Debating India

WEST BENGAL

Red Seats For The Ladies

Monday 2 May 2005

The CPI-M sees virtue in woman power: 41% candidates in Calcutta civic polls is a start

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Swapan Nayak

Shipra Raha doesn’t look much like a giant killer. She runs an ngo, does counselling work at a family court in Calcutta and is a vibrant member of the CPI(M) women’s wing. But this May, when the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) polls take place, this soft-spoken schoolteacher will be up against city mayor and veteran Trinamool Congress leader Subrata Mukherjee. "It’s going to be very tough," says Raha, a first-time candidate. "The CPI(M)m) has had no base in this South Calcutta seat for many years. It’s up to me now to build that."

You could call it the Brinda Karat effect. It may be a coincidence but ever since she got elected to the politburo, the CPI(M) has started giving more priority to women. In fact, when Left Front chairman Biman Bose unveiled the list of candidates for the KMC elections last week, it raised eyebrows everywhere: 57 women out of 138 candidates (41 per cent). "It’s the highest number we’ve ever fielded," Bose said. "Women are more hard-working and definitely less prone to corruption, so they will probably fare better at the polls."

Women’s participation seems to have become an important agenda for the ruling Left Front here. "We hope to have more women candidates in the 2006 assembly elections as well," says politburo member Anil Biswas. Party leaders, though, are loath to make this sound like a coincidence. "It’s not as if we’ve suddenly decided to bring women to the fore," says Rajya Sabha member Nilotpal Basu. "It’s just that it’s become more pronounced now." Brinda Karat, when asked if her recent politburo entry had made a difference, says: "This is not an individual-centric party. It does not depend on what this or that individual does. We had an assessment in the last two party congresses, and decided to bring improvements in three major areas." And those are: to improve the mass base of the party among women, give women more responsibility and make sure that the party takes up women’s issues. As Brinda Karat sums up, "There’s no glass ceiling in the CPI(M)."

In the 2000 civic polls, the Left had fielded 42 women as opposed to the 57 this time. Cadres put the turning point as the 2001 party conference, when a circular was passed asking every local committee to include at least one woman member. This was reiterated by the CPI(M) in Delhi recently, and by the cpi in Chandigarh just before that. "Our experiences with panchayat and municipal polls in the past have shown that it makes electoral sense to have more women in the fray," says Shyamali Gupta, CPI(M) women’s wing president in Bengal.

Even among the 14 CPI candidates on the KMC candidates’ list, half are women. Actually now, it’s getting harder to ignore women in the Left movement. For instance, five years ago they comprised about seven per cent of the CPI(M). Now, with over 25,000 women members, they comprise nine per cent. At the last Delhi meet, there were 17 women delegates-the highest number ever, says central committee member Bonani Biswas.

Bengal has another reason for the focus shifting to women. Mamata Banerjee. The KMC is, after all, in the hands of Mamata’s Trinamool, and under the mayorship of Mamata’s mentor-turned-strident critic Mukherjee. "It’s time the Left started to cash in more rigorously on a demographic (women) Mamata has always had," says a Left watcher.

Observers, however, caution against getting caught up in the feelgood factor of the moment. For the Left Front, for all its liberalism, is still a deeply chauvinistic organisation. "Male domination is there in all Left parties," admits the CPI’s Sephali Bhattacharya. According to Malini Bhattacharya, central executive member of the CPI(M)-affiliate All India Democratic Women’s Association, there are many men in the fold who still take a chauvinistic view of things. Adds Shyamali Gupta: "The patriarchy in the Left is a reflection of society itself. We live in a world run by men. Why should the party be any different?"

Well, because it professes to be. A few years ago, when there were about 20,000 units in Bengal, only half of them had any women members. Now, with more than 26,000 branches, about 9,000 still have no women’s participation. The 84-person state committee has only six women; the central committee only 11 (including two honoraries).

The Left in Bengal, where younger members still refer to women role models from a generation ago, is primed for a change. GenNext, for instance, might be largely female. A few years ago, when the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) won the Presidency College students’ association elections, the media credited the daughters of CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, CPI(M) state secretary Biswas and finance minister Asim Dasgupta with engineering the victory. If they do step into their fathers’ shoes, it might truly become difficult to ignore the she-factor in Left politics.

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