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Cablegate: Indian Women Continue to Face Obstacles in Politics

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.



E.O. 12958: N/A


1. Summary: Despite an impressive list of accomplishments,
including several current Chief Ministerships and presidency
of the Congress party, Indian women continue to face cultural
and practical barriers to their participation in politics.
Female political leaders insist that greater women's
participation is essential to ensure adequate treatment of
issues such as health, education, food and water security,
and children's welfare, as well as gender inequality in the
workforce and insufficient attention to crimes against women
and children. One million female local council (Panchayat)
members demonstrate the competence of women as politicians,
but women's representation in political parties, state
assemblies, and national parliament remains modest. Parties
continue to claim commitment to the Women's Reservation Bill,
but Parliament is unlikely to pass it anytime soon. End

2. (U) Female Indian political experts discussed successes
and challenges of Indian women in politics in a series of
panels at a National Democratic Institute (NDI) workshop in
New Delhi in June (Reftel). Topics discussed included
cultural and practical obstacles faced by Indian women in
politics, the current state of women in Indian political
parties and elected bodies, and the prospects of the women's
reservation bill. Panelists included leading experts from
NGOs, political parties, academia, and the media.

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Women's Involvement in Politics is Essential

3. (U) Indian panelists underscored the need for women to be
involved in politics to ensure that so-called "women's
issues" - health, education, food and water security, and
children's welfare - will no longer be relegated to low
priority. Rita Sarin, of the NGO The Hunger Project,
emphasized that these issues are actually "human issues," and
therefore cannot be ignored. Dr. Syeda Hameed, Planning
Commission member, indicated that these are the "issues of
the future." Panelists insisted that women must be included
in the decision-making process on these and other political
issues; they agreed that simply voting every five years does
not constitute adequate political participation for women.

Women in Political Parties and Elected Bodies

4. (U) Despite the high profile examples of party leaders
like Sonia Gandhi (Congress), Vasundhra Raje (BJP), and
Mayawati (BSP), most women's participation in Indian
political parties is reduced to administrative or campaign
support. Several Indian women who have risen to powerful
positions, including Indira and Sonia Gandhi and Chief
Ministers Raje, J Jayalalithaa, and Sheila Dikshit, have done
so through the connections of their political families. Many
parties tout their women's wings as evidence of their
commitment to women, but these wings often serve as a way for
the party to give lip service to women while keeping them out
of the mainstream of the party leadership, activists argue.
Several parties have policies reserving a certain percentage
of their party leadership positions for women, but they have
not fulfilled these promises.

5. (U) There are now approximately one million women in
Panchayats (local councils), due to the constitutional
reservation of 33 percent of the seats for women. The
reserved seats rotate every five years. This constitutional
mechanism has been a significant driver of increased
political involvement for women. In many cases, women have
been re-elected to their Panchayat position even after their
seat was no longer reserved; in a few states, women's
representation at the panchayat level is approaching 50
percent. Center for Social Research Director Ranjana Kumari
noted that while women Panchayat members or leaders often
begin as "fronts" for their husbands or male relatives, they
often become empowered in their own right and are able to
shed themselves of male family members' control. Veena
Nayyar, of Women's Political Watch, estimated that one-third
of the Panchayat women are ruling in their own right,
one-third are essentially proxies of their husbands or other
male relatives, and the remaining third are somewhere along
the process of empowerment described by Kumari. Nayyar
emphasized the need for these Panchayat women to convert
their large numbers into real power.

Obstacles Remain
6. (U) Neerja Chowdhury, Political Editor of the Indian
Express, noted that women excel in every field in India,
except in politics, where they have "hit a glass ceiling."
She explained that Indian men oppose women in politics mainly
because they fear changes in the power balance in the family,
marketplace, and community. Kumari opined that when a
society is more democratic, the state is more democratic.
She predicted that when there is more equality for women in
the family and community in India, there will be more female
representation in government. She urged participants to
bring this about by supporting economic and social
empowerment of women to change family income balances.
According to Benita Sharma of UNIFEM, Indian women elected to
political office have begun to break stereotypes, but Indian
men continue to cling to traditional gender roles and refuse
to help out in the home.

