Women voters register at a polling station during the third phase of voting for national elections in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Image Credit: Bloomberg

In the 2019 general elections in India, women voter turnout outnumbered men as the country bridged a vital gender gap in poll participation. Keeping an eye on these trends, wooing of the female vote bank is wholehearted, the corresponding respect, however, is grudging at best. Only 17% of BJP candidates in these elections are women and the meter isn’t much different for the main opposition party, the Congress.

The passage of the Women’s Reservation Act in September — reserving one-third of seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies — had all eyes on dividends from a bloc that is the women’s vote. Its implementation, when and if — it was first introduced in Parliament in 1996 — is based on several external political factors.

Yet, there cannot be a timelier intervention for women’s inclusion and representation in the electoral process. Behind the optics is a ground reality where gender violence from the political class itself thrives with impunity and reduces the much-hyped slogan of Nari Shakti to an empty promise.

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Two years ago, from the ramparts of Red Fort as India celebrated its Independence Day, Prime Minister Modi urged the country to uphold the dignity of women and Nari Shakti, or women’s power. That same day, 11 convicted murderers and rapists of Bilkis Bano were released from jail, a slippery slope that has reached the doors of parliamentarian Prajwal Revanna.

Revanna is a candidate of NDA alliance and is seeking re-election in the South Indian state of Karnataka. The alleged rapist is accused of sexual abuse by multiple women, 3000 explicit tapes of victims including one who is 68 years old and worked for his grandfather, former prime minister HD Deve Gowda.

The empire of abuse that emanates from the matrix of political entitlement and power play is brazen, there are also multi-layers of collusion. Look at the timing, Revanna fled India just a day after his constituency went to the polls, but the political slugfest completely overlooks how women remain disposable for a political class dominated by men.

Schemes like Ladli Behna and other sops are financially tempting but would Revanna’s victims choose any of them over personal safety? The true essence of women’s empowerment will remain a peripheral dream till we allow hollow slogans to substitute accountability.

The report card of women’s safety in the last ten years is abysmal. However, it is not just the severity and rise of crimes, no less distressing is the lack of representation from power centres of redressal.

Read more by Jyotsna Mohan

Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani, the MP from the high-profile Amethi constituency gives camera bytes against the Gandhi family almost daily but snubs barbaric crimes unless it is in an opposition-ruled state.

Is Nari Shakti just a charming phrase with no substance? Otherwise, at least internationally renowned athletes would have moved the government. For months India’s elite wrestlers — a sport that gives a rare Olympic medal — left their training to sit in protest on the streets of Delhi demanding action against wrestling federation chief and BJP parliamentarian, Brij Bhushan Singh.

If these high-profile daughters of India can be so casually dismissed, imagine victim shaming ordinary families go through. As per (NCRB) government figures, there has been an alarming uptick in crime against women despite a large percentage of cases unreported. Last year, crimes against women rose by 4%, on average 86 rapes take place daily, and 50 FIRs are registered every hour.

But the more things change, the more they remain the same. Bhushan’s son is the BJP candidate this time despite two FIRs against his father detailing at least 15 incidents of sexual misconduct and molestation. In a timely reminder to Indian women that their battles are not a government priority, defending this candidature is another woman leader, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Incidentally, BJP leaders who refused to meet the protesting wrestlers are now singing their praises ahead of the Paris Olympics.

Bereft of support, women remain shortchanged in a country whose patriarchal mindset flows top-down and where privilege and power speak a different language. Elections come and go but from Kathua, Unnao to Sandeshkhali, from Bilkis Bano to the hundreds of victims of Prajwal Revanna, India’s daughters struggle to come out of the darkness. And slogans like Nari Shakti mock the fortitude of half of India’s voting population.

You have one vote. Value it.