CHENNAI: S Meenalogu was just another woman in Coimbatore until 1996. The subsequent year, she set foot in the political arena, just to assist her councillor husband, a DMK member, in grassroots politics. Call it coincidence or providence, the world conspired in her favour and Rathinapuri (ward number 49) was reserved for women in 2006.
The now 47-year-old won from the ward twice and went on to contest the 2016 Assembly elections from Coimbatore (North) on a DMK ticket.
Though she lost by nearly 8,000 votes, she was called a 'firebrand' in her guild for daringly upbraiding biggies in the party for lack of cooperation during the polls.
Despite her two decades of experience, and having held a state-level position in the party, Meena, who was denied a ticket for the upcoming elections, is now a mere party member, disenchanted and tired of fighting a few "chauvinistic men" who managed to wreck her political fortunes.
"Fighting such forces is an exercise in futility," says Meenalogu, who is now spending more time with her family. She however adds that her party's women's wing secretary K Kanimozhi has always been a good mentor. Her case is just a grain of sand in the desert.
A senior women leader of DMK said that Meenalogu was removed from all party positions following a probe into various allegations against her.
The plight of women functionaries is not much different in parties across the country, says DMK women’s wing deputy secretary and writer Salma. She says politics is a fight for power and men do not want to share it. After being in the field for 23 years, she feels women need to work double hard to ascend in the power structure. “The party high command is keen on women empowerment; women are ideologically strong and powerful. But, those next in line are not alike. In fact, it is DMK which introduced women SHGs in the state.”
Like any other social cause, women empowerment in politics, too, needs a fight for changing the people's mindset. “Similar to dowry system, patriarchy is deeply rooted in society. However, we put up fights to bring changes in the society,” Salma says, adding that even during Jayalalithaa's time, women could hardly become district secretaries in the AIADMK.
With 'Amma's grace'
Her minority background did not pose a hurdle for AIADMK minister Nilofer Kafeel in taking a political plunge in 1991, for she got it by the virtue of former chief minister J Jayalalithaa. But, to stay in the race is a big challenge. “After Amma, EPS and OPS annas ensure support and respect for women in the party. However, some men outside the party have tried to hamper my growth. Within the party, there are issues mostly at the cadre level, where men want to be kings. Their ego is hurt when they see women climbing up the power ladder.”
Concurring with Kafeel, AMMK spokesperson C R Saraswati says women can grow in the party only with hard work and family support. “However, there is no escape from enduring the struggles on their path to success in politics, as in any other field.”
Knowing the knack of politics
Unlike before, grassroots politics has developed with increased participation of women. Today, many women understand their predecessors’ struggles in politics before taking a plunge, says BJP’s Mahila Morcha president Vanathi Srinivasan, welcoming the trend.
According to Vanathi, an aspiring candidate with the necessary leadership skills stands a chance to grow from cadre to state-level positions in the party. “However, not many understand that it takes at least 3 to 5 years of groundwork to become an office-bearer in the party. Secondly, recognition comes also with the capabilities and interest of a cadre in building the party as an organisation.”
Speaking of state-level positions, she says BJP has 33 per cent reservation for women, and fresh faces too get their due. “Besides efforts, geography and community play an important role in one’s growth. For instance, while electing secretaries for the party, we give chance to people from different regions and community. Being a national party, we have a lot of scope, and all talents do get accommodated.”
Understanding the hardships in getting the knack of politics, Vanathi wants women to hone their ability to mobilise resources, organise cadre, take up an issue politically and convert party support into votes. She claims to have groomed many women leaders including state vice president Mahalakshmi (initial) and Sivakami Paramasivam, and BJP’s MLA candidate for Modakkurichi, CK Saraswati.
However, it is ironic that this “empowered” Saffron party leader with a political vision had to fall at the feet of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath during a public meeting in Coimbatore recently.
Penetrating into the core party
Contradicting with the rosy picture painted by the BJP leader, Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC) spokesperson Lakshmi Ramachandran says the core of any political party is run like a "boys’ club". “Things are fine until women operate in mahila wings. But, penetrating into the core without a political background or the support of a godfather in the field is a challenge.”
Lakshmi feels the progressive mindset of Rahul Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi will not make any impact on the way things function at the grassroots. The transformation has to happen organically in the system, with checks and balances. “There are so many women cadre who toiled for the past seven-eight years. But, only the sitting MLA Vijayadharini was given a ticket for the current Assembly elections. I do not think women empowerment is their agenda. They feel their job is done by giving a token seat to a woman and not worry about the morale of others.”
Citing the recent incident where Kerala Mahila Congress chief Lathika Subhash tonsured her head after being denied a ticket, Lakshmi clarifies that there is a big resentment among women in TNCC as well. She wonders why winnability becomes an important factor only when the ticket is sought by a woman. “Parties should understand that leaders are also built by the system and encouraging rural women will eventually help develop the organisation.”
