An actress jailed for protesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s controversial citizenship law, the mother of a rape survivor, and a beauty pageant winner. These are the women leading India’s once-dominant Congress party as it seeks to reinvent itself in a hotly contested state election.
The slew of female candidates in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh is part of a new campaign led by Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, a scion of India’s once-powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. With a catchy slogan “I’m a girl and I can fight” in Hindi, the campaign underscores the growing importance of women voters in the world’s largest democracy.
Vadra has pledged 40% of Congress party’s candidates for the 403-seat state assembly will be women. That promise was fulfilled in Vadra’s first announcement of party candidates for state elections, which will take place in seven stages starting on February 10. March 10 will see the release of election results.
“If you have suffered in the past, you have to fight and grab power to fight for your rights,” Vadra said in a video posted on Twitter last week. Congress party’s list of candidates is a new kind of politics, she added.
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India has no shortage of powerful women politicians. Vadra’s grandmother and former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, towered over India’s politics for decades, while West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati have wielded considerable power.
While political parties have courted female voters, it hasn’t translated to greater numbers of women lawmakers. According to Inter-Parliamentary Union data, India ranked at 147th among 193 countries last year for the proportion of women who are members of its lower house.
During the 2017 polls in Uttar Pradesh, when the BJP’s Hindu hard line leader Yogi Adityanath swept his party to victory, less than a tenth of the candidates fielded across party lines were women. Ashoka University’s tracker found that they achieved little with 39 seats being clinched.
Uttar Pradesh has about half the population as the European Union and is seen by many as an indicator of national mood in the lead up to the next general election, 2024. Because it failed to get traction in 2014 after the BJP came to power, Congress won only seven seats in last year’s state elections.
Uttar Pradesh election a crucial test
Congress has many female representatives. Sadaf Jafar was a Congress spokesperson after she was arrested for participating in protests against the religion-based citizenship laws. Poonam Pandey was another candidate who led a demonstration for the wages of frontline women workers helping India achieve its vaccine targets.
The rape survivor’s mother has promised to work for the poor in her district if she is elected. Her daughter’s rapist, a former powerful legislator, has been found guilty for sexual assault as well as murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
For Vadra, who in 2019 formally joined the Congress party that her family has controlled for most part since India’s independence in 1947, the gambit is crucial. In Uttar Pradesh, Vadra’s party has suffered a star decline over the last 20 years.
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The BJP’s rival, the Samajwadi Party for state power, remains to be seen if they see it as a significant challenge. The BJP has so far fielded 10 female candidates out of a total of 107, while the Samajwadi Party will be submitting one candidate for its alliance with a regional party.
“When one party promises, other parties try to match it,” said Sudha Pai, a professor at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. While fielding more women might help Congress party gain some seats, India’s tilt toward Hindu nationalism and protests by the farmers who forced Modi to reverse new agriculture laws may overshadow the effort, she added.
“It doesn’t take away the fact that the Congress party hardly has an organizational structure and workers on the ground,” she said. “So how far it will help in reviving the party is very questionable.”