New Lamps For Old? (Gender Paradoxes of Political Decentralization in Kerala)

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Item Code: NAG097
Publisher: Zubaan Publications
Author: J Devika Bintha V THAMPI
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9789381017180
Pages: 287
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 420 gm
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Book Description

About the Book

Based on a large of interviews with women politicians of many generations and women who have entered the three-tire panchayati raj institutions since the mid-1990s in Kerala, this book tries to intiate fresh debate on the impact of the large-scale induction of women into the institutions of local self-government in India. The state of Kerala has been hailed as a success story in accommodating gender concerns in local level planning and political decentralization; this conclusion has been based on relatively simple evaluative exercises that ask whether women of diverse backgrounds have gained entry into formal institutions of governance or not. This book seeks to place political decentralization and its possibilities for women within its historical and contemporary contexts. Against the popular assumption that the liberal feminist promise made by the state will be delivered, say, once the noxious influence of male relatives is removed, the book points to the multiple social forces that shape possibilities and hindrances for women, and reshape gender divisions in the political field. The book thus pays attention to women in both local governance and politics, Secondly, it examines how women have utilized, extended, and survived within or subverted these spaces. At the time when there is a move to reserve fifty percent of the seats at the local level for women and there is, simultaneously, considerable skepticism about reservations for women in parliament, this book offers reflections on both local governance and high politics.

About the Author

J Devika teaches and researches at the centre for development studies, Thiruvananthapuram, kerala. She has written and published widely on women in kerala. Her books include Her-self: Early writings on gender by Malayalee women (2005), En-Gendering Individuals: The language of reforming in Early 20th century kerala (2007) and individuals, householders, citizens: Family planning in kerala (2008). She has also translated a number of works from Malayalam into English.

Binitha V Thampi is assistant professor at IIT Chennai. She has worked on research projects concerned with local governance, welfare, development, politics and gender at the centre for development studies, Thiruvananthapuram and at the University of Sheffield, UK.


Let me tell you the truth. I didn't get into this out of the desire to be zooming about the panchayat sitting in the front seat of this Jeep. I have never thought that there's anything more in this, than an opportunity to serve the people. Because I was not very familiar with public work, I did fear whether this is within my ability. I contested only on the insistence of my husband and the local folk. Well, I contested, won, and learned all the rules with a lot of effort. I have also managed to do many things here. I think the panchayat is not a place for politics at all we women presidents have to hold everyone together and take all of us forward. Politics should end soon after the elections, and then we must all work together. So there was never any question of me playing 'politics', as the rumor-mongers claim. But it is people who are nearest to you who feel disturbed when they see you hanging on and not falling off. They say, 'she is zooming about in the Jeep and playing politics-the same lowly woman who used to walk up and down our road in rubber slippers!' I have never flown about like that nor have I ever even desired to fly Pre-empting questions from us on the rumors floating about the panchayat about her 'over-ambitious' nature, a woman-president of a village panchayat in coastal Kerala presented this spirited self-defense. We were not taken by surprise. In the course of our fieldwork in Kerala's panchayats studying gender, governance and politics, we had indeed noticed how the 'Jeep'-or the official vehicle of the panchayat-often proved to be the instance in which the fault lines of gender power struggles, sometimes well concealed in politically correct responses to our questions, were revealed. The question of who controls the 'Jeep' often stood for who held 'real power' -and most often the woman leader of the panchayat was engaged in a tussle over this with the male local politician or male panchayat official. However, we also noticed that very few of the women who told us 'Jeep stories' explicitly recognized their acts as resistance; they were more inclined to project themselves as hapless and innocent victims of assaults by powerful local male politicians or officials. Equally intriguing was the intense reluctance among women leaders of local self-government, who have entered the domain of local governance through the reservation of thirty-three per cent seats in the panchayati raj institutions as a result of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian. Constitution, even the most successful and popular of them, to admit to political ambition in the more familiar sense of upward mobility in party politics. That is, as ambition for public-political power, understood as 'power from within' and 'power to' but also involving a certain degree of 'power over' (Rowland's 1997). Many women we interviewed openly-declared that their ambitions were not around political power but development. This is in sharp contrast to their male counterparts who pursue both agendas with equal fervour.

