Econ Mom, Hubby and some woman empowerment

“Which dress should I wear for the party tonight?” I gazed anxiously at Hubby as he thought about this critical issue for about 3 seconds before replying, “White.” “Are you sure?” I asked, and he replied smoothly, “Of course! It really suits you. The other red one is too loud, I think.”

“Thank you!” I squealed with relief, immediately deciding to wear the red one. I really like red and now I definitely know it’s the perfect choice. “Don’t know what I’d do without you, sweetheart,” I told him for good measure. “You’re the best!”

Hubby rolled his eyes at me later that evening, “Ummm…did you even hear what I had to say about the white dress?”

“Of course,” I answered, surprised. “It’s just that …whenever I decide on something, you always give me a completely counter opinion. Like I totally had decided to wear the red dress.  I was dying to hear your opinion that the white one is better. These days I take an opinion from you just to confirm I am on the right track.”

“Women!” said Hubby under his breath and Lil One giggled.

And then with a sly look at me, continued, “How nice it would be to have a wife who agreed with me! Who doted on me, and listened to every word I said.”  I gave him a look of pure, unadulterated contempt as he moved into his favourite thought zone, dreaming about scores of women simply falling over themselves to do his bidding.

Hmmm. Women conforming to what the husband says. Econ Mom has been meeting a lot of the types these days and believe me, it’s a grim reality to see that happen.

At the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, we’ve been constructing case studies on women in rural politics and I’ve been meeting with women representatives in Zilla Parishads, Panchayat Samitis and Gram Panchayats for the past 3 months now. It is important for the uninitiated reader to note that the 73rd Constitutional Amendment was passed in 1992 and it is this amendment that gave constitutional status to the Panchayat Raj Institutions. The amendment also provides for “no less than a third” representation to women, implying thereby that at least 33% of any Panchayat Raj body has to have women representatives.

The Maharashtra Zilla Parishads and Panchayat Samitis Act was accordingly amended in 1994. It is extremely interesting to note that this Act provides for not 33%, but 50% reservation for women in the Panchayat Raj systems! Interesting, because the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha has not yet managed to pass even 33% reservation for women at state level. But at the Panchayat level, where we are culturally unsure of finding empowered women to run affairs of the state, we’ve mandated 50% reservation for women. Can you believe it?

Well, so certain constituencies get reserved for women, leading to women contesting elections only against other women, leading to “ghettoization” of women in politics, says Madhu Purnima Kishwar. And she is right there. Let us face the reality. Rural politics is completely dominated by males. And when the seat gets reserved for women, they get their wives to contest the same. So, the wives contest, one of them wins and comes to power. Now, when you meet such a woman who is in power not because it was an aspirational thing for her, but just because her husband asked her to contest elections, the interview you take can go horrendously wrong. A couple of the interviews I took were in the seriously, badly, extremely wrong category. As Shifu would have said, “There is now a level zero.”

You go to Marathwada in 42 degrees temperature. It has taken you 8 hours from Aurangabad to get to this really remote taluka panchayat. And you are really looking forward to seeing how women representatives work in these far flung areas.

But,O.M.G.

For starters, the husband insists on being present for the interview. You are meeting the lady in her “chamber” i.e. Samiti office and you kind of wonder why he is there in the first place. You politely say that I want to talk to the lady, so he goes out for about 12 seconds, during which she gives you a strained smile, clasping and unclasping her hands, and making you generally feel like those vamp Sasu-Maas in Hindi TV serials with the big bindis and earrings and curled lips, who make all those poor bahus cower in fear in front of them. And just as you are feeling tempted to peep into a mirror to check that a bindi hasn’t suddenly popped on three quarters of your forehead, the man is back! Just to check if you need tea! And then he casually seats himself plumb spang next to the lady’s chair and starts answering all your questions with aplomb.

Me:“Ummm, so how did you get into politics?”

She:“My husband felt that…”

Him: “The seat was reserved for women. And she is educated upto the 12th standard! Compare that to Nana Shinde’s wife, who is 4th pass. If she could win elections last time, why can my wife not do it?”

(Excuse me, WHAT are you talking about? Is education correlated with winning elections? If so, that’s a career high waiting for me there.)

Me: “Yes, right, right…so how do you come to know about the different development schemes?”

She: “My husband…”, she says, trailing off, and he picks it up.

Him (in his element): “Development schemes? Oh, we come to know of them in the newspapers. Sometimes, these BDOs tell us. Sometimes our other Sarpanch friends.”

Me (quite desperate by now): “And what are the main training areas that will help you do this job better?”

Woman member (panicking): “My husband says..”

Him (condescendingly): “Oh, they really need training in understanding budgets. Don’t know what a work order is. Don’t know how to spend on different schemes. Training is a must.”

Me (by now totally strained with the effort of trying to catch her eye and make her talk): “Will you want to continue in politics after this term is over? Do you have aspirations for a political career?”

