More Sockets than Bulbs

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The women of this rural constituency with one of the country’s worst sex ratios will vote, but only the way they’re told

Those researching the sorry state of women in India would have a field day in this Rajasthan border district. To begin with, here, girls are often not even allowed birth: at 850 females per 1000 males, Ganganagar has Rajasthan’s, and one of the country’s, worst child sex ratios.

Not that Jasbir Kaur knew this — or the irony of her situation — when she walked out of an abusive marriage from Gurdaspur in Punjab to work in Ganganagar. She was bearing triplets, and the ultrasound had tattled that they were all girls. Jasbir’s alcoholic husband ordered she abort them, forcing her fingers into a live electric socket to drive his point home. That’s when Jasbir switched lives: from battered wife to working single mother.

Thirteen years later, 40-year-old Jasbir plays out an inspiring life script she’s authored for herself in an curiously named village 36BB. It’s a Jat Sikh hamlet where most families have only sons. And the sarpanch though a woman because the seat was reserved for one, is actually a man: SP Virender Singhji, SP being acronym for Sarpanch Pati. Yes, it’s as male a village as can be in a man’s world, but even so, everyone here acknowledges Jasbir behenji’s enormous struggle and spunk. And they stand by her as she works as the village ANM (Auxillary Nurse Midwife), and works harder still at bringing up her daughters Sandeep, Mandeep and Pradeep — nicknamed Sonu, Manu and Papal.

It’s palpable, if tacit, 36BB’s approval of Jasbir. They know that in Ganganagar, where most women aren’t even allowed to be their own persons, Jasbir has fought hard to be her own woman.  Except when it comes to voting.

Jasbir does vote. Governance might, largely, have passed her life by, yet she’s always headed for the polling booth—for the Panchayat, Assembly and Parliament elections.

But has she ever cast her vote based on issues important to women, to her as a woman? As a mother? A working woman? For girl children? Against Ganganagar’s rampant female foeticide?  “Not really. The village usually votes BJP, or I vote for a candidate I like. Or, like for this time’s sarpanch, the village decided together and voted accordingly,” Jasbir answers frankly, “…no candidate here talks of women-related things and problems anyway.”

…so then, maybe the question to ask is not why women vote or don’t, but why women aren’t really even considered a vote bank.

In Ganganagar 50 per cent of the eligible women voters turned up at the polling booths for the last Lok Sabha election, making for 43 per cent of the total ballot. Even so, why does no candidate here bother with making promises, even false ones, to women? Why are election manifestoes and speeches so low on issues that concern women?  

Perhaps because for women to be wooed as a vote bank, they’ll first have to start thinking of themselves as one, as a collective with common aspirations and demands which, if ignored, could impact electoral fortunes.

Till that happens, women will never be seen as a consolidated constituency meriting the politician’s focused attention—much like other disadvantaged groups, say the aged or the disabled, substantial in numbers but so scattered and fragmented that no campaign feels any real pressure to address their needs. Because really, if pandering to religion and caste get block votes for the politician, why bother with the rest?

Especially if, like Ganganagar’s women, they take themselves so casually as voters. The indifference women show while voting is frustrating, says Durga Swami, lecturer and one among the district’s handful women activists. She has tried, and tried hard. “Vote te paana hi hain, ghare thodi rakhna hain (Votes have to be cast, they can hardly be kept at home),” Swami is often told dismissively when urging women to exercise judgment while voting. “Most vote as per their husbands’ dictates. ‘Dowry, security, foeticide… ask candidates their plans on these,’ we tell women. But who’s listening?” she frets, “So why should candidates bother?”

One did, and seemed not just an oddity but odd for doing so. Satyapal Bishnoi, who runs an NGO called Shabri National, contested the last Assembly election here as an independent candidate with a frock as his election symbol. He placed small advertisements in local papers promising he’d work at eradicating female foeticide. Voting him into the Assembly, the ads said, meant Ganganagar could have women MLAs and MPs in the future. Bishnoi lost his deposit, he polled only 1,041 of the 1,18,041 total votes cast .  Says Bishnoi, “Even women don’t vote for women’s issues.”

Maybe it is because they aren’t educated enough. Or is it?

Rajni Pathak (MA Political Science) and Nishu Bhateja (MSc Chemistry), teachers at 36BB’s government school, discuss how their families have suffered, yet been supportive of, their random job transfers. Their husbands have changed jobs, in-laws have swapped towns to be with them. “But even working women like us vote according to our families,” they confess, “Our husbands are so much more politically aware, it makes sense to go with their decision.” 

“What do women know or care about politics?” echoes eighth-class-pass 36BB sarpanch Navjeet Kaur. She insists that all queries about her term as sarpanch be addressed to her husband SP Virenderjitji.

So what has he done for women during his term as SP? “Ummm…”

“You’ve had a delivery room built in the clinic,” offers Jasbir helpfully.

“Ah yes,” remembers SP. But as soon as he left, Jasbir informs: “The room is no good. He still hasn’t had a bulb fixed in it.”

If only this election Jasbir votes to help the lights come on for Ganganagar’s women.