Indeed, their words did not appear to contradict reality: after three whole terms of local self-government in Kerala since the mid 1990s through which a large number of capable women have been identified in all political parties, very few of them are visible in the top leadership of any party. And while capable women running the village panchayats have been widely feted by their parties, these women's achievements do not seem to be accorded merit in candidate-selection for state or central legislatures. Many women politicians, for example, the women legislators of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM from now) in the present Kerala State Assembly, have been presidents of panchayats; however, this was not their entry-point into politics. Most of them earned their political credentials through political work especially in mass organizations of the party. This may not, of course, mean that the women who have entered through the panchayats do not desire political power. It could be argued that responses like the one quoted above are socially correct ones and perhaps resorted to as a strategic move to bypass explicit misogyny or present oneself as less of a threat to entrenched but defensive masculine interests. However, there are questions, still. It is apparent by now that this adherence to social correctness has not broken down male defensiveness within the parties (as evident in women's poor presence in the higher levels of party hierarchies and from their own responses to other questions). If so, why do many women village panchayat leaders in Kerala, even those who have far greater experience and recognition than the one quoted above, continue to respond thus?

At a superficial level, the reluctance of women to be identified with political ambition is a familiar story. As Sonali Sathaye's interview with Usha Badhe, the sarpanch of Nimbagaon village in Maharashtra in And Who Shall Make the Chapatis? (Datta 1998) showed, the political ambition of women leaders is often regarded as inimical to the welfare functions of local government and destructive to the interests of the village. Also, there are many studies from across India which observe that women tend to identify their public roles within the ambit of (feminized and politically passive) 'social service' (for instance, Ghosh and Larna-Rewal 2005; Strulik 2008). Nevertheless, the question still looked like an intriguing one to us in the specific context of Kerala, where many women leaders do possess several key advantages that would have us expect a different response.

First, women in Kerala did not lack powerful role models. For example, the figure of K R Gouri, the legendary communist leader, famed for her skill at both militant struggle and administration, still circulates actively in the Malayalee public and commands much respect at all levels of Kerala's political field. Given women's high literacy and the all pervasiveness of public discourse in this society, it is still available to women even in the remotest and marginalized communities. Perhaps one could surmise that K R Gouri's bitter experiences in politics (Jeffrey 2003: 214-6)-her failure to get past masculine dominance within the party are a deterrent to new entrants. However, what is striking about the above quote is not really the fear of failure to access political power, but fear of moral censure by the community against a woman seeking it.

Secondly, compared to many other regions, women-members and leaders of panchayats here are much better-educated with considerable experience of heading institutions such as schools and government offices.' Many of the women leaders we interviewed were supremely confident of their command over 'the rules': that their in-depth knowledge of the 'government-order regime' was weapon enough to ward off the insidious efforts of hostile local male politicians of the opposition and within their own parties, and of corrupt or inefficient officials. We heard several inspiring stories of how they had held their own through calculated attempts to defame them or disregard their status, all on the strength of their superior knowledge of the rules and regulations. Certainly, many of these women did cite the putative 'feminine' ability for public care giving as a key reason for their successes-but this was not all. What struck us was the extent to which a form of expertise-knowledge of the huge body of rules and regulations that constitute the everyday working of local governance-was cited as an equally important reason for success by these women. To quote another woman leader, particularly known for her development successes, from central Kerala: Study, yes, study hard. That's what I'd like to tell women who wish to enter the panchayats. If you know the rules and regulations, no one can reduce you to a non-entity. I started studying after bitter experiences when I was still inexperienced in office. I became determined, and that's what's given me the strength to carryon fighting till today. If we have the knowledge, we can argue with those who try to put pressure on us and indeed thwart them. I always tell younger women this: never be a rubber stamp. Never sign any paper without first asking a question about it. If some mistake does indeed happen, never hesitate to raise a question openly.

