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Sita to Sitharaman-II: Why India needs a uniform gender code for women leadership

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

India was never on track towards gender equality even for powerful women from the ancient time of Sita to today’s Sitharaman. Patriarchy is so deep rooted that it is normalised by all genders especially by the submission of the (powerful) women.
This article is second in a series (click here for the first article) to build up a case on how masculine decisions and actions by both men (and women in power) keeps fuelling and fortifying the patriarchal mindset. Understanding those nuances may be useful to redefine the roles and responsibilities of women in the various social-political affairs particularly leaderships including the forthcoming run-ups to the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha seats.
This article takes the case of women ministers of all time since Independent India. The essay provides some statistics of the presence and participation of women leadership in politics and concludes with an argument on the need for Uniform Gender Code to bring gender parity in all fields especially politics as a case here.

Women in the Parliament as of today

As per latest info available online, the gender composition in the parliament is: 24 women out of 224 Rajya Sabha Members and 78 women out of 542 Lok Sabha Members. This 10.7% and 14.39% are supposedly highest since independent India. Wondering why in Lok Sabha December 2022 then Minister of Law and Justice, Shri Kiren Rijiju mentioned 14.05% and 14.94% respectively. We have reached this far in 75 years from barely one woman in the first parliament in 1947. The percent still does not make it closer to 33% as the talks for women reservation are going on since long time and definitely far from the 50% as per the actual share of population and education. Well getting into the grains of the power, the 2023 ministerial berths from these 10.7-14.39% tells the real story of position and power, only 2 females out of 29 Cabinet Ministers of India and Ministers of State fairs better with 10 out of 48. The percent leadership is still dismal and the way masculinity is boasted in the parliament by men (and those women), the future of more women being in both the houses looks dismaying.

