NEW DELHI: In the cold, calculating world of politics where “winnability” is often the sole criterion for choosing a candidate, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi announced on Monday that her party would give 40 % of the tickets in the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh polls to women contestants. The move, or rather the gamble, is quite a bold one especially as it is being tried in a Hindi-heartland state where caste and communal identities are likely to have a bigger bearing on the voting patterns. For a party that is trying to find its bearings in UP, the Congress would hope the idea of women’s empowerment will draw new voters to its fold. However, for a turnaround to happen, some factors would be crucial – women are one half of the population, but can they behave like a separate votebank? And how effective are they at the hustings? Women candidates in 2019 general elections:The 2019 elections are something that the Congress can draw comfort from. In the polls, in which the Narendra Modi-led BJP again trumped the opposition, a record number of 78 women became Lok Sabha MPs. A total of 726 women candidates contested from across the country. The Congress fielded the maximum women at 54 followed closely by BJP at 53. Significantly, Uttar Pradesh was the state, which along with West Bengal, sent the highest number of women parliamentarians. Eleven women MPs, mostly belonging to BJP and TMC, were elected from these two states. However, a closer look at the data also shows that candidates not belonging to the dominant political parties, did not do as well. Of the 726 women candidates, who contested in the 2019 general elections, 575 forfeited their deposits. The Congress in UP is definitely not in the same position as the TMC in West Bengal or BJP in other states. The UP experience: In the 2017 UP Assembly polls also, the number of elected women had risen, Forty women became legislators, compared to 36 in 2012. Among the winners, the highest 34 were from BJP, two each from BSP and Congress and one each from SP and Apna Dal (Sonelal). However, five years ago, the Congress had only 4% women among its candidates. Eminent political expert Nilanjan Sircar feels the move even if it does not pay dividends in the short run has the potential to bolster the party in the long run. Sircar said the move is a “long term investment”. He said in the short term it is the more competitive parties that surge ahead. He added that while there has been an assumption that women are not a separate vote-bank but data suggests that women can indeed make quite an impact. For instance, data suggests that the percentage of women voters for TMC is quite high and it makes an impact, he added. Party of the Centre: The Congress has, historically, tried to avoid swinging to the far right or the left and claimed to be the party of the centre. Naturally, in the UP elections, where it has to counter the discourse of parties ranging from the BJP, BSP, SP to Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM, women’s empowerment is an issue which it can champion without attracting the ire of voters of any section. However, another ground reality in patriarchal states like Uttar Pradesh is that women often depend on their families when it comes to making political choices. The TMC phenomenon: Led by the strong woman leader Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool Congress, has been one of the parties which has been successful in not only cultivating support among women but also giving them representation. The party has run several women-centric schemes. Many observers credit Banerjee’s return to power to the strong support she enjoys among women. However, the number of women MLAs in the state Assembly is not high. There are 40 women MLAs in the West Bengal Assembly. According to a Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) report, Chhattisgarh has the highest percentage of women. Chhattisgarh and Haryana top the list with 14.44 per cent women representation in their respective state assemblies, while West Bengal is on second position with 13.99 per cent, the report had said. In Gujarat, the repeated success of the BJP, especially when Narendra Modi was the chief minister, was also attributed, among other factors, to strong support among women voters. TMC has been enjoying support of the womenNaam Tamilar Katchi:While Congress could be one of the first national parties that has announced a 40 % representation for women, Tamil Nadu has its own homegrown outfit in Naam Tamilar Katchi which has been fielding 50 % women candidates. However, in a state where DMK and AIADMK rule the roost, the electoral performance of its candidates has not been much to write about. Its candidates did finish third on several seats though. Leadership matters: Interestingly, while the representation of women in Assemblies and Parliament may be low in the country, several of them are leading strong political outfits. The Congress, BSP, TMC, PDP and Apna Dal (S) are all successful political parties that have a woman at the helm. Women’s Reservation Bill: In 2010, the Rajya Sabha passed the Constitution (One Hundred and Eighth Amendment) Bill that sought to to reserve one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies. However, there was stiff opposition from several parties and the bill could never be passed by the Lok Sabha.

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