First Woman Speaker in India

India’s list of top women politicians grew last week after the country’s Parliament elected Meira Kumar as the speaker of its powerful lower house.

Kumar, a former career diplomat, will now be in the august company of Sonia Gandhi, India’s most powerful politician and leader of the ruling Congress party; Pratibha Patil, India’s President; Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state; and Sheila Dixit, chief minister of the state of Delhi which houses the national capital.

“What we are seeing is better acceptability of women in top political situations,” said Ranjana Kumari, president of Women Power Connect, an influential grouping of some 700 women’s organisations and individuals.

Kumari told IPS that the election of Kumar as speaker of the Lok Sabha – the law-making lower house of Parliament – is crucial at a time when serious social issues concerning women such as female foeticide, domestic violence and dowry deaths dogged the country.

“Most importantly,” Kumari said, “the women’s bill [to reserve 33 percent of seats in Parliament and state assemblies for women] which has been hanging since 1997, thanks to opposition mounted by male legislators, now has a chance of being passed.”

The women’s bill was introduced into the Rajya Sabha – upper house – last year but only after women members threw a protective chain around the law minister to stop filibustering male legislators, mostly from regional parties, from interrupting him.

Kumari said that until the bill was passed women were likely to be elevated to top political jobs because of family connections or for their ornamental value. “Even the appointment of Meira Kumar as speaker has clear political value.”

In 1993, a Congress party government legislated to reserve 33 percent of seats in local bodies for women empowering at least a million women.

Apart from further improving the Congress party’s image as a party that supports women’s rights, the fact that Kumar happens to be dalit [people at the lowermost rung of the caste ladder] is seen by many as having value in terms of winning over a sizeable bank of votes. Dalits number 160 million of India’s billion plus population.

Caste and gender arithmetic worked in favour of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition in the general elections that ended May 16 – with the party dramatically improving its own strength in the Lok Sabha.

To be fair to Kumar – as five-time member of parliament, former career diplomat, former minister and someone with legal training – she was very well-qualified for the job.

Kumar is one of only 59 female legislators elected to the 543-seat lower house of parliament, the major parties having shied away from fielding too many women candidates. “This trend can be reversed only by implementing quotas for women,” said Kumari.

Sanjay Kumar, a well-known psephologist and fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said that women increasingly occupying top political positions while being considered to have low ‘winnability’ in elections is one of the many paradoxes of India’s political system. “Political parties need to change their mindsets more than bringing in a quota system.”

“For the first time a woman member has been elected speaker, and that too a woman from the dalit community,” said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in parliament soon after Kumar was formally installed as speaker. “In electing you… we members of parliament pay tribute to the women of our country and the great contribution that they have made,” Singh said.

Singh has included nine dalits and nine women in his council of ministers, with several of them holding important portfolios. Kumar was appointed water resources minister but resigned the job to occupy the speaker’s chair.

“It would be my endeavour that I am completely impartial in my conduct and I will give opportunity to all the members to express their views. There should be healthy, meaningful debate in the house,” Kumar said.

In Kumar’s own view her election to the prized post was an indication of a “genuine intention to make the position of women stronger in India.”

As for the women’s bill she said she hopes that “all parties would arrive at a consensus” to get the long-pending legislation through.

Kumar said the fact that the current Lok Sabha has the highest number of women legislators so far “highlights the fact that the Indian woman cannot wait any longer to set herself free from the bondages of the society and seek equal share on the path of development.”


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