Budget 2018 and Women: Liberalism And Secularism For Women’s Rights

Today’s Indian Express Newspaper’s biggest headline was “Economics with Politics” meaning that BJP’s Budget 2018 is more a political strategy with eye on the forth coming general election. BJP has learned a lesson from Gujarat elections, a considerable blow to it’s solid structure due to which it lost quite a few seats to Congress, that a few more blows, and the structure would fall apart. So in this budget there are a lot of tall promises for farmers, because farmers are a major vote bank.

I dream of a day when the headline would be “Economics with gender politics”. When women as category, not divided by their caste or class or religion will be a vote bank, and politicians would try to woo this vote bank not by pandering to safety or protection issues but by showing the real money.

Commendable that Economic Survey 2018 has a pink cover to champion women’s cause and a path breaking never before collected data on India’s son preference which has resulted in estimated 21 million “unwanted girls” (different from “missing women” espoused by Amartya Sen). These are girls who were born as collateral as the couple kept trying for a boy. The sex ratio of the last born child in each family provides this data. 

But Shalini Nair writes in today’s paper that besides pink cover, the Budget 2018 has nothing substantial for women. The only major announcement is reduction of women employees’ PF contribution to 8% for first three years of their employment against existing rate of 12% or 10% with no change in employers’ contribution. She quoted Jayati Ghosh, Development Economist,

“After all this talk, the budget seems to be entirely gender blind. Instead of increasing wages of the poorly paid Asha heath workers and aanganwadi workers, the money to national health mission has been cut in absolute terms while the increase for aanganwadi services is almost insignificant. Also, the allocation for Nirbhaya fund has remained unchanged at Rs 500 crore,”

Women have never been a vote bank in India, and I believe a new Congress party with new attitude can step in and fill this gap. It should begin by involving women in election campaign. Indian politics is a male dominated space both physically and strategically. Women are completely missing from election rallies, road shows and meetings. Congress should make a conscious decision to involve women in these activities while ensuring their safety.

A BJP or RSS rally is a scary sight for women, hyper-masculine sword yielding aggressive men in bikes – just the kind of crowd women are advised to stay away from.  Let’s change that. Let’s have thousands of happy young equal women and men campaigning together for a party they believe in, a service towards nation building. Invite the communities of women bikers travelers, car racers to your rallies. Female members of Youth Congress, Women Congress could campaign together. Increased women participation in politics at campaigning level could drastically change the way do politics altogether. Let the people of India be so surprised to see women and men together, they will be like, “this too was possible who would have known”. Once that is achieved half the work is done. Follow this up with giving equal official positions within the party, equal ticket distribution and so on.

Women are a natural ally of Congress because of the core values of secularism and liberalism, while BJP’s conservative patriarchal authoritative right wing ideology is a natural barrier to women’s rights. Secularism and liberalism are important for women’s rights across religion and caste. It has to be understood by political parties that unless you recognize women as independent citizens in their own might sans their relational values as mother, daughters, wives etc you cannot give them full rights. Women must be given their individuality and the freedom to be who they want to be. Don’t attack their personal freedom or religious freedom. Don’t judge Muslim women if they chose to wear the Hijab, don’t assume all of them are oppressed waiting to be rescued by Hindu 56” Hanuman. At the same time be liberal put women’s choice and individuality at the center and not nationalism or identity issues.

Trust me not for much long would young Indian women tolerate interference with their fundamental rights. Many more Hadiyas would be born, they will fight their way to Courts to get their rights, they will reject the notion that their bodies are careers of a national identity so they must behave accordingly – Not fall in love with Muslims, beget 10 Hindu child, not wear jeans, not celebrate Valentine’s Day and other such patriarchal ideas peddled by BJP and RSS. They will never come out of its women is devi, mata, beti, bharat mata, gau mata syndrome all of which reduces women to their gendered bodies, and that is their “Achilles heel”.

Congress must identify and attack it.

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