What the Congress and BJP manifestos offer women voters this election

Until we measure the governance of political parties with hard data, their talk is cheap, the vote is costly for voters, and women remain a corrigendum.
What the Congress and BJP manifestos offer women voters this election
What the Congress and BJP manifestos offer women voters this election

With barely two days left for Phase 1 of the General Elections in the country, when 91 constituencies in 20 states will go to the hustings, the ruling BJP finally unveiled its manifesto. The Congress had released theirs a week back. Here is a look at what they have to offer the women of India.

BJP’s promises

The BJP manifesto devotes a section to women’s empowerment, mostly a litany of existing government schemes. Their equal rights agenda is shockingly sparse, with exactly two items. Both have to do with Muslim marriage and divorce practices – one wonders if only Muslim women in India are denied equal rights.

Beyond that, the BJP has committed to increasing child care facilities three fold to enable women’s participation in the workforce, covering ASHA and Anganwadi workers with insurance, sourcing from MSMEs that employ at least 50% women, collateral-free credit and 50% loans to women entrepreneurs and farmers, gender sensitivity training across educational institutions and public offices, and a comment on special attention to women in sports schemes.

These are welcome – except that they have no meaning in the absence of data showing today’s and yesterday's baselines. How many childcare facilities are there in 2019? How many were there five years ago, ten years ago etc? How much does the GoI source from MSMEs employing at least 50% women today? And in the past years?

There is also a section on reproductive and menstrual health services including immunisation of pregnant women, and universal provision of sanitary pads at Re 1 – a pleasant pendulum swing away from the 16% GST originally levied on the same.

The only other item of relevance is the stated commitment to the Women's Reservation Bill for 33% seats in Parliament and State Assemblies. Unfortunately, it is hard to believe, given this commitment was carried forward untouched from their 2014 manifesto despite five years of their majority regime.

While there is a liberal deployment of cliched phrases, the women’s section of the manifesto is arbitrary and shows a dirt poor understanding of the grave social, economic, and political issues ailing India today. Gender inequity, after all, is not a women’s issue; it is one that debilitates the country and its socio-economic progress.

In summary, the BJP manifesto lacks a comprehensive and robust approach to women’s empowerment and is entirely unconvincing in its motive to appeal to women.

Congress’s promises

In contrast, the Congress manifesto on women is better, albeit with serious gaps. It lays out three approaches:

1. A vertical approach that includes the gender agenda within sectors – agriculture, jobs, political representation, judiciary, police reforms, armed forces etc. Land rights, labour force participation with working women’s hostels, child care and fiscal incentives for businesses that employ women. Better liveability with safe public transport and public spaces, separate investigative agencies, and accountability at the district administration level for crimes against women, running of city administrations by women and attention to women in sports.

2. A horizontal approach addressing women's socio-economic standing. Economic fillip by closing the wage gap, enhancing rural self help groups, financial security measures, 33% women in the Police, CISF, CRPF and BSF etc, better access to public toilets, legal rights awareness through Panchayats, and more women in the Judiciary. Social impact programmes including mandatory gender (including LGBTQIA+) sensitivity training across government and the armed forces.

3. A policy oriented approach amending Service Rules for 33% jobs in Central Government, passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill for both the Parliament and State Assemblies, reviewing and extending the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act, 2013, awarding much needed teeth via onstitutional status to the National and State Commissions for Women, withdrawing the pending Rights of Transgender Persons Bill and replacing it with a progressive one in consultation with the LGBTQIA+ community.

The main question of the Congress manifesto is their will to implement it, especially the schemes that require close collaboration with state governments. Also, while they have generously offered up the Women's Reservation Bill, their roster of women candidates is woefully poor at 11% for this very election.

Manifestos often turn out to be write-only documents, less read and barely implemented. While laying out a vision for governance is a very necessary part of asking for mandate, it is a shame that it stops right there. A genuine manifesto is less a document of grandiose promises; instead it a review of prior commitments against deliveries and new ones framed in that context. Until we measure the governance of political parties with hard data, their talk is cheap, the vote is costly for voters, and women remain a corrigendum.

Tara Krishnaswamy is a co-founder of Shakti – Political Power to Women, and Citizens for Bengaluru. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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