Yet even this fighter-and many others like her-preferred to describe her work as essentially 'service' and 'keeping the rules'-something she felt duty-bound to carry forward, separate from, and through ignoring or fending off, what she called the "constant badgering of petty politicians". In other words, to her, the very process of struggle she described did not seem to involve the exercise of power despite obvious references to power and hierarchy. To exercise the legitimately exercisable power of the panchayat president was not 'politics'; it was simply 'following the rules'.

Thirdly, this response also came from women who were nominated by political parties and indeed were often party members and office-bearers. The local level is highly politicized in Kerala and major political parties field most of the candidates in elections to the local governments. I Most of our women interviewees were by no means complete novices to their ways; many were members and minor functionaries of political parties. This was true especially of many women leaders belonging to Kerala's dominant left party, the CPM. The CPM itself has been ardent champion of reservations for women in the panchayati raj institutions and in legislative bodies; in the 2010 elections to the former, reservations for women have been increased to 50 per cent by the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF from now) government in Kerala. Also, recently, the CPM has also emphasized the need to actively integrate more women into party cadre, promote them in committees and as full-timers." Nevertheless, a very large number of women presidents who were CPM members insisted that there should be no 'politics' in the panchayat and the role of the president should be to minimize 'power-politics' and carefully maintain the boundaries between the roles of party functionary and panchayat president.

Lastly, and perhaps most intriguingly, many of the same women also expressed concern that their work was not being adequately recognized and rewarded in the party. Here they blamed not just male dominance but also the hierarchy of political activisms in which the work of a panchayat president was granted less importance than that of a member of the state or central legislature. Yet they claimed to be free of aspiration to these higher bodies, even as they argued that candidature to the latter was a form of recognition granted by parties to their best and trusted workers.

In sum, many women leaders of the panchayats (especially women belonging to the more powerful communities in Kerala) (a) expressed disinterest in and claimed distance from possessing power like 'politicians', (b) did not feel that their association with political parties as members or functionaries necessarily implicated them in struggles around conflicting interests: 'power games that politicians play'. In other words, to be 'in politics' was not to always to be a 'politician', (c) felt aggrieved that their particular model of disinterested public work was neither fully acknowledged nor rewarded within their parties. These views were bolstered by the view they held about politics, that ideal, 'true' politics did not involve group interests or power but the neutral aspiration to distribute welfare equally and impartially to poor people. This troubled relation of women leaders to power and by implication, to politics, quickly became the focus of our research, for it raised crucial questions about gender, citizenship, empowerment, and politics in the local context. Clearly, these were 'empowered' women speaking. In that case, what were the implications of such 'empowerment' that distanced itself from a dominant form of power in Kerala, public-political power?

This book, we hope, will contribute towards constructing a richer and more complex account of women's entry into the political-public in Kerala facilitated by political decentralization since the mid-1990s. We attempt to capture the understandings and assessments of politics, governance, and gender held by women leaders in the PRIs in Kerala, of the possibilities opened up to them, and the hurdles that slow down their ascent to leadership and full presence in the political realm. In much of the laudatory literature that straddles academics and journalism, which celebrates the successes of political decentralization in Kerala, the presence of large numbers of women within these spaces is taken as evidence for the greater autonomy for women, which is then interpreted as the beginning of a decisive break with the earlier non-inclusion of women in the political-public (Parameswaran 2005; Isaac 2005; Heller et al 2007; Biju 2007). Nevertheless, there is much evidence from research that indicates otherwise. It appears to us, however, that researchers need to move beyond documenting the hurdles that women face or their powerlessness. Rather, they must analyse the specific political conjuncture at which a certain form of 'empowerment' of women has been rendered possible, and its consequences for their agency and chances of greater presence in the public-political realm. There is little doubt that the participation of women in public institutions of governing has been heightened through reservations. However, there are good reasons which we discuss later in this section-to think that women's failure to gain greater presence in the public-political realm is a serious failing in the specific context of contemporary Kerala. Our focus in this book is mostly on the gender politics of Kerala's dominant left parties-the CPM and the CPI (Communist Party of India)-because it is they who have had a firm and explicitly stated policy favouring women's entry into the public and women's reservations in legislative bodies. But it also pays attention to the ways in which women of other parties, with no such firm commitments, have seen this opportunity.

