A beauty queen, an award-winning writer, and four giant-killers; one who contested because she received a “signal from God” and another who once famously showed her middle finger to a hectoring news anchor – it is safe to say that the women contestants to the 2019 general elections reflect the diversity and vibrancy of India.
Of the 724 women who contested the 2019 general elections, 78 will be sworn in as members of parliament (MPs) – the largest-ever contingent of women in India’s parliamentary history. More than 60%, or 47 of these women, are first-time MPs, said Gilles Verniers, co-director of Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD). Some, such as eight-time winner Maneka Gandhi, are veterans.
There are billionaires – the richest being Hema Malini of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with assets of Rs 250 crore, according to the Association of Democratic Reforms. And then there is Remya Haridas, the daughter of a daily-wager father and a tailor mother. With assets of Rs 22,816, the 32-year-old is Kerala’s second-ever Dalit woman MP and the only woman MP from the state this year.
Reportedly shortlisted in a talent hunt conducted by Congress president Rahul Gandhi back in 2011, the music graduate contested as a candidate for the Congress-led United Democratic Front, conducting a campaign that used music and singing to connect with her audience.
Haridas’s political rivals scoffed. But on counting day, she had defeated incumbent PK Biju of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), by securing 52.4% of the vote share.
One Step Forward...
In percentage terms, the gains made by women in the 2019 general elections are small: They form 14.6% of the house, up from the 12.1% (66 women MPs) of the outgoing 16th Lok Sabha.
“You cannot bring change immediately,” Chinta Anuradha, who describes herself as a “staunch supporter of the feminist cause” and won on a YSR Congress ticket from Amalapuram in Andhra Pradesh, told IndiaSpend.
“But women are now getting into politics from different streams and are being taken seriously by political parties. That is a good start and we will very soon reach our rightful numbers in Parliament.”
All four women candidates fielded by the YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh have won – two of them, including Anuradha, for the first time.
In Odisha, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD)’s decision – unprecedented before this election for any party – to reserve 33% of its parliamentary seats for women candidates, has paid rich dividends with electoral victory for five of its seven women candidates.
These include Chandrani Murmu, a BTech graduate who on counting day was, at 25 years, 8 months and 11 days, the youngest woman MP to be elected this year. Murmu won on a BJD ticket from Keonjhar, defeating her nearest rival, two-time MP Ananta Nayak of the BJP, by more than 66,000 votes.
Along with two women MPs from the BJP, Aparajita Sarangi from Bhubaneshwar and Sangeeta Singh Deo from Bolangir, seven of Odisha’s 21 MPs are now women, representing a quantum leap for women’s representation from 9.5% in 2014 to 33.3% in 2019.
The reverse has happened in West Bengal, where despite All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee allocating 41% of all seats (22 tickets) to women, the proportion of women MPs has shrunk from 28.6% in 2014 to 26.2% this election.
Despite this, West Bengal remains a significant state for women’s representation with 12 of its 42 MPs women--two from the BJP and 10 from the TMC, including Mahua Moitra, a former investment banker who returned from London in 2008 to join politics and once showed her middle finger to news anchor Arnab Goswami, then with Times Now
Moitra has since involved herself in privacy issues, filing a public interest litigation against the Narendra Modi government’s proposal to monitor the social media.
Despite the euphoria caused by the ‘highest number of women ever elected to the Lok Sabha’, 13 states and union territories have in 2019 failed to elect a single woman candidate.
These ‘zero women MP’ states include Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Goa. In the union territories of Dadra and Nagar Haveli as well as Daman and Diu there was no woman candidate in the first place.
In Mizoram, history was made when a woman contested parliamentary elections for the first time. Lalthlamuani said she had received a “signal from God” and contested as an independent candidate. The 63-year-old runs an NGO, Chhinlung Israel People Convention, which comprises of Mizo Jews who believe they are one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. On counting day she had polled 1,975 or 0.4% of the votes.
Of the 14 MPs of Assam, one is a woman. But the Gauhati parliamentary seat saw a spirited contest with five women among its 17 candidates.
In the end, former Guwahati mayor Queen Oja, who contested on a BJP ticket, defeated her nearest rival, the Congress’s Bobbeeta Sharma, a well-known name in Assamese TV and films who, by virtue of once winning a beauty contest in Assam, invited some ‘Queen vs Beauty Queen’ headlines. Oja’s victory by a margin of more than 5.5 lakh votes makes her the first woman to represent her constituency since 1977.
“Nowadays women are aware about politics but not so active,” Oja said to IndiaSpend over the phone. “To come up, women need the support of their families and communities. But first they must get involved in society and community issues.”
A glass ceiling was also broken in Arunachal Pradesh, which saw a woman contest a parliamentary seat for the first time. Jarjum Ete contested from Arunachal West on a Janata Dal (Secular) ticket but was defeated by the sitting MP and BJP minister Kiren Rijiju who got 63.2% of the vote share compared to Ete’s 11.95%.
Of the two seats in Meghalaya, Tura has been won by Agatha Sangma, another dynast who is the 38-year-old daughter of the deceased P.A.Sangma, a former Lok Sabha speaker. This is her third electoral victory since she first won a by-election to the 14th Lok Sabha.
The north-east remained male dominated, with its 25 constituencies spread over eight states collectively electing three women–one more than in 2014.
Some northeastern states, Manipur for instance, had no woman candidate. Nagaland has never elected a woman to its state assembly (legislature). Its sole woman MP has been the late Reno Mese Shaize.
