BJP and the PM indifferent to adequate women's representation and turn this a women's century

While the 21st century has been described as the century of fear, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik this month joined the ranks of Jawaharlal Nehru and called for turning it into the women's century

Photo courtesy: twitter
Photo courtesy: twitter

SN Sahu

While inaugurating the first ever Business Women’s Mela in Bhubaneswar on 4th May 2022, organised by the Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Women’s Entrepreneurship Council, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik asserted that the twenty first century would be the women’s century.

At a time of majoritarian and polarising discourse targeted at the minorities, the statement sounds positive and reassuring. Naveen Patnaik is one of the rare public personalities of India who has looked at the twenty first century from the perspective of women and made bold to say that it would be their century.

He asserted that women represent power and contextualised it by referring to Odisha Government’s Mission Shakti Department, set up for harnessing women’s power so that they become economically independent, earn their livelihood and get access to their entitlements. The organisation of Business Women’s Mela is reassuring for the State and the country as a whole because our huge economic potential can only be realised by tapping women’s power.

Three years ago on March 10, 2019, while addressing a massive women’s rally in Kendrapara, the BJD chief had made the historic announcement that 33 per cent of the BJD candidates for the Lok Sabha would be women. Accordingly he fielded seven women candidates for the 21 seats and five of them won. It was a bold and pioneering step for political empowerment of women and set a shining example for the whole country.

Along with that momentous pronouncement Naveen Patnaik made a strong pitch for women’s participation in all domains of our public life and observed that without adequate representation of women in legislatures and other spheres, India would not be able to compete with other economically and technologically advanced countries of the world. In doing so he affirmed that credibility of India as an economic power at the global level can only be proven if women are made co-sharers and partners in every aspect of our collective life.

Characterisation of Centuries

We need to see how previous centuries have been characterised by people acclaimed for their scholarship. Psychologist James Coleman in his book, “Abnormal Psychology” described the 17th century as the century of reason, 18th as the century of enlightenment, 19th as the century of progress and 20th as the century of anxiety.

The then President of India K. R. Narayanan, while addressing an international gathering of women in 2002 on the theme “Twenty First Century : Whose Century”, organised by Sonia Gandhi, invoked James Coleman’s above characterisation of centuries and thoughtfully noted that humanity would not transit from century of anxiety to a century of moderation. He, however, hoped that movements launched across the world by women for unshackling them from bonds of patriarchy and inequality, would potentiality make the twenty-first century as women’s century.

Twenty First Century, Century of Fear

However, in several circles, the twenty first century has been described as the century of fear because of the mounting and accelerating threats emanating from global warming and climate change, described by former Secretary of State of USA, John Kerry, as an existential threat.

The World Future Council in its 2003 publication “Surviving the Century : Facing Climate Chaos and Other Global Challenges” also indicated that danger posed by climate change would shape the twenty-first century and so accordingly it would be characterised by taking into account the fearsome aspects associated with the massive disruptions of ecology and climate .

In the context of apprehensions expressed that the twenty first century would be the century of fear, Naveen Patnaik’s formulation that it would be the century of women provides a refreshing departure and a positively contrasting and constructive vision.

Women Power in Twenty First Century

Naveen Patnaik joins distinguished personalities such as the UN Secretary-General António Guterres who while speaking on “Women and Power” in New York on 27th February 2020 had said that, “The twenty-first century must be the century of women’s equality”. That statement of the Secretary-General was preceded by a series of insightful remarks which assume significance in the context of the Business Women’s Mela organised in Bhubaneswar.

He said, “Women who do have an income are more likely than men to invest in their families and communities, strengthening economies and making them more resilient”. Proceeding further he added, “Women also tend to take a longer view. Corporate boards that include them are more stable and profitable.” He continued, “The recent decision by one of the world’s biggest investment banks not to take a company public unless it has a woman board member was not made on moral grounds. It was financial good sense.”

The UN Women Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet, had said on 23rd September 2011 that “21st century was going to be the age of women and girls” and added, “This is however a social, economic and political revolution that cannot happen without men and boys”. She proceeded to say, “For gender equality and women's empowerment are only part of a larger journey for social justice and democracy. A journey for which our generation is better equipped than any generation before”.

Progressive Feminist Perspectives

Naveen Patnaik’s perspectives concerning twenty first century as a women’s century clearly brings out his progressive feminist dimensions which are now counted as determining factors for sustainable development. Such progressive feminist perspective remained central to his understanding that mainstay of his party, Biju Janata Dal (BJD), are women of Odisha.

He said so on the occasion of its foundation day celebrations in 2021. He repeated it on other occasions as well. In Odisha, since the beginning of the twenty first century, Naveen Patnaik has been engaged in large scale mobilisation of women, now numbering about 8 million, through eight lakh self-help groups, with each group consisting of 10 women.

When, therefore, he says that the twenty first century would be the century of women he is explaining the gender dimensions of the global order by acknowledging women’s critical roles at the grassroots level in Odisha, in urban and local bodies and at the State and Party(BJD) level.

He has also written to all Chief Ministers and leaders of major political parties to enact legislation at the national level to provide reservation for women in 33 per cent of seats in Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. His statement that the twenty first century would be the century for women should be understood in the context of his appeal to all political parties and Chief Ministers for substantive political empowerment of women at the national level.

Only when women are represented adequately at national and State levels in legislatures and other spheres, will the grand vision of making twenty first century a century for women be realised. The attempt by the Congress party to field women candidates in 40 per cent of seats for Assembly elections in UP was a good beginning even though it did not result in much electoral success.

One recalls the words of first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who wrote after the first general elections of 1952, “I am quite sure that our real and basic growth will only come when women have a full chance to play their part in public life. Wherever they have had this chance, they have, as a whole, done well, better if I may say so, than the average man. Our laws are man made, our society dominated by man, and so most of us naturally take a very lopsided view of the matter. We cannot be objective, because we have grown up in certain grooves of thought and action. But the future of India will probably depend ultimately more upon the women than the men.”

Nehru’s statement that “ the future of India will probably depend ultimately more upon the women than the men,” underlined the significance women’s role in shaping the destiny of India.

It is tragic that BJP and its leadership is not promoting affirmative action for women adequately and ensure their greater representation in all fields including the legislature. Due to the failure of public policies of the Union Government, the labour force is shrinking and women’s participation in economic activities is diminishing at an alarming pace.

The vision of twenty first century as women’s century is already facing several such stumbling blocks. Movements need to be intensified on the ground to bear sufficient pressure on the powers that be to realise the vision.

(S N Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India K R Narayanan)

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