Is it really too much to ask for gender parity in Indian politics?
One of the nicest moments in recent politics unfolded in faraway Canada. The newly-elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, introduced his new Cabinet to the media, a nice round number of 30, evenly divided into 15 women and 15 men. This led one of the journalists at the press conference to ask, "Why is gender parity so important to you?"
Without missing a beat, Trudeau replied: "Because it is 2015." And then, with a supremely Gallic shrug, he moved on.
It was the matter of factness of Trudeau's response that really appealed to me. It was almost as if he couldn't believe that in the second decade of the 21st century, someone could be asking him such a lame question.
Except, of course, that this not a lame question. And gender parity is not something that any of us can take for granted, no matter where in the world we may live. Forget about the Middle-East or the Third World, where women are often seen as lesser beings, even in the so-called enlightened and progressive West, gender parity is far from a given.
I'll take the example of politics, because that's where we started. The US Senate has 20 women members out of a 100 while the House of Representatives has 84 women members out of 435. So, in the leading democracy of the world, the representation of women stands at an abysmal average of 18 per cent.
In the UK, things are only marginally better. There are 191 women in the House of Commons, whose total strength stands at 650. This brings the representation of women up to 29 per cent, which is an improvement over the previous House, in which women accounted for only 22 per cent.
Germany may have a female Chancellor in Angela Merkel, but the representation of women stops at 37 per cent. Even Scandinavian countries, with their emphasis on gender equality, stop short of gender parity. The representation of women is 40 per cent in Norway and 45 per cent in Sweden.
Canada is alone in the world in having a government that has 50 per cent representation of women in its ranks. (And Canada alone has a Cabinet that looks like Canada itself, with every culture, every ethnic minority represented. But that's another story, for another day.)
So, how does India hold up when put to the gender parity test? Well, as you may have guessed, not very well at all. Out of the 543 members of the Lok Sabha, only 66 are women. But at just above 12 per cent, this is still the highest representation of women in our entire Parliamentary history. (The previous Lok Sabha only had 59 women members.)
And how do individual parties do?
The Trinamool Congress performs the best, with 12 women MPs out of 34, scoring a very respectable 35 percent. The West Bengal state government, though, is a disappointment – despite being led by a female Chief Minister in Mamata Banerjee – with only four women ministers out of a total of 42. But not if you compare it to the Delhi state government, where Arvind Kejriwal didn't see it fit to appoint a single female minister when he swept to power on a virtual landslide.
The ruling BJP may have some strong female leadership in its first string, with Sushma Swaraj serving as external affairs minister, Smriti Irani as Human Resources Development minister, Nirmala Sitharaman as Commerce minister, but its tally of women MPs in the Lok Sabha is far from encouraging: a mere 32 out of 280 members. The only silver lining is that the Speaker of the Lok Sabha remains a woman, with Sumitra Mahajan taking over from Meira Kumar.
The Congress also falls damnably short, even though the party itself is led by a woman, Sonia Gandhi. Of its 44 members in the Lok Sabha only four are women. That really isn't good enough for a party that has always maintained that there should be 33 per cent reservation for women in legislative bodies.
I think I know what all of you are thinking right about now. How can we possibly compare ourselves to European democracies, or even to Canada, when it comes to women’s representation? These countries have progressive societies with strong women's rights movements, while we are struggling to emerge from a feudal mindset, especially in the rural parts of our country.
Fair enough. We have a long way to go before women can even dream of equal representation in politics. But if Canada seems a stretch too far, perhaps we should let the success story of Rwanda be a lesson to us all.
This African nation has a whopping 64 per cent representation of women in its Parliament, the highest in the world. One reason advanced for this is that the male population of this country dropped to 30 per cent after the worst genocide in recent history. But the other explanation is that Rwanda introduced quotas mandating a 30 per cent representation of women in Parliament and government. The women elected under this proviso proved so successful that the gender ratio gradually improved to stand at the current 64 per cent. And soon, it is argued, Rwanda may no longer even need quotas to ensure proportional representation of women.
Surely, if a nation just emerging from a violent past can achieve this, what excuse can we possibly have to fall so short? I have never been a votary of women’s reservation in Parliament, believing that it pushes women into a ghetto, but I am now inclined to say: bring it on!