Women in the Parliament since independence

Would Niti Ayog position for chief economist welcome woman leadership? July 2020. with the President of India, we have 2 women so far in 76 years that accounts to 10 years which is around 13% of the timespan. It took 60 years to have the first women president in the form of Pratibha Devisingh Patil. Now, with Draupadi Murmu, another layer of battle is conquered, a woman and a scheduled tribe citizen. We are yet to have a woman Vice President after the 15 men so far. When the selection-election of the President of India now is highly strategic (started since 1982) and politicised by the parliamentarians making the role of the President ornamental and obscured, then it is definitely possible to change the presidency to alternate male-female within a term and across the terms. So, if president is male, then vice president must be female and vice versa in the next term. It may look undemocratic, but isn’t the current appointment also highly politicised? It has been a long long time that we have heard President taking strong steps to reinstate the power and the position. Otherwise Ramnath Kovind would have spoken during the unrest of #CAA-NRC and #FarmersProtest and Draupadi Murmu should have spoken for the #WrestlersProtest and #ManipurVoilence.
Among the Prime Ministers, we had only Indira Gandhi among 14 PMs in 76 years which is less than 10%. Indira governed for 3 terms covering 11 years and 2 months in 76 years which is around 15% of the timespan. We are yet to have a woman Deputy Prime Minister after the 7 men so far. And with the idea and valor of the current Hindutva led Ram Raaj instigated with violence of all forms against the vulnerable, it looks less likely that any party will pitch for a woman PM or Deputy PM in the coming elections. Anyway, the pitching for the PM face and position is unconstitutional but the practice is normalized because of the weak enforcement of the Election Commission of India and ignorance of the citizens. Looking at the way how our current PM demeans women leadership in public and in parliament it looks that a lot needs to be done to sensitize men towards accepting women leadership. For example, election jibe of ‘Didi o Didi’ for Mamata Banerjee who is the only woman CM at the moment.
Then saying, ‘Congress ki Vidhwa’ to Sonia Gandhi, a woman who is among the most powerful woman in the country as well as in the world. Sonia sacrificed her PM-ship in 2004 despite being victorious and having valid citizenship of the country. Because, behind her decline of the PM-ship lies maligned intent of the highly educated men like, the then Janata Party president Dr Subramanian Swamy and manipulation by the then President APJ Abdul Kalam in inviting Dr Manmohan Singh. This tells how deep and dirty the masculinity can maneuver to ensure patriarchy. The worst is realized when almost all upper caste (I hate this discriminatory word) men and women repeatedly used ‘Peechdi Jati’ in the public and in the parliament for Draupadi Murmu right from the presidential campaign to her appointment as the only 2nd women President of Independent India. Do these people even realize what is wrong in doing so? They are simply further cementing patriarchy and blocking the options for women leaderships.
India being a Union of States and with so many states, we should have had more women Chief Ministers than only 16 in the 76 years. I could not find the total number of CMs since 1947, but I am sure the percent presence and participation of women CM is the worst represented to less than 5% since independence. At present among 30 CMs, we have only one woman i.e. Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal (since 20 May 2011). We are seeing her courage and at the same time the pressure she undergoes from other parties including the dirty remarks of even the Prime-Home Ministers during the West Bengal election. The pressure from the fellow politicians and the ugliness in the politics is normalized as masculine and often women politicians are expected and anticipated to be more man-like than woman-like. This I called the implicit patriarchy endorsed by all in the society. Anyway, of the 16 women CMs, the term of Sheila Dikshit in NC-Delhi was for 15 years, 25 days and J Jayalalita in Tamil Nadu was for 14 years, 124 days. Well. There did fairly well in the terms despite many allegations of corruption charges against them. Look at the mere days of CM-ship of these 5 women, 206 days of Anwara Taimur (in 1980-81) in Assam, 23 days of CM-ship of V. N. Janaki Ramachandran (in 1988) in Tamil Nadu, 83 days of Rajinder Kaur Bhattal (in 1996-97) in Punjab, 52 days of Sushma Swaraj (in 1998) in NC-Delhi, and 259 days of Uma Bharti (in 2003-04) in Madhya Pradesh. Then there was barely 2 years 2 months of CM-ship of Anandiben Patel (in 2014-16) in Gujarat and Mehbooba Mufti (in 2016-18) in Jammu and Kashmir. Deducting these 7 CMs, makes the number of CMs to be counted in fingers amongst the hundreds of CMs. Alas! I could not even find the list of Deputy CMs in the internet search and with less patience and more depression, it was not even worth making the effort to count. I am sure the number may be even below 1%.
The aggregate cabinet ministers’ stats and story of women presence and participation is a worst case than the above 3 important positions in India since the independence (click here for table) Doing a quick counting of the women cabinet ministers of some ministries as a representative and those where women leadership is crucial according to me. The selection is also based on considering that these ministries are more likely to have women leadership and having atleast one women minister as the rest of the ministries even fair worse in women presence and participation.