Many studies on elected women leaders and members of the local bodies in India have sought to probe the extent to which such participation has empowered them. They have often focused on the question whether reservations have improved their active participation in the business of government, and thus pay attention to such quantifiable aspects as attendance in various bodies, interventions in council debates, number of project initiatives introduced, as also to empowerment indicators to probe their mobility, access to economic resources and information, networking, changes in self-image and self-esteem, changes in their bargaining power within the household and so on. Such studies have also examined the capabilities of elected women before and after their entry into local bodies-their education, health, cultural and economic capabilities (Nanivadekar 1997; Santha 1999; PRIA 1999; Mohanty 1999; Datta 1998; Nussbaum 2003; Baviskar 2003; Sharma 2003; Kudwa 2003; Sinha 2004; Duflo 2005; Hust 2004; Ghosh and Tama-Rawal 2005; Vissandjee et al 2006; Singla 2007).

Such studies have been attempted in Kerala also (Chathukulam and John 2000 George 2006; Georgekutty 2003; Sharma 2009: 116;152; Isaac 2005; Vijayan 2007), which reveal many challenges that women members and leaders encounter while trying to create space for themselves in the hitherto-exclusively male domain of government. Almost all these studies agree that the substantial reservation for women was definitely a major step towards inducting women as participants in local governance. They also agree to a greater or lesser extent that there was effort by the top architects of the People's Planning Campaign (henceforth, PPC) which ushered in decentralized planning in Kerala to introduce gender-sensitivity in the guidelines, documents, and training for members and leaders of local bodies. More energetic effort was made in the second round of planning, after it was observed that the low participation of women in the PPC was one of the three major weaknesses of the first round of planning (Isaac 1998).

However, contrary to the laudatory accounts cited earlier, almost all these studies do identify women's lack of experience and access to politics as a major handicap in their empowerment'." They point out that little cognisance was taken of the fact that women's members' near-total inexperience in politics called for special measures to help them learn the ropes of political activity. The study by Vijayan and Sandhya (2004), based on field work in 2000, points out that the rotation of wards reserved for women every five years is detrimental to building the political capacities of women; that political parties are not keen to utilize the mandatory Women's Component Plan imaginatively; that they pay little attention to providing favourable conditions and developing women's skills in the political domain (Vijayan and Sandhya 2004: 77). Also, women's reservation does not automatically ensure the politicization of women as a group. Several reports therefore have recommended continuous capacity building and sensitization programmes 'for elected women representatives (Mukherjee and Seema 2000: 42-44; Radha and Roy Chowdhury 2002: 33-35; Vijayan and Sandhya 2004: 76-77). They also mention that women representatives who refused assigned roles have often been made to suffer (Chathukulam and John 2000; Mukherjee and Seema 2000: 30; Muralidharan 2003: 6; Radha and Roy Chowdhury 2002: 28-31; Sukumar and Thomas 2003: 9-10; Vijayan and Sandhya 2004).

