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Last Updated: Monday, 8 December, 2003, 21:24 GMT
Indian women politicians on rise

By Jyotsna Singh
BBC correspondent in Delhi

BJP leader Uma Bharati is sworn in in Bhopal
Hindu nun Bharati (front left) is sworn in vowing a strident ideology
Women in India may still make up a small proportion of election candidates but after last week's state polls, there are now no fewer than five female chief ministers.

Uma Bharati and Vasundhara Raje of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won power in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan respectively, joining the re-elected Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit of the Congress Party.

The other women at the top are Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu and Rabri Devi in Bihar.

Ms Bharati and Ms Raje were both sworn in on Monday in elaborate ceremonies in Bhopal and Jaipur respectively.

Observers attach special significance to their victories as they came in states regarded as two of the most backward in terms of female education and development.


In Delhi, Ms Dikshit secured a second term in office.

The 65-year-old leader was considered a political lightweight when she first took the Delhi chief minister's office in 1998.

This should not be seen as reaching a par with men but only the beginning on that road
Vrinda Karat, All India Democratic Women's Association

She seems to have come a long way since then.

Her party's campaign this time revolved around her personality and her government's achievements.

She is directly credited with providing better roads, cleaner air and more electricity in the water and power-starved Indian capital.

Ms Dikshit saw off the challenge of another woman - the BJP's Poonam Azad, a young and glamorous housewife of a former Indian cricketer - to win re-election.

Ms Bharati, a Hindu nun, represents the hardline face of the BJP and follows a strident nationalist ideology.

Dressed in saffron, Uma Bharati is a sanyasin - someone who has taken the pledge to remain unmarried and vegetarian and wear saffron clothes.

Vasundhara Raje Scindia
Vasundhara Raje: A princess in charge of feudal Rajasthan

With her fiery speeches attacking Congress leader Sonia Gandhi's Christian origins and the incumbent chief minister's "misrule" she was able to strike a chord among rural women voters.

Her formal swearing-in was marked by the presence of nearly 40 Hindu holy men on the dais.

Vasundhara Raje, a former federal minister, is one of the most colourful personalities in Indian politics.

The daughter of the royal Scindia family from Madhya Pradesh, Ms Raje says being a woman leader in feudal Rajasthan need not be a disadvantage.

"It cuts both ways. Women can show their affection and they understand the psychology of those who are in need better,'' said Ms Raje.

Despite the presence of these formidable women leaders, the number of women candidates remains low - less than 10% of the total contestants.

The two main national parties, the BJP and the Congress, have always advocated strong support for reserving a third of seats for women in national and state parliaments.

But these attempts have failed and the national parliament percentage for women stands at only 17.

The federal cabinet has less than 10% women.

Election myth

"We want to field more women but there are few candidates," BJP president Venkaiah Naidu said before the election.

Sheila Dikshit
Sheila Dikshit: Re-elected in Delhi after beating a female BJP rival

Political parties say fewer women candidates are put up because they do not often win elections.

But a recent study conducted by the Delhi-based Centre for Social Research has dismissed this as a myth.

The study, based on an analysis of the five general elections since 1972, showed the winning percentage of women candidates to be much higher than their male counterparts.

Women's activists warn there is still a long way to go to empower women.

General Secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association, Vrinda Karat, does not regard the election of the new chief ministers as a major achievement.

"These leaders deserve credit for their victory. But it's clear that they have not yet crossed the limits imposed by male politicians. This should not be seen as reaching a par with men but only the beginning on that road."

Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, adds: "There is clearly no political will to share power with women."

And while India has seen a number of women leaders, including a prime minister, Indira Gandhi, analysts point out that they have not overseen any remarkable change in the status of women in Indian society.

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