men will tell them whom to vote for, and that's what they'll do," says Sekhudev Yadav, 21, an unemployed high school graduate.

Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi has attracted most of the notice, but all over India female politicians are more in the limelight than at any time since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. But, as the dismissive men of Tilaiya Basti demonstrate, the political power of women in India is still far behind that of men.

Of the 543 members of the last Parliament, 43 were women, and fewer than one in 10 candidates in this election is a woman. Female political analysts say the basic things women voters care about -- health centers, schools, subsidized food -- are ignored by politicians of both sexes.

Still, with legislation in the works to reserve one-third of parliamentary seats for women, many say the political power of women will soon soar.

'Women will dominate'

"Women will dominate Indian politics in the next century," predicts New Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, a close confidante of Gandhi. (Chief minister is the equivalent of governor in the United States.) Dikshit beat out another woman, Sushma Swaraj of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, in elections in November.

"The genie's out of the bottle," says Veena Nayyar, president of the Women's Political Watch. "This bill [to reserve seats for women] is going to pass, and when it does we're going to see a fundamental change in India as women recognize the power and impact they can have."

That Indian women get a bad deal is well established.

About 65 percent of men are literate, and 40 percent of women are. For every 1,000 men, there are 927 women, which health experts attribute to neglect and poor nutrition of girls and high maternal mortality. A few years ago, the New Delhi government outlawed amniocentesis after it was found that the vast majority of abortions that followed the tests were of female fetuses.

Female farmers in northern India work 3,485 hours in a year, compared with 1,212 hours for men, according to a recent United Nations Development Program report. "The feminization of poverty is a trend noticeable almost all over India," the report said.

Women also aren't seen as tough enough to compete in the rough world of Indian politics. Asked why his party has put up so few female candidates in this election, BJP President Kushabhau Thakre explained, "We cannot expect our women to take on the Mafia fielded by other parties."

Nevertheless, women have been at the forefront of this election, in which voting began last month and continues through Sunday.

In the most closely watched race, Sonia Gandhi faces Swaraj in a southern Indian constituency. As widow of the assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi is the Italian-born heir to the Gandhi family mantle, and the race is seen as a test of her appeal as a potential prime minister.

Swaraj, Gandhi's opponent, belies her party leader's chivalrous concern for exposing women to the rough-and-tumble of politics. She frames the contest as "videshi" vs. "swadeshi," or foreign vs. Indian, and brags that she doesn't eat pizza, a none-too-subtle dig at Gandhi's Italian roots.

Critics say the key to political success for Indian women remains what it has always been: having a political father or husband. Indira Gandhi was the daughter of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Of the current female political leaders, only Swaraj didn't have a man breaking the trail for her.

Sonia Gandhi is following her mother-in-law and her late husband. Her daughter Priyanka is seen as the next Congress Party standard-bearer. J. Jayalalitha, the leader of a Tamil Nadu regional party, was the mistress of the state's chief minister and took over the post after he died.

'The sad truth'

"The sad truth is that the only way for a woman to get into politics now is if she's connected to a powerful man," says Tavleen Singh, a columnist for the country's top news magazine, India Today. She says the women's-reservation bill would encourage that trend, as powerful men installed wives or daughters and then pulled the strings.

Even the harshest critics, however, say women have transformed local politics.

In 1993, Parliament passed a law reserving one-third of all elected seats at the village and district levels for women. Soon, women such as Kailash Bai in the northern state of Haryana were breaking traditional taboos against speaking out in public.

Now Bai, recently elected head of her district council, is taking on residents who built homes and shops on government-owned land with the tacit approval of the previous government. The campaign has earned Bai many enemies in her district, but it also proved that women can take on entrenched interests, says Shagun Mehrotra, who is directing a study of women politicians at the local level.

"The paradox is that the lower the level of government, the harder these women work to change the status quo," she says.

Female voters have changed, too.

Gender gap

Twenty years ago, the difference between male and female voting was negligible, but now there is as much as a 30-percentage-point gender gap, says N. Bhaskara Rao, who heads a Delhi-based polling firm. "Over the last 10 years, women voters have come into their own," he says. "All things being equal, a woman has more chance of winning [an election] than a man. They're seen as more serious than men."

In Lampur, a village near New Delhi, Uma Devi, the 40-year-old head of the village's women's committee, says she wants the new national government to build a school and install toilets in the village. In the neighboring town, she says, "our girls get teased in school and then they drop out." She thinks a new building in Lampur would keep the girls in school.

Devi doesn't expect the government to solve such problems, but she is optimistic about long-term prospects. "If we get the reservation bill [for women in Parliament], then we'll really see some changes in this country," she says.

New Delhi's Dikshit agrees. "When you reach a certain level, you suddenly find yourself as a human being, not a representative of your sex. [But] we have a deeper understanding of human needs and human aspirations, and voters recognize that."

Pub Date: 9/30/99

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