Sunetra Chowdhry
New Delhi

Just about the time our newsroom started buzzing with breaking news that some minister had been caught watching pornography, an emailed survey dropped into the NDTV inbox. The survey was done by hardcore election watchers, Association for Democratic Reforms, and, usually, they are always reported by various news outfits like ours. But that day was extraordinary. The election statistics were shocking but we couldn’t quite get ourselves to pay attention to anything that day other than what was happening inside the Karnataka assembly. Like cameraman Srinivas Murthy Kulkarni, we just hadn’t expected any more excitement inside an assembly other than some really loud sloganeering. And then on primetime TV when the fear of the information and broadcasting ministry makes channels even beep out words like ‘breast’, the country had to watch ministers enjoying pornography like pubescent boys.

Thank god I didn’t let this abomination distract me totally from ADR’s survey because, in a strange way, the two were linked. Well, at least in my opinion. While studying the data about UP elections, they found that only 7% of candidates were women. And before we all start thinking about which party is particularly misogynistic, the study says that all parties are equal in their sexism. So while Chief Minister Mayawati fails to encourage more women to follow in her footsteps by giving tickets to only five women out of 55 candidates in the first phase, the Samajwadi Party too is at par with tickets to four women. The BJP’s Sushma Swaraj and the Congress’s Sonia Gandhi may have been fighting together for 33% reservation in Parliament, but when it came to giving tickets they couldn’t even find 10% women candidates.

That’s when it struck me: Even though the campaign for UP began months ago, I couldn’t name a single female candidate. Out of all the campaign trails, there hadn’t been a single one where the candidate being endorsed was a woman. So where were these women?

They were certainly there on paper, like the Congress manifesto, which ironically promised to give 50% reservation in panchayat polls. The BJP manifesto was a lot more poetic. It talked about a Rani Laxmibai battalion in the police and the PAC that would recruit women. The SP was taking schoolgirls for a ride by promising them free bicycles and poor women free saris. But their failure to walk the talk was evident in their candidate lists.

When you speak to politicians, they’ll always tell you it’s a complex subject and cite a combination of factors for why they fail to give adequate representation to women. They’ll tell you how there is a lack of able candidates, how women aren’t equipped to deal with the dirty world of politics and how they have to look at the winnability factor. But when I saw Laxman Savadi and CC Patil pore over porn for 10 minutes that day when they should have been poring over policy, I realised that most self-respecting women would reject the idea of being in the room with such men. I mean, think about it, the only women who would agree to interact with such men would be their wives, daughters and sisters. And only because they had no choice. Maybe, that’s the reason they had proxy candidates in panchayat and civic elections.

Take the Mumbai civic poll, for instance, which for the first time has 50% reservation for women. What should have been a wonderful opportunity to see lots of fresh-faced aspirants has become full of what they’re calling ‘Rabri Devis of Mumbai.’ Maybe the other girls that came in to the recruitment office asking for a ticket ran away because they saw party recruiters enjoy MMS clips in between interviewing potential candidates. It’s not such a preposterous thought, mind you. Hell, if they can watch blue films with the press gallery behind them, the watch and ward staff of the assembly guarding them and the breach of privilege notice fear always a possibility, they’re capable of bigger besharmi.

I’m reminded of two instances that showcase the turn-off factor for women in politics. One, a documented, much publicised incident and the other a very personal one. The first is of actress-turned-politician Jaya Prada before the 2009 elections. When detractors within her own party wanted to get back at her, they circulated morphed explicit photos of her, which reduced the MP to tears.

Obviously, such personal attacks are only reserved for women.

And the second instance relates to the time I went on Akhilesh Yadav’s campaign trail for the by-election in Kannauj, his entry into politics. I remember it was well after dark in the constituency and my cameraman and I were waiting for Akhilesh to arrive at a public meeting. It didn’t occur to us at first, but we realised that we were attracting a lot of attention since I was the only woman around. Worried about my safety, some local leaders suggested I move to the stage, just to keep me away from trouble makers. But it seems the people of Akhilesh’s constituency weren’t used to seeing any women in an election meeting apart from the entertainment providers. So when I didn’t break into a song and dance, the crowd apparently started getting angry and restless, especially because there was no sign of the political star they’d come to see. So, they reacted the only way they knew — by hooliganism and by shaking the stage. I don’t know how but thanks to some kind souls, my cameraman and I fled the venue.

So I wouldn’t tell anyone I was fond of to go ahead and join politics. And, of course, unlike many other journos, this incident will ensure that I never get tempted to cross over to the other side.

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