The now Ministry of Jal Shakti alias former Ministry of Water resources, River development& Ganga Rejuvenation and Ministry of drinking Water and Sanitation started in 1985 (strange as what was happening to water before that) has so far had 42 cabinet minister and 3 ministers of State, out of which only 2 women ministers namely, Meira Kumar (Cabinet) and Uma Bharti (Cabinet) got the position.
A country that revers water as holy and waterbodies as mother, and then have only 2 women in near 40 years among 45 minsters which is less than 5% is worth reflecting. It is then not surprising if we are among the most water stressed countries in the world with rising flood, drought and climate change impacts transcending to asymmetric access to safe drinking water and sanitation with the poor vulnerable and rural people suffering the most, increasing water conflicts within the country and with neighboring countries, and more. The commodification of water and water induced agriculture and industries are masculine approach, by the men, of the men, for the men.
In the Ministry of Environment, Forest and now Climate Change added (MoEFCC) there are only two women ministers among the 24 ministers so far since the ministry’s establishment in 1985 making it to 10% share. Both, Maneka Gandhi (Cabinet) and Jayanthi Natarajan (Independent charge), were highly passionate about their duties and brought some major reforms in the environment policy including in the Forest Right Act and Joint Forest Management. The Environmental Impact Assessment was also still relevant in their times unlike today when it is almost dead. The sorry presence of environment of the Mother India (and Mother Earth) can be easily related to the sheer absence of women leadership who could have directed the environmental decisions and action with more empathy than the brutal enforcement of masculine development.
In the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare, one of the oldest ministries, so far, we have had only One-woman Minister of State in the form of Shobha Karandlaje and no cabinet minister yet among the 40 ministers so far, so less than 2.5% share. In a country that comprises of more than 50% head count of farmers as women, the bleak representation is ironic and alarming. It is then understood that the farmers woes are not understood comprehensively by those men in the hot seat most of those that came from non-farming background. It can be also better understood why farmers plight of problems are never at the center of parliamentary affairs despite we being an agro-economy. The human aspect of farming and farmer community is totally missed out and that can be easily related to the long-standing poor access to nutrition (of global as well as average standards) to the poor including the farmers who grow the food when the country grows more than it can eat. So, all focusing all the farming to economy is a sheer masculine approach. Then suppressing the #FarmersProtest and ignoring the farmers plight to losses leading to #FarmersSuicides is brutally masculine.
In the Ministry of Finance, after decades of having Indira Gandhi with additional charge alongside PM, we now have Nirmala Sitharaman (Cabinet and MoS) as the second minister among the 45 ministers so far since its formation in 1946, so less than 5% share. It is ironic that when most finances are managed in most houses by women, the women leadership is kept at bay from the finance ministry. Absence of women leadership allowed more scope of corruption in the ministry and country. Besides we would have been better in handling our debts and reduce unnecessary credits from the global banks to undertake several unnecessary initiatives/developments which have deteriorated environment as well as human growth and wellbeing. Because, the masculinity in finance is all about profit making at individual levels. The country is so badly indebted with loans that it will take over century to repay them even if we stop borrowing further. Then, most importantly and ironically, when the finance ministry works towards capitalism instead of socialism, the purpose is failed in this secular democracy which houses world’s most Richie rich as well as the most poverty struck society. This is sheer financial mismanagement.
Similarly, the home affairs are mismanaged grossly as it has been led by 41 men ministers so far since the formation of the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1947. Only Indira Gandhi (so 2.5% share) had (rather) the ministry twice with additional charge alongside PM. While men do not manage their own homes but are keen to take on powers that come with the ministry. The ministry considered strongest after the PMO and responsible for law and order in the country is grossly misunderstood by the men in controlling through punishment and security rather than bringing social, cultural and behavioural changes and reforms. A simple example being safety of women in the public realm which was never included as issue and later delegated to the Women and Child Development. Likewise, the issues of youth were never part of the home ministry unless delegated to the Ministry of Youth and Cultural Affairs. That the role and responsibilities of the ministry is to ensure and establish peace and harmony in the country is prime responsibility is completely sabotaged in the current times. Instead, the present-day heavy handedness of the ministry is all out to destroy the peace and create more violent environment, for example, from the Ram Mandir riots to the Manipur riots. Besides, the ministry’s entanglement in creating hostile environment towards constitutional values is concerning, for example, from suppressing the #CAA-NRC protests, #FarmersProtests, #WrestlersProtests raged by the common citizens to even suppressing the opposition parties like taking control of Delhi Police, Governor, turning the election results in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh.