A complex scenario
To a larger extent, political parties dance to the tunes of patriarchy, which is thickly entrenched with caste in Tamil Nadu. The call to confront this system gets louder as there is only one Jayalalithaa and one Jothimani Sennimalai.
Addressing this scenario, a convenor of Young People for Politics, Radhika Ganesh, says the parties are reflections of a larger society that believes power must rest with men. Women, who are inherently political beings, have to forgo certain privileges to establish themselves as leaders. While having a family is an important aspect for a man, it is seen as a distraction, among other things, for a woman in politics, adds Radhika. She hopes that only concerted effort will change everything. On the other side, she puts forth an argument as to what extent can prominent women leaders like Kanimozhi influence the party’s decisions.
Is Left any different in treating women?
Considering the active participation of women in Left parties, there is a common belief that the situation is better on the left of the centre. But, the leaders do not completely agree with it. Like any other progressive leader, CPM’s K Balabharathi too believes social change is a must for women to enjoy full freedom. “Though the Dravidian ideology speaks for women’s freedom and rights, Marxism has a wider reach. Feminism too draws upon many ideas of Marxism,” she says, adding that CPM has created space for many women.
However, AIDWA’s Kavitha Gajendran feels the Left parties can move to the space of gender equality only if they absorb the ideologies and functions accordingly. “Being a woman is a reason enough to be sidelined in politics. CPM at least gives me the space to discuss and express my views. The party has the vision to bring women to leadership roles. However, it should have started working towards a socialist society long back.”
When actors like Ajith and Vijay are changing scripts responsibly with women’s future in mind, why are politicians not ready to think ahead of their times? she asks.
On the safety aspect, Kavitha says, unlike others, the men in the Left parties see their women counterparts as comrades and treat each other well.
Ticket issuance, a real issue
For Radhika, Left parties appear better as their women’s wings – AIDWA and NFIW - are active when compared to others. But, when it comes to issuing tickets, how many of them are MLAs and MPs and in the politburo? “Whether it is Left, Right or the Centre, tickets are issued to women as a token. We need to understand that even if we get the 33 per cent reservation, there are not enough women to field. Besides, giving prominence to women is not something that the Dravidian parties could not do, but did not want to do so far. Such crude mindset has made even tall women leaders fizzle out suddenly,” she says, adding that the only way to redefine political spaces for women is by confronting the fact that we are inherently a patriarchal society.
Asked about the ‘Third Fronts’ treatment, an enraged Radhika says, “Kamal and Seeman have a saviour complex. Who are they to give women a chance? It is another form of patriarchy. If men make space, women will themselves call the shots.” She is also sure that it is impossible for women to penetrate in AIADMK as the party with a previous experience of a woman leadership will not allow itself to be "threatened" again.
Convenor of Arappor Iyakkam, a people’s movement that works towards a just and equitable society, Jayaram Venkatesan welcomes NTK’s move to provide 50 per cent seats to women members, even if it is the party’s strategy to win the elections. But, he sees the absence of a woman leader in NTK as a problem. “Some say the absence of Jayalalithaa has created a vacuum in politics. But, the vacuum for good women leaders is always there but not acknowledged.” Like the Kerala government, Jayaram wants the Tamil Nadu government too to focus on grooming women leaders at panchayat levels to see effective changes in society.
Besides affirmative policies, professor and social activist Semmalar points out the need for women to be economically stable or independent to grow up the ladder in politics. “Many refuse to see Kanimozhi as a powerful leader. The patriarchal mindset makes them talk about her familial ties, character and not calibre. The situation is no different for any woman trying to make a mark in the field,” she retorts.
Responding to criticisms against NTK, its women’s wing state coordinator P Kaliammal calls the reservation for women a revolution in the history of Indian politics. Gone are the days when people asked adupu oothum pengaluku padippu etharku. More so, many daily wage labourers like NTK’s candidate for Sirkazhi constituency Kavitha are transgressing boundaries by joining poll campaigns after working in farms. The party has broken many barriers and changed the social stigma by uplifting women from rural backgrounds, she asserts, adding, “Feminism is different for different people. For me, it is in ensuring equal opportunities for people from humble backgrounds and my party does that. We have many district leaders like Amudha Nambi, writer Sumitra and Seethalakshmi.”
Claiming that 80 per cent of works at NTK events are undertaken by women, the 34-year-old adds, “In Dravidian parties, there is no room for discussion; the high command just passes orders. But, it is different at our party, where we work together as family members. People even directly message their suggestions to Seeman.”
A political analyst feels that fear of abuse, character assassination and cut-throat competition for tickets largely impacts a woman’s career among other hurdles. “For many women, the entry itself is a big break in politics. Progress, however, is seen as unnecessary by their male counterparts. Even if Kanimozhi really wants to bring in a new generation of female leaders, it is impossible in this political scenario,” the analyst points out.
It is true that women’s empowerment is but a star distancing further even as the society engineers to attain gender equality and social justice. The gap, however, could be reduced with a concerted and collective effort to stem patriarchy.