One could not escape them before, during, or after these elections. Four women dominated the cut and thrust of Election 2009 to the 15th Lok Sabha. Sonia Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and Jayalalithaa. In a country where women still suffer discrimination from birth, this in itself is remarkable - that women now run four major political parties, the Congress Party, the Trinamool Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), respectively.
Apart from these four, women were everywhere - as voters, campaigners and candidates. Only 462 women contested as compared to 6,538 men. But 59 of them won, which is a much higher percentage of success than for men. And for the first time ever, the number of women in the Lok Sabha accounted for 10.70 per cent of the total. The 14th Lok Sabha had only 45 women Members of Parliament (MPs), a mere 8.7 per cent of the total house strength. But 10.7 per cent is still lower than many other parliaments around the world. And it is less than a third of what women have been demanding for the last 11 years.
While increasing numbers and a few prominent women do suggest an increase in political participation, this will not automatically translate into women-friendly policies or a government sensitive to gender concerns. Yet, the results of this election do bring with them a sliver of hope that women's participation in electoral politics could increase and be qualitatively different from the past.
For example, this time, apart from widows, wives, daughters, daughters-in-law, sisters and mothers of male politicians standing from safe seats nurtured by the men, several women who normally would not have considered entering the fray have done so. Career women who do not belong to "political" families have chosen to either join existing political parties, or stand as independents. This represents a notable break from the past.
Take the case of one of Rahul Gandhi's young prot'g's, Meenakshi Natarajan, who stood from Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh and won. Annu Tandon of the Observer Research Group, who has a corporate background, won from Unnao, Uttar Pradesh (UP), again, on a Congress Party ticket. And even though she lost, well-known dancer and activist Mallika Sarabhai made her presence felt as an independent challenging the might of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader L.K. Advani in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.
The victories of women like Natarajan and Tandon do seem to suggest that women have a greater chance of success if they are supported by or are candidates of a political party, than if they stand as independents.
Unfortunately, political parties continue to pitch women against one another. So in Lucknow, for instance, the Congress fielded their state party president, Rita Bahuguna Joshi, against the Samajwadi Party's Nafisa Ali. Both lost and the BJP candidate, Lalji Tandon won. In one of the most high profile contests, Telugu actress and sitting MP, Jaya Prada of the Samajwadi Party narrowly beat Congress's Noor Begum in Rampur, UP.
On the positive side, although many female relatives of male politicians won from safe constituencies, not everyone succeeded. When the Supreme Court ruled that people convicted of crimes could not stand for elections, several powerful MPs in Bihar fielded women from their families. Rakesh Ranjan, or Pappu Yadav, sentenced to life in 1998 for murder, fielded his wife Ranjit Ranjan and his mother, Shanti Priya. Both lost. The notorious Mohammed Shahabuddin, convicted for four murders, had his wife Hina stand from Siwan. She too lost. Vina Devi, the wife of Surajbhan, also convicted for murder, lost in Nawada. And in Sheohar, Lovely Anand, wife of Anand Mohan convicted for murder, failed miserably.
With an increasingly discerning electorate, it is evident that being related to a powerful man will not guarantee the success of women candidates. Such a change will work in favour of women who want to contest but fear confronting criminal elements in politics.
While women getting elected from political families and safe seats undercuts the demand for a level playing field for women in politics, increasingly many such women are beginning to carve a distinctive place for themselves. The most obvious person in this category is Congress President, Sonia Gandhi. When she took office, no one believed her capable of managing India's oldest political party. Today, no one questions it.
Even amongst the younger women, we see signs of such capability. Supriya Sule, Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar's daughter, has had an easy time entering politics first through the Rajya Sabha and now into the Lok Sabha by contesting from Baramati, a family fiefdom. Yet, Sule has already been noticed for articulating concerns such as the persistent malnutrition amongst children. She was part of a campaign by young MPs to draw attention to this problem.
Similarly, Congress's Priya Dutt, daughter of the late Sunil Dutt, got elected from his seat when he died mid-term. Today, she has proved that she can win on her own steam, in a constituency with many new segments. In fact, she is the only one of the five Congress MPs from Mumbai who has won in all her six Assembly segments and the reason is her reputation for being accessible and involved with her constituents.
These elections have shown again that more women now want to be in politics. And not just in national politics. Thousands of women are already politically engaged at the 'panchayat' (village) and 'nagarpalika' (municipal) levels. And even if not all of them are members of political parties, it is only a matter of time before they begin demanding space. In states like Bihar, the reservation for women in 'panchayats' and 'nagarpalikas' is now 50 per cent. Political parties will not be able to resist this thrust from the grassroots and would inevitably have to field more women candidates for the assemblies and the Lok Sabha.
Even if the number of women elected has increased only marginally, their influence through the major parties has increased. Every party now routinely includes gender concerns in its manifesto. The last government instituted several policies specifically addressing women's concerns, such as the Domestic Violence Bill and programmes curbing sex-selective abortions and encouraging female literacy. The two non-Congress Chief Ministers who have done well in their respective states, Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, have actively pursued policies that benefit women. Thus, it is clear that addressing women's concerns does translate into votes.
With a higher percentage of elected women in the Lok Sabha and with many newcomers who might be less prejudiced and more open to the idea of reservation of seats for women, perhaps the Women's Reservation Bill will finally see the light of day. More women need to be in politics not because they make better politicians, which they very well could, but because women have the right to be represented in policy-making when they make up half the population.
(The writer is an independent journalist and columnist.)