Likewise, one can go on and on with all the ministries dismal inclusion of women ministers only to understand the dismayed state of affairs in most of the sectors and regions. For example, in the Ministry of Defence, among the 34 ministers since 1947 there are only 2 women (around 5% share), Indira Gandhi had the portfolio twice and Nirmala Sitharaman had once. This ministry it yet to see peace building as the main agenda and activity; instead, the focus is on buying more and more military equipment to pretend protection from the ghostly enemies in the borders. Inside the country where citizens are afraid of police and army personnel, it means we have a long way to go to bring peace of mind within the country, lest we do little more to bring peace with neighbors. The economy of war is a masculine approach, by the men, of the men, for the men and every unrest/violence the impact is more of women, children, and old people. Another example, in the Ministry of External affairs, where among the 43 ministers since 1946, there are only 4 women with Indira Gandhi (Cabinet) holding the position twice alongside PM, then Sushma Swaraj (Cabinet), Kamala Sinha (MoS) and Meenakshi Lekhi (MoS). The ministry is made to perform more ornamental with barely any coordination with the Ministry of Defence and other ministries.
The two ministries that have highest number of women ministers are the Ministry of Women and Child Development and Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The Ministry of Women and Child Development (surprisingly) was only formed in 2006 and so far with 8 ministers, 6 have been women starting with Renuka Chowdhury (Independent Charge), Krishna Tirath (Independent Charge), Maneka Gandhi (Cabinet), Smriti Irani (Cabinet). Krishna Raj (MoS) and Debashree Chaudhuri (MoS). Several reforms are brought through this ministry towards women and children health, wellbeing and safety. For example, the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Scheme is initiated from this ministry. While the ministry is crucial for the future of women in the country, it has to integrate its decisions and actions with the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the Judiciary for bringing gender parity. It is also noticed that the caste, class, qualification, sensitivity, party also plays a role in the decisions and action which again exemplifies masculinity among the women ministers’ that endorses patriarchy.
For example, the way Smriti Irani could not even stand for the #HathrasCase, the UnnaoCase, the #Bilkis Bano gang rape case, the #WrestlersProtest and several instances of injustice to women, there will emerge doubts on the integrity of a woman in power. Thus, being a woman does not specify the anticipated characteristics from a leader, prima facie the empathy and engagement with the people, here women and children. When empowered women have compromise leadership and freedom of expression, there is a lot to reflect upon values.
Besides the ministry is yet to take women leadership as its agenda beyond the ‘abla nari’ support syndrome which is definitely crucial but not enough for post #BetiBachaoBetiPadhao. Well, the scheme requires a rigorous discussion on Betis who are educated and empowered how can be be accommodated and promoted for leadership roles and positions.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare existing since 1947 has had 47 ministers so far out of which 7 are women till date, so around 17% share which is better than all ministries discussed here. Starting with, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (Cabinet), then Sushila Nayar (Cabinet) (MoS), Mohsina Kidwai (Cabinet), Sushma Swaraj (Cabinet), Panabaka Lakshmi (Independent Charge), Anupriya Patel (MoS), and the latest being Bharati Pawar (MoS). Well, the ministry should be ideally at the core of all the ministries and must regulate/coordinate with them. Health and happiness of the people must be the utmost agenda of any nation before economy, defence, and others as the former (must) matters for human development.
Let us remind ourselves of the COVID time how the nations with women leadership did exceptionally in handling the pandemic. Even our own Kerala State showed it during COVID with the then woman Health Minister KK Shailaja. Let us also remind ourselves about India’s ranking of 132 out of 191 countries and territories on the 2023 Human Development Index, it pushes to suggest that the ministry must be directly under the PMO and President office with additional charges to monitor if the country really values the actual development of its citizens. It is also then important that the citizens and constitution ensures that the PM and President are family person to understand the family values.
At the background of all the ministries lies the Ministry of Education, which was also called Ministry of Human Resource Development for some time. The ministry has 31 cabinet and 6 MoS ministers so far since its establishment in 1947, out of which only one woman, Smriti Irani, was a minister for a short span of 2 years, 40 days in 2014. Ironically, the ministry like the Ministry of Women and Child Development is yet to transcend leadership building beyond its educational and employment focusses. The sex ratio in most organizations is severely gender skewed and among the worst in the world. India is among the countries with highest number of educated unemployed women who strive to find suitable employments for most of her life. Then, those who get an employment, most of them had their life battles to retain their work-life balance and thus hardly few resorts to plunge into leaderships. Then, there are barely few who manage to climb the leadership ladder and even fewer are able to hold on the feministic values as many women who attain leadership positions internalize the masculinity alias patriarchal mindset.

