Just because it’s a jarring feeling every time I think of it, I want to voice this once again: are female members of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supposed to identify with the common man? I mean, come on, this is Gender 101 and still not many (including gender experts) seem to be bothered by it. Or, is it that at this ‘historic juncture’, gender isn’t that relevant?” asks Sruthi Herbert, 27, a doctoral scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
This pertinent question on the absence of an Aam Aurat must not be brushed aside amidst the grand celebrations. To begin with, any public tête-à-tête made by political parties around gender amidst political campaigns or post-incidents of sexual assaults is not new. For instance, if one saw a certain Rahul Gandhi harping on “women’s empowerment” on the national television, one also saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi making an open call against bandan (restrictions) placed upon girls. And yet, such vocal and enthusiastic statements apart, both the Congress and the BJP haven’t really moved a muscle towards gender equality.
According to a report compiled by the National Election Watch and the Association for Democratic Reforms in 2012, about 260 candidates facing charges such as rape, assault and outraging the modesty of a woman had contested Assembly elections on tickets from various parties across the spectrum. Leading this list of ‘sex offenders’ were Congress politicians (26) closely followed by the BJP (24). Note that these figures exclude the list of politicians who made misogynist and rape apologetic remarks over the past few years. In such a grotesque scenario, where must the AAP begin its drive in Delhi?
In a way, the party must strive to go back to its roots. Historically, the birth proliferation of AAP had much to do with the popular Nirbhaya protests (2012) in Delhi. At that point of time, the fledgling party was gaining ground across the metropolis. So, when an angry crowd gathered at the Boat Club, two aspects of the crowd were obvious. One, their entry was impetuous. Two, they were disappointed. Consequently, these specific aspects enabled the party to build on a trust and work towards an superlative performance in 2013.
And yet, despite sharing such common historical grounds, the question of gender and women’s representation was not central for the party in its early run in power. The 2013 Delhi Assembly election only saw three women AAP representatives in power. Further, in terms of projecting a gender sensitive face to the public, the party had fallen short on several fronts.
One glaring example to this neglect was the impromptu raid at Khirki village. Home to immigrants and workers, the area was deemed to be a centre of drug trade and prostitution. Acting on rumours, the then law minister Somnath Bharti had stormed into the privacy of homes in Khirki village and led a mob to ‘physically search’ African women. Though the party said it was an attempt to pick up drug traffickers and prostitutes, the complete disregard and violation of law and privacy concerns including disrespect towards a woman’s body had raised serious questions about the party’s stance on gender. Add to it Yogendra Yadav’s open defence of Khap Panchayats and Kumar Vishwas’ controversial and misogynist remarks on Malayali nurses. Thus, the picture that the party had painted in its 49-day rule was barely inclusive of the question of gender.
In politics, a murky past can come back with a fierce bite. “Despite their image of being open-minded, a person like Yogendra Yadav and his support for Khap Panchayats can actually stop one in one’s tracks. Therefore, they (the party) should remember, and I repeat, remember and take responsibility of their power accordingly,” says Anjali Gopalan, Founder, Naz Foundation, a support group for LGBTQ.
While the number of six female MLAs may look small, the impressive turnout of women at polling booths suggests that Delhi’s Aam Aurat along with the Aam Aadmi is equally hopeful for a democratic and gender inclusive government.
“I am very enthusiastic about this electoral victory because the suffocation that women felt under the BJP rule was evident. However, any party that comes to power must make sure that its leader and cadre are sensitive to gender, caste and race. The existing patriarchal and caste networks have influence upon all those in power. Therefore, any growing party must first acknowledge these questions and think through it,” says Sudha Sundararaman, general secretary, All India Democratic Women’s Association. “The moot point is, the Aam Aadmi must include the Aam Aurat,” she adds.
According to the AAP manifesto released by Arvind Kejriwal ahead of the 2015 election, women’s security and safety are primary concerns of the party’s agenda for the capital. As a result, the party’s focus is on installation of CCTV cameras, last-mile connectivity and marshals in public modes of transports. Though, these points might seem impressive in terms of immediate infrastructural measures, the lack of a dialogue around social and cultural concerns could be grave.
“The vortex of most political campaigns around women, violence and rape, etc., is on the anatomy. That in itself is deeply regressive. Every campaign talks about the city and the woman. If the concern was gender, where do they talk about transgenders? When they erase me, how can they speak against systemic violence?” asks Chandni Arun Narendra, a transgender and a student of architecture and visual art. While AAP had condemned the Supreme Court’s ruling in favour of Section 377, the absence of any mention about LGBTQ or the fight against 377 in its manifesto raises eyebrows on its understanding of gender.
“Many ‘secular’ citizens voted for AAP because they were concerned over BJP’s stance. This includes Dalit and Muslim women and LGBTQ minorities. And yet, I did not get a sense that they have included something supportive of LGBTQ rights in their manifesto,” says Gopalan.
But, Kejriwal’s commitment to Womanifesto, a six-point plan made by civil and political activists does provide hope.
“I am very hopeful seeing AAP’s victory in Delhi. I mean, when you ask around, people do say, ‘Woh humare dukh samajthe hain (They understand our pain)’. Even the watchman of my building was talking about voting for AAP. It is good to see new blood. What they must ensure now is the safety of both women and children,” says Dr Jyotsna Chatterjee, director, Joint Women’s Network.
At this juncture, evoking Susan Anthony’s words on citizenship and state best sums up how an ideal inclusive society must function. “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.” The same words must resonate with the “mufflerman” in his stride towards a five-year term.