Some notable losses for women candidates include Aam Aadmi Party’s Atishi, an educator and activist, who managed 17.44% of the vote share in her East Delhi constituency. In a three-way contest between the BJP, Congress and her own party, Atishi came in third after the BJP’s Gautam Gambhir (55.35%) and the Congress’s Arvinder Singh Lovely (24.24% vote share).
In Silchar, Assam, the Congress’s Sushmita Dev lost to the BJP’s Rajdeep Roy by 81,596 votes. Dev is a long-time advocate for 33% reservation for women in parliament and in state assemblies (legislatures).
The BJP’s Jaya Prada, a former actor who faced a sexist campaign by her nearest rival, Samajwadi Party’s Azam Khan, lost Rampur by more than one lakh votes. And the Congress’s Kumari Selja was defeated in Ambala, Haryana, by 3.42 lakh votes by the BJP’s Rattan Lal Kataria.
Several women lost to stronger women candidates--Tamilisai Soundararajan of the BJP to DMK’s Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, and TMC’s Ratna De to the BJP’s Locket Chatterjee.
In at least 50 constituencies, women stood second, shows an analysis of the results of all candidates on the Election Commission of India website.
In three of these constituencies the margin of defeat was less than 10,000 votes. Mamtaz Sanghamita of TMC lost in Bardhaman-Durgapur, West Bengal, by 2,439 votes. In Koraput, Odisha, the margin of Kausalya Hikaka’s defeat was 3,613 votes. And in Maldaha Dakshin, also in West Bengal, BJP’s Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury lost by 8,222 votes.
As usual, the new batch of women MPs includes dynasts. Overall, 30% of all new Lok Sabha MPs belong to political families but women candidates this election were more dynastic at 41%,said political analysts Gilles Verniers and Christophe Jaffrelot in The Indian Express on May 27, 2019. All the women candidates fielded by the Samajwadi Party, Telugu Desam Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Telangana Rashtra Samithi are dynasts, they pointed out.
In two states, Punjab and Maharashtra, all the women MPs are dynasts.
Harsimrat Kaur Badal, the wife of former Punjab chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal--who, after Hema Malini, is the richest woman MP with assets worth Rs 217 crore--has retained her Bathinda seat. The Congress’s Preneet Kaur, wife of current Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, has won back her Patiala seat, which she had lost in 2014, by winning 45.17% of the vote share.
All eight of the women who have won from Maharashtra claim political lineage. The daughter of NCP chief Sharad Pawar, Supriya Sule, for instance, will be making her third entry into parliament as the MP from Baramati, her father’s old constituency.
Two of the newly elected women dynast MPs from Maharashtra are related to each other. Poonam Mahajan is the daughter of slain BJP leader Pramod Mahajan. She defeated her nearest rival, Priya Dutt – incidentally, a fellow dynast and daughter of former Congress minister Sunil Dutt -- in Mumbai North Central with a decisive 53.97% of the vote share. Poonam’s cousin, Pritam Munde, is the daughter of Gopinath Munde who was married to Pramod Mahajan’s sister. Pritam contested on a BJP ticket from Beed and, like her cousin, won with more than 50% of the vote share.
All dynasts did not win. Perhaps most notably, Samajwadi Party’s Dimple Yadav, the wife of former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, lost in Kannauj by a narrow margin of 12,353 votes to the BJP’s Subrat Pathak.
And then there are newbies who have worked their way up through grassroots leadership. Pramila Bishoyi, 69, studied only until class 2, speaks no Hindi or English, has never stepped outside Odisha and has two sons, one of whom runs a tea-stall.
Yet, it was for her success in launching a women’s self-help group in his constituency of Aska that Biju Janata Dal (BJD) head Naveen Patnaik asked her to contest from the constituency from where he had launched his own political career 20 years ago.
The story goes that soon after elections were announced, Bishoyi’s son got a call saying that the chief minister wanted to meet his mother, so could she please come to Bhubaneshwar, some 160 km away? There was no money for taxi fare, so he demurred. A few hours later, a car drove up to bring her to the state capital where she was given the ticket.
When the votes were counted, Bishoyi had won 54.52%, defeating her nearest rival, the BJP’s Anita Subhadarshini, by more than two lakh votes.
While the term ‘giant-killer’ is being used to describe BJP’s Smriti Irani who defeated Congress President Rahul Gandhi in Amethi by 55,120 votes, there are at least three more among women MPs.
The most famous is terror accused Pragya Singh Thakur, who praised Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse as a “desh bhakt” (patriot). Her words caused a few blushes for the BJP’s leadership, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “[I]n my heart, I cannot forgive her.” Yet, on counting day, she had wrested the Bhopal seat with a decisive 61.54% vote share from her nearest rival, Congress veteran Digvijay Singh, who managed 35.63%, losing by 3.64 lakh votes.
In Tamil Nadu, Jothimani Sennimalai, an award-winning writer and poet who contested on a Congress ticket, defeated M Thambidurai of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) by more than 4.2 lakh votes to become the first woman MP from Karur.
In Karnataka’s Mandya, Sumalatha Ambareesh, the widow of former actor and Congress MP M.H. Ambareesh, was denied a Congress ticket, and so contested as an independent. She defeated her nearest rival, Nikhil Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular), who is the son of former chief minister HD Kumaraswamy and grandson of former prime minister HD Deve Gowda, by more than 1.25 lakh votes.
This was first published on IndiaSpend and has been republished with permission.