Woman member: “Uh, my husband feels..”

Her husband:  “Whom did you say you are doing this work for? Oh, the State Election Commission? Of course! She will contest the next election as well!” He says all this genially, as she gags on her tea.

Me (in a false encouraging tone): “Tell me about your role model”

She: “My husband!”

He: “Well, you know…”

Me: AAAAARGH!

And that’s that. After meeting around 12 of the  Super Pativrata Naris, I was kind of ready to yell in frustration. I’d had it and I was ready to put a strongly worded comment on women empowerment in rural politics in Maharashtra, or rather the COMPLETE, TOTAL, EXTREME lack of the damn thing, when I went to Paithan, and ran into Pushpatai Kedare.

And that shut me up. For a long time. Here’s a really remarkable story of what the 73rd amendment is all about.

Pushpa tai comes from an extremely humble background. She has studied upto the 8th standard, after which she was married off to this poor farmer. They had 4 kids and no money. She was forced to take up a job in a nearby bottling plant, where she cleaned toilets, swept the premises, ran errands and did whatever it took to earn money. There was one overwhelming idea in her mind, that had she been educated, they would have been better off.

So, after coming home after a gruelling day, she made sure the kids had been to school, sent them for extra lessons, pushed them into studying more at home. The neighbours saw her determination and saw an undaunted leader in her. During the next Gram Panchayat elections, some of them told her, “Why don’t you contest? We’ll make sure you win. What you are doing for your family, you can do for the village.”

Pushpatai paused in her story to look at me in my eye. “I had nothing to lose. If I won, I would at least get respect. I would be recognized in the village. The school master would look after my kids well.” So, the lady contested the election and won it! And in the next 5 years, she made sure that the higher authorities got hell if they did not sanction development schemes to the village. She got the water pipes mended, distributed agricultural implements to the needy, got houses constructed under the Indira Awas Yojana.

Come next elections and she was approached by the MNS, who gave her a ticket and the financial muscle for propaganda. She won this time too, by an overwhelming margin.

5 years down, again on an MNS ticket, she contested for Panchayat Samiti, again, she claims without spending a single rupee from her purse. Of the 11 members at the Paithan Panchayat Samiti, 8 seats were won by Shiv Sena and 3 by MNS. One person from MNS deflected to Shiv Sena. So when the Samiti decided to elect a Chairman, there was no chance of her getting the coveted Chairmanship. But, fortune favors the brave, she said. In 2012, the seat got reserved for an OBC woman candidate. Only she met the criteria, and here she was, in the Chairman’s position, continuously warding off opposition to any of her decisions from 9 SS members.

She is a tough nut. Unafraid, undaunted, used to playing it rough against rough opposition. “My role model? APJ Abdul Kalam,” she says at once. “He too was from a poor background, but he followed his passion for science.”

“Where will you go from here, Pushpatai? Do you wish to contest the ZP elections next?”

“Madam, I would love to contest ZP. But I can’t. I simply don’t have the money to do that. But I’ll tell you this. I am extremely bold and talented. As talented as a Pankaja Munde, or a Sonia Gandhi. But I know I can’t get there…”

“And what do you feel about the Sarpanch-pati phenomenon? Males dominating their wives and not letting them be?”

“Madam, its a question of personal equations. Now this gentleman who just left from here is a homeopathy doctor. His wife is the Sarpanch of his village. I have never even seen her. You’d expect that at least a doctor would let his wife develop and take her own decisions. But no. This Sarpanch-pati phenomenon really gets on my nerves. Sometimes I feel my husband is much better. He is only 12th pass and never interferes here. In fact, I made him contest the Panchayat elections last year and thanks to my goodwill, he won there!” It wasn’t said with pride or with a misplaced sense of power. It was just put so matter of factly. No glorification, only facts.

Kudos, Pushpatai, I thought appreciatively. We need more of you around.

 I was broken from my reverie as music blared from the TV suddenly.

“Aaja re aaja chanda ke har khwahish poori hogi!” Heavily made up Pati-vratas by the thousands, all apparently starving, and yet incredibly smiling and singing in super high pitches, suddenly burst onto the screen to break their karva-chauth fast.

“Your type of women,” I laughed as Hubby looked taken aback.

“Nonsense,” he said briskly. “The first sign of a thinking, live person is a view point. I mean, nothing wrong in a Karva chauth thing if you really go by the sense in it, but these buggers have converted it into a national past-time for proving love. Now look at you,” he said, warming to his favourite topic. “You are completely weird. Totally strange. I never have quite understood where you get your crazy ideas from. It drives me up the wall all the time. But much better than having to live with an echo system, who is just following my thoughts. I quite like Economists,” he ended up glinting at me, more wickedly than romantically, I thought.

Kudos, Economist-pati, I thought appreciatively. We need more of you around.

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