OPINION: What Kamala Harris Means for Indian Women

by Tara Krishnaswamy | @tarauk | Shakti - Political Power To Women
Friday, 13 November 2020 16:04 GMT

Women gather to celebrate the victory of U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in Painganadu near the village of Thulasendrapuram, where Harris' maternal grandfather was born and grew up, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India, November 8, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer NO ARCHIVES. NO RESALES.

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When Harris was voted U.S. vice-president elect it triggered a range of emotions across India where women vote at a higher percentage than men in many elections

Tara Krishnaswamy is a techie moonlighting as a citizen activist, a co-founder of citizens movements: Citizens For Bengaluru for sustainable urban governance, and Shakti - Political Power To Women, for increased women’s representation. 

"They always insist on our presence at the rallies, promising a moment with the mic. We are carefully arranged on stage in the last row of chairs. After hours on our backsides as showpieces, staring at the rears of males at the podium, the rally closes without a single word uttered by any of us women 'leaders!',” a female political leader recently told Shakti, a campaign aimed at boosting the number of women in India’s state and federal parliaments.

This sums up the struggles of women seeking due space in the country’s multi-party-political democracy, held hostage to male power. Handmaids' tales.

When Kamala Harris was voted vice-president elect, it triggered a range of emotions across India. Social media, an instrument mostly of privilege, thumped its chest over her Indian roots with WhatsApp frenzy and meme-ian exuberance. Her ancestral village in southern India celebrated with music and fire crackers after villagers campaigned the presiding deity for her win.

Politically aspirational women in cities discussed her politics, and while villages were mostly untouched, women's grassroots political networks organised discussions on her journey to deputy head of state.

Meanwhile, an-oft heard rebuttal in casual conversations was that India had seen many women in the uppermost echelons over the decades – from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1970s to a series of state chief ministers. This argument not only undermines Kamala's (In India, Kamala is Kamala) victory, but acts as a bulwark against women's right to fair representation.

Indian women vote at a higher percentage than men in many elections, and cast the winning votes in some, including in the recent elections in north-eastern Bihar state. For most parties, they are indispensable as vote catchers during months-long campaigns.  

Of their own accord, they form the bulk of organisers in urban wards, rural local governance, state and national level networks for socio-economic rights of women, minorities and oppressed groups. Due to reservation of seats, women even hold up to half of all elected positions in local governments. 

Yet they grasp but a wisp of political power at state and national levels.

The grand total of women elected across 17 parliaments since the first in 1952 barely exceeds the capacity of one parliament. Worse, the average in state assemblies is just 9%. Contrast that with U.S. averages of women in the Senate, House and State Offices at 23-29%. While that has been 200 years in the coming, American women are far better positioned today to secure rightful representation and here is why.

Indian political parties have abysmally poor female leadership within. Men hold most or all booth-constituency-district level positions in a career path where geography determines popular base, and hence candidacy. Women are invisible in organisational and election campaign leadership roles.

Women are but tokens, if at all, in election campaigns other than their own.

In contrast, the United States in the past decade has seen a feminisation of campaigns – from phone banking volunteers to presidential campaigns. Campaigns by Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama saw women, and women of colour leading campaign management, strategy, fund raising, policy, communications, and playing pivotal roles in securing and flipping states.

Half of Biden’s campaign staff comprised women.

In India, the rare breed of female campaign managers and strategists are typically stuck with a room full of men. 

Politically aspirational Indian women cannot rise through the ranks without an intimate knowledge and practice of campaign craft and territorial claims. Drawing inspiration from Kamala Harris and their American sisters' journeys, leads to booths, campaigns and ballots. 

Indian women must carry booth-level mobilisation responsibilities in their parties and grow compelling territorial bases by mining their socio-cultural grassroots networks. They must simultaneously volunteer and lead election campaigns until political strategy becomes second nature and winning, a by-product. 

The old maxim, ‘you can't become what you don't see’, is why Kamala's multiplicity of identities Black, Indian and female, that journeyed from the grassroots to being seen and heard at the West Wing  is instructive as far away as India.

Aspirational women denied opportunities in a culturally diverse country need to pioneer their path to the Indian political pinnacle using every exemplar at hand. After all, Aadhe Hum, Aadha Humara: Half is Us, Half is Ours will need to be prised to be attained!

 

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