Future of women ministers/leaders

The Constitution (108 Amendment) Bill 2008, tabled by the Ministry of Law & Justice, seeks to reserve one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies is hanging with no fate. The debate on allocation of reserved seats for women to be determined by the Parliament has been raised a few times but could not be passed as consensus could not be formed between various political parties. Since the parliamentary seats are not reserved for men and women, no Ministry is entrusted with the function of increasing the representation of women members in parliament or increasing their share in ministerial position. It is then a prerogative of the PM to recommend names to the President for appointment as Ministers as per article 75(1) of the Constitution. But when women like Hema Malini, Kirron Kher, Locket Chatterjee, etc. (and even Sachin Tendulkar, Sunny Deol, etc.) are appointed, the recommendation looks compromised as also evident from their public engagement and presence and participation in the parliamentary affairs.
On the one hand, the #BetiBachaoBetiPadhao Scheme to get the girls to school and strengthen the slow transition as a tool to upscale women leadership, we are grossly mistaking. At present there is no policy, program and even preference to upscale women political leadership. With the budget for #BetiBachaoBetiPadhao reducing with every passing year and over 67% money used in its media campaigns and barely used 43% funds in 2022-23, the scheme is dying its own death. Then, after the anticipated arrival of New India and Raam Raaj augmented with increasing violence against, it is concerning whether betis will be even sent to education.
On the other hand, India contributes heavy to the UN for women empowerment for example, it contributed $500,000 to UN Agency in 2022 with a statement, ‘reaffirmed our (India’s) valued partnership of women-led development and gender parity.’ Where does all this money go? As the distance to gender equity is long. For example, if we could reach only 2-10% share of women parliamentarians in 75 years by electoral and recommendation process, it tells that it may take another 225 to even 1000+ years to even attain 33% share.
Even the most educated and empowered women either deliberately practice or fall prey to the patriarchal mindset. For example, considered to be ‘adarsh bharatiya nari’—an ideal Indian woman, Sushma Swaraj fought against Sonia Gandhi electorally and emotionally with many jibes such as, ‘Indian beti’ versus ‘foreign bahu’ followed by going too far in 2004 with threatening to shave her head and wear white like a widow if Sonia Gandhi became the PM. I may be speculating that had Sonia become the PM then, Sushma may have had better chances to break the male bastion within her own party and contest against Sonia with the same logics to claim the possible PM candidature. I am sure Sushma did not realize and foresee this possibility while opposing Sonia.
When we politicize the Uniform Civil Code Bill that is hanging since independence and is raised only before the elections despite knowing that it is impossible to attain in the social-cultural-religious diversity of the country. Then, we can definitely initiate an issue of Uniform Gender Code as that is attainable to bring gender parity in almost everything, everywhere and every time. The trick is how to make Uniform Gender Code a political agenda? We saw that in 2019, 724 women candidates contested from across the country with Congress fielding 54 women followed by BJP at 53. We also saw that in 2022, UP election, Congress declared 40% seats to women, which pushed other parties to rethink. Even if only 102 women made it to Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha Members in 2019 and even if there are only 47 women MLAs in the 403-member UP (started with Sarojini Naidu as first Governor of state and India in 1947) Legislative Assembly including 22 first-timers in 2022, such strategic decisions at party level can be real game changer for the women leaders as well as the party.
Gender matters must transcend the party politics and all women from all parties have to be in chorus for increasing the women share and to get the 108 Amendment Bill 2008 passed. Then, from being educated to being leader is a big leap which requires special grooming which is lacking currently in the country. Currently most women leaders are either result of nepotism like, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Mehbooba Mufti, Supriya Sule, Kanimozhi Karunanidhi or exploiting their celebrity status like, Hema Malini, Kirron Kher. Very few like Mamata Banerjee emerge from the ground. If we think emerging from the ground is the only and the right way in leadership, then we are ions away from reaching gender parity in parliament. We have also seen that inherited leaderships have worked so women have to really capitalize the Panchayat elections. They also have to learn to document and disseminate their work.
It is important to groom women leaderships among organizational leaders and natural leaders. And leaders who have direct access to politics must really take extra steps in identifying, injecting, supporting and promoting new women leaders towards more efficient and effective presence and participation. As this will benefit them as well as the women community. The empowered women have to be more transparent (and educated), more woman-like with concern and care rather than be masculine with business as usual. As with masculinity they not only cement the patriarchy, they fail to motivate other women, and will not go down in the history as inspirational. Women leaders have to hold on to the womanhood and then only they can provide alternative thinking to the ongoing masculine governance. To be optimistic, least is that our woman President uses her extra powers to pass the 33% Women Reservation Bill.
We need a nationwide movement by the women, of the women, for the women on this matter. We certainly need women role models for future which brings the onus to the current leaders. This article, therefore, included most of the influential women leaders since independence as an attempt to have a repository. It is also good time that the women leaders are acknowledged and appreciated for the society to know about their deeds.
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*Entrepreneur | researcher | educator | speaker | mentor | political observer. More info on her learning and sharing are at, www.mansee.in and www.wforw.in

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