It may be argued that this observed lacuna may be serious enough to jeopardize, in the specific context of Kerala, the very claim that the women inducted into the local bodies have been 'empowered'. As Kabeer (1999: 437) puts it succinctly, empowerment is "the expansion in people's ability to make strategic life-choices in a context where this ability was denied to them" (our emphasis). The empowering act must challenge historical exclusions, strengthen the bargaining power of the oppressed (thus widen the possibility of strategic choices), contribute in the long term to the dismantling of the structures and cultures of oppression, and enable the full membership of the oppressed in the public. Its specific content, however, will emerge only in reference to local configurations of power and the imperatives of local struggles. If this is so, then it is indeed difficult to imagine women's 'empowerment' in the specific context of Kerala without their heightened public-political presence. It is very important, however, to avoid collapsing the question of women's access to the public-political realm, with that of their access to masculinist 'power-over' (Peterson and Runyan 1999).

It is important also to note that historically, the project of 'women's liberation' in early twentieth century Kerala which sought to release women from pre-modern family and community structures, was premised on a strongly gendered vision of the world in which public-political power was identified as masculine privilege (Devika 2007). As we may see in Chapter 2, women did contest this idea but were repeatedly rebuffed through the twentieth century. The first wave of 'empowerment' in the early twentieth century, however, identified women closely with the 'social'. The 'social' was eminently associated with issues of conserving life and furthering it: with health, nutrition, education, household management, reform of family life and so on, all of which appeared to be distanced to a certain extent from the 'political' (Riley 1995). In late-19th century Malayalee society, for missionaries and 'progressive princely states', especially those of Travancore and Cochin, the extension of such 'social' space was a major element in emergent modernizing agendas. In the early 20th century, the first-generation of Malayalee feminists would claim it as 'women's space' and even seek actively to extend it further, but they could make little headway as far as the emergent public-political realm was concerned (Devika 2007). It is by now well-noticed that a pattern of exclusion from the political continues to characterize women's unequal citizenship in Kerala (Jeffrey 2003; Erwer 2003). Therefore, any serious efforts towards women's 'empowerment' in Kerala cannot but call for their full presence in the realm of public-politics (and not just formal presence in the institutions of governance) and without the expectation that women be 'better and less corrupt' politicians or, indeed, they be gender justice warriors. Moreover, the enthusiasm for public life and knowledge of public affairs that women members have generally displayed all over India, even in the most deprived communities (see for instance, Hust 2004) certainly serve the important feminist political goal of breaking down misogynist stereotypes through positive symbolic presence.

Secondly, such presence may help to crystallize 'women' as a distinct group with the capacity for collective action, which, it is hoped, will further struggles for gender justice especially around welfare here. Given that the government in Kerala does devote a large share of welfare resources to women of the poorer sections, efforts to reclaim women's agency in defining needs and demanding resources which would combat the state's effort to reduce 'women' into a passive governmental category, the passive recipient of welfare benefits, are certainly very relevant here. Historically, the empowerment of disadvantaged caste-groups in Kerala occurred through their entry into the modern public-political as re-formed communities which then actively bargained with the state and with and within political parties for access to rights and resources. While a women's 'community' may not be called for, certainly, newer forms of collective public power by 'women' are indeed necessary in the present for actualizing gender justice. Also, since the power to make major decisions regarding welfare entitlements resides in the public-political realm-in the higher institutional tiers of legislatures and in political parties-women's presence in these levels may be essential to strengthen the collective power of women as a group. In the late 1990s, Kerala's feminist movement fought long, hard battles with powerful politicians over cases of sexual violence (Devika and Kodoth 2001). The disadvantages to the women's movement from women's poor presence in public politics were apparent then. Activists had few political figures to appeal to. Those women politicians who did fight for gender justice found themselves quite isolated precisely because they were so few among the top decision-makers of their parties and further, these few were heavily dependent on male largesse.

