Op-Ed: BJD ploy of 33% of LS tickets for women could work both ways

As soon as it was announced, commentators were quick to hail it as a ‘game changer’. But nearly a week down the line, it is increasingly becoming clear that the 33% reservation of Lok Sabha seats for women by Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo in Kendrapara, the first time any party in India has done so, has created doubts if it really was the ‘smart move’ it was assumed to be.

For one thing, it has only served to swell the ranks of the disgruntled in the BJD who find their hopes of a party ticket slipping away through their fingers. If there is any truth in reports of some 30, 000 people applying for BJD tickets for the 147 Assembly seats and 21 Lok Sabha seats, it is certain that there would be a whole army of angry rejects no matter who is chosen. And if speculation about up to 45-50 sitting MLAs and 12-15 sitting MPs being replaced turns out to be true, it would make the task of containing the inevitable falloutexteremly difficult for the party leadership. The exit of Nabarangpur MP Balabhadra Majhi and Nilagiri MLA Sikanta Nayak has given an early indication of how things could pan out in the days ahead. In the circumstances, the earmarking of 33% LS seats for women will make the problem of quelling the rebellion even more difficult than it already is. Had the announcement been made a few months ago, things would have been different since the aspirants would got time to reconcile to the idea. But coming as it did barely hours before the election schedule was announced, it is bound to leave them seething.

For another, there are clear indications that far from being a move to empower women who have risen through the ranks, it is fast turning out to be an exercise in roping in wives/daughters/female relatives of established male politicians, who have had nothing to do with politics before. To cite just two examples, Koushalya Hikaka is almost certain to be nominated in place of Jhina Hikkaka from Koraput parliament seat while Kalahandi MP Arka Keshari Deo could well make way for his wife Malavika Devi. And this is only with reference to the first phase of polls for four Lok Sabha seats and the 28 Assembly constituencies that come under them on April 11. By the time the names of candidates for all Lok Sabha and Assembly seats are announced, we could well see this pattern being repeated in the five other LS seats where the BJD is committed to having women candidates. Already there is talk of Subashini Jena, wife of sitting MP Rabindra Jena, being fielded from the Balasore parliamentary seat and Sunita Biswal, daughter of senior Congress leader and former Chief Minister Hemananda Biswal who joined the ruling party the other day, getting the party ticket from the Sundargarh seat. To be fair to them though, they are not in the same category as Koushlaya Hikkaka and Malavika Devi and have been active in politics. While the BJD president is yet to make it clear if the same formula will be adopted for the Assembly election, it is possible that the party will field more women candidates than it did in 2014. In effect, the 33% reservation for women could meet the same fate as the 50% reservation in PRIs: husbands/fathers wielding power on behalf of their wives/daughters.

There is no empirical evidence to prove that women will automatically vote for a candidate solely because she is a woman. Voting choices are determined by a host of factors like the candidate’s image, support base, work on the ground and so on and the sex of the candidate cannot override these considerations. In any case, the BJP and the Congress could throw a spanner in the BJD’s plans to garner the votes of women by fielding women candidates in those constituencies. If that happens, the women voters will have more than one woman candidate – apart from male candidates, if any – to choose from. They would vote for the best among them, who need not be from the ruling party. The grapevine has it that the BJP and Congress are yet to name their candidates because they are waiting to see who the BJD settles for. On its part, the BJD too is apparently waiting to see the nominees of the two principal Opposition parties before taking a final call.

Whether the 33% reservation for women brings electoral dividends for the BJD or not, it has to be admitted that Naveen Patnaik has added a new dimension to the coming election with his announcement. He has forced the Opposition parties to rework their plans and consider nominating more women candidates than they originally intended to do to ensure that they don’t lose the perception battle among women. The competition can only be good for women since it would, in all likelihood, throw up more women legislators than we have seen before.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)