India’s Improbable Harbingers of Political Change

BRICS, 20 Mar 2017

Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
— Margaret Thatcher

13 Mar 2017 – It’s no secret that throughout the world, women have been historically underrepresented in politics. Even today, there are 37 countries where women hold less than 10 percent of the seats in national parliament. To remedy this, many countries have created gender quotas — a kind of affirmative action policy intended to raise the number of women in politics, often by reserving a certain percentage of seats in the national legislature for female politicians. In India, this is exactly what has been done at local level of government.

Rural Indian women haven’t always had much by way of social agency or political power to pay an active role in the development of their community.  Malnourished, suppressed, uneducated, violated, and discriminated against, Indian women had the odds badly stacked against them.  Deeply entrenched stereotypical norms had relegated women to the domestic space and severely restricted their engagement in public affairs, an area largely dominated by men.

In 1993, India introduced Panchayati Raj (Village Government) act, a law which stipulated that village councils needed to reserve one-third of their seats, and one-third of their council leader positions, for women. This legislation has been the single-most substantial countrywide initiative   for improving inclusion and facilitating devolution of powers. It has been called a silent revolution, the greatest social experiment of our time and one of the greatest innovations in grassroots democracy.

Through years of exposure and several new official policies later, most elected women   don’t now seem to be tokens. Women, especially those from the Dalit or “untouchable” community, are able slowly to use the affirmative action quotas to attain power that would once have been unthinkable. They have removed the glass cliffs and they tend to be better educated and more knowledgeable than the average woman in their districts.

The new role models the law created had a dramatic impact on families and younger women. The biggest significance of women’s reservation was that it unlocked the power, talent and determination of millions of women for driving a new social change that would redefine the contours of rural society.

Today we can see visible gains of that piece of legislation. With 33 per cent reservation, out of the 3.2 million elected representatives, 1.4 million are women. Of these, 86,000 are sarpanches—an achievement in women’s empowerment without precedent in history or parallel in the world. Many of the women are unlettered but they use their quotidian wisdom and sharp instincts to steer development in their communities.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Panchayat Raj (Village Government) represents true democracy realized. We would regard the humblest and the lowest Indian as being equally the ruler of India with the tallest in the land”. Gandhi wanted to see each village a little republic, self-sufficient in its vital wants, organically and non-hierarchically linked with the larger spatial bodies and enjoying the maximum freedom of deciding the affairs of the locality.

For Jawaharlal Nehru, political democracy was to be fused with economic democracy; then only real progress of the country was possible. Speaking at a seminar on parliamentary democracy on February 25, 1956 he said: ‘Political democracy by itself is not enough except that it may be used to obtain a gradually increasing measure of economic democracy, equality and the spread of good things of life to others and removal of gross inequalities.’

Local self-governance in India has certainly come a long way. In Ashi village in eastern Maharashtra,   Vidya won hands down. “Garnering votes,” she says, “was not the most difficult task. The real test came afterwards.”

It was her education and understanding that helped Vidya navigate the choppy village milieu. “It was tough to take control of things. The information and training provided was not adequate,” she states, ”we had to face the bitter resentment of the male panches(members), who felt they were being deprived of the absolute power they felt they were entitled to just because they were men.”

The transition to female headed councils took much longer than expected, .The women rarely showed up at official meetings; their husbands stamped their initials on the paperwork .they  almost universally faced “gossip and sexual slander,” and all said they would not have been able to participate in politics had their husbands and families been opposed. Sniggering men questioned her morals, says, and said terrible things; but she persisted and persevered.

When someone cannot see people of their own identity with influence in society, it’s unrealistic to imagine that they can aspire to positions beyond their current situation.

Vidya feels women tend to be held to higher standards than their male counterparts. “We have to acknowledge that men are not faced with the suspicion that they can’t be good leaders simply because they are men,” she explains. “If a man fails no one is going to conclude from that, that all men are bad leaders. So there’s a certain type of privilege for men that your success or failure is not going to reflect on your entire sex.”

“There is enormous pressure on us to perform, to deliver results, so that people will be more encouraged to have more women in positions of leadership .You are always aware that you are representing all women. You have to work extra hard to deliver, to perform, because if you do something wrong, they will say, ‘Ah you see, women!’ ”

Examples like those of Vidya demonstrate an age-old truth: role models matter.

During my recent visit to villages in eastern Maharashtra where I had worked as a banker and was associated with these women in several development programmes we had initiated for them,   I found local campaigns to share basic resources like land and water, to build   schools, trading co-operatives and credit movements, and to make the government accountable at the highest and lowest levels. These are the small revolutions that are changing the world. Women leaders today are more than just mouthpieces for their politically savvy husband. For most women reserved posts offer the only real opportunity to bring change to their communities.

Women have catalyzed change in large swathes of rural India .This is despite the fact that female leaders had low literacy levels and socio-economic status, and little experience, ambition or political prospects until they assume leadership positions.

There is abundant empirical evidence to confirm that the quality of governance in women headed councils is quite superior. It is not that women are purer than men or immune to the pull of greed. But there is almost a certainty that women will channel money into solving more fundamental issues and avoid grandiose schemes that may be for the good of just the elite. When men control all the levers of money there is   more likelihood that it will be invested in big-ticket construction projects such as road building where corruption is rife, rather than in schools or clinics.

A lot of   positive changes are coming in the better governed villages. There are still large swathes where traditions abound. Several factors constrain the effective participation of women leaders, particularly lack of basic familiarity with political governance and legal skill. The patriarchal culture standards   prohibit women from developing their full potential and grudgingly allows their recognition    as political entities

The United Nations defines women’s empowerment with five main components: women’s sense of self-worth; their right to have and to determine choices; their right to have access to opportunities and resources; their right to have the power to control their own lives, both within and outside the home; and their ability to influence the direction of social change to create a more just social and economic order, nationally and internationally.

“Educate, agitate, and organize,” the main architect of India’s constitution Dr B R   Ambedkar exhorted. Many more Indians will have to exercise these democratic rights if they wish to transform the profoundly damaging patriarchal character .The younger generation is more gender opaque can   tilt the scales of future political gender representation in a more equitable direction. Pessimists might worry that such gender-blindness could lead to more of the status quo, rather than growth in female political participation. But they can be assured that the powerful ripples of transformation cannot now be rolled back. Women’s empowerment is in a powerful mission mode.


Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 20 Mar 2017.

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