Thirdly, women's access to public-political power may also be crucial to the feminist agenda of altering the masculinist content of citizenship and the male-centered norms that presently structure the political field. Feminist political theorists have pointed out that the content of citizenship has been traditionally shaped in the mould of the property-owning, householder-male (Pateman 1988; Mendus 1992). Feminist re-inscriptions of citizenship have therefore striven to challenge the in built masculinism of citizenship that poses as gender neutrality (Phillips 1995). There is also the argument that as women gain political power, the nature of citizenship rights also changes, for example, and comes to include such elements as redefined inheritance and childcare needs (Siim 2004).5 Given the fact that more and more women have been inducted into the public through governmental initiatives in Kerala in the past two decades-for instance through the very extensive network of self-help groups of women from below-poverty-line (BPL) families facilitated by the state, known as the Kudumbashree, which now takes up more and more public activities and responsibilities-there is indeed the urgent need to challenge the privileging of the masculine in the structures and everyday conduct of public life.

Quotas for women in formal bodies have been recommended to ensure women's representation in the political field on the grounds mentioned above-that of justice and of symbolic value-in feminist political theory (Dahlerup 1998; Sawer 2000). Feminists have also advanced the 'substantive argument' for women's representation (and women's quotas as means of furthering it), which claims that female politicians' experience of being women will incline them to identify with women and act for women's interests (Dahlerup 1998; Childs 2004). However, feminist researchers have tended not to overemphasize the efficacy of quotas in remedying women's exclusion from public-political power. Shirin Rai, for instance, argues that quotas may be regarded only as "one part of a multi-faceted strategy for empowering women, which must, together with increased political participation, also involve a redistribution of socioconomic resources within societies." (Rai 2008: 92). Comparative studies of the empowering effects of quotas across countries have stressed the importance of the specificities of local contexts. Comparing reservations in India and South Africa, Shireen Hashim (2010) remarks that the empowering effects of quotas for women are dependent "on the overall political context in which women's organizations operate." (p. 22) Feminist researchers have also pointed out that the outcomes of quotas and other measures like gender mainstreaming may well be ambiguous (Waylen 2009; Manicom 2001). Indeed, observers even point out that reservations for women may be easier in non-democratic, rather than democratic, regimes, since they provide a convenient way to legitimize the non-democratic regimes' determination to be 'inclusive' (Krook 2009: 106). And as has been observed for the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, the large presence of women in formal bodies may not be empowering without democratic space to organize in and make demands from (Jezerska 2003). We partake of such caution in the framing of our research problem and therefore desist from assuming that quotas will automatically ensure women public-political power, choosing to focus carefully on the local context.

Observers have expressed scepticism on whether the 33 per cent reservation of seats in the panchayati raj institutions for women in India can lead to their political advancement. Reservations for women in India were justified on the grounds that women had "a special capacity to represent the needs of women (or of children)". The argument justifying reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), in contrast, identified these groups as people "who have been 'disadvantaged by prejudice' in the past" (Singer 2007: 122). In this formulation 'women' do not figure as a political category, unlike the OBCs. While the depoliticized advocacy for women's reservation is unmistakable in Kerala as well, feminists need to continue demanding them on political grounds. The significance of these reservations can be scarcely belittled in Kerala. It is for the first time since the 1940s-since the pre-Independence legislatures in the Princely States of Travancore and Cochins-e- that 'women' seem to have been recognized as a political category in their own right. Women have also achieved adequate formal representation in the local bodies; indeed, their numbers now exceed the stipulated quota? These growing numbers make a contrast with the observed reluctance of women leaders of local governance regarding political power. Senior women politicians on the left in Kerala, however, did see reservations in local government as a training ground for women politicians, in fact, identifying this possibility as the primary merit of reservations in local bodies." If such a goal has not been realized-it appears obvious that it has not-the failure is one that needs to be investigated."



Acknowledgements vii
Introduction xi
Women in Dominant left politics 1
Inhabiting Inhospitable space 33
The rise of feminine public altruism 78
Dilemmas and opportunities: Dalit women 128
Extending the 'Social': Muslim women 150
Women leaders in urban governance 175
Conclusion 199
Bibliography 213

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