7. (U) In addition to cultural obstacles, Indian women also
face constraints of time, money, media access, and muscle
power. Sharma explained that without more electricity, child
care, and primary education, women would remain too busy
working in the fields, obtaining food and water, and taking
care of children to be involved in politics. Najma
Heptullah, a parliamentarian who recently joined the BJP,
noted that women entering politics are often unprepared to
interact effectively with the media and need to cultivate the
toughness required to face and take advantage of media
exposure. She also explained that politics is dominated by
money and muscle power, both of which women often lack,
especially in Muslim areas. Sarin gave examples of elected
women at the panchayat level being replaced by men under
dubious circumstances, citing regulations saying that
illiterate women or women with more than two children must
vacate their seats. Another tactic is filing a no-confidence
motion and then replacing the ousted woman with a man.

Prospects Bleak for Women's Reservation Bill

8. (U) In state assemblies and in the national Parliament,
representation of women has hovered around 8-9 percent for
the past several years. The Women's Reservation Bill, which
calls for reserving one-third of the seats in the Parliament
and state assemblies for women, is a major goal of women
political activists, including a majority of the panelists at
the NDI workshop. First introduced in 1996, and
re-introduced in 1998, 1999, and 2001, the bill faces stiff
opposition from most male politicians across party lines.
They have repeatedly blocked the bill either by voting it
down or using parliamentary delay tactics.

9. (U) Panelists offered mixed opinions on the future of the
Women's Reservation Bill. Those who are most active in
lobbying for the bill, including Kumari and Rita Bahuguna
Joshi, President of Congress' women's wing, were optimistic
that it would pass in the upcoming Parliamentary session.
Joshi pointed out that the bill is included in the UPA
government's Common Minimum Programme and in the manifestos
of several parties (including Congress, BJP, and the Left
parties). Kumari noted the importance of media exposure and
unity among women across party lines to cultivate support for
the bill.

10. (SBU) Panelists with a more objective viewpoint, such as
journalist Chowdhury, expect the bill to flounder once again
due to lack of political will and the opposition of Congress'
UPA partners. In a separate meeting with Poloff, G Devarajan
of the All India Forward Bloc explained that if Congress had
been sincere in its commitment to women's reservation, it
would have already passed the bill. He also noted that
Bihar's leading politician, Lalu Prasad Yadav, opposes the
bill, and Congress will not do anything to offend Lalu in
light of upcoming elections in Bihar.


12. (U) Women continue to face an uphill battle in Indian
politics due to traditional gender roles and lack of time,
money, and political muscle. We do not expect the Women's
Reservation Bill to pass anytime soon. However, there are
other means by which Indian women can improve their lot.
Efforts to improve women's social and economic empowerment -
such as women's self-help groups, the recent anti-domestic
violence bill, and educating women and girls - can have a
multiplier effect that would do more for women than efforts
to pursue the out-of-reach Women's Reservation Bill. The
women elected to the Panchayats are demonstrating that women
are capable of performing well in elected positions, and they
have drawn many more Indian women into political life. In
time, participation of women in local governance will give
more women experience in political leadership and may lead to
a wider acceptance of women in Indian politics.

13. (U) Bionotes on NDI Panelists:

Kiran Bedi, Indian Police Service
Neerja Chowdhury, Political Editor, Indian Express
Rita Bahuguna Joshi, President, All India Mahila Congress
Syeda Hameed, Member, Planning Commission, GOI
Najma Heptullah, BJP Member, Rajya Sabha
Ranjana Kumari, Director, Center for Social Research
Veena Nayyar, President, Women's Political Watch
Rita Sarin, Director, The Hunger Project
Padma Seth, Former Member, National Commission for Women
Benita Sharma, Program Officer, UNIFEM
K P Vijaylaxmi, Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru
Girija Vyas, Chairperson, National Commission for Women


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