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Indian Female Politicians Launch Aggressive Campaigns for Dec. 1 Election - 2003-11-28

Four Indian states are holding elections December 1: Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. One of the surprising features of the coming election is that three powerful women politicians are involved in them. But women's groups say that despite the prominence of these female politicians, women continue to remain underrepresented in the world's largest democracy.

In three of the four states that go to the polls this year, high-profile women politicians are leading aggressive campaigns for office.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, has nominated two women politicians to try and dislodge the rival Congress Party from power in two of the country's largest states.

In Madhya Pradesh, a firebrand nationalist leader, Uma Bharati, is leading the BJP. In Rajasthan, a former federal minister, Vasundhara Raje, is heading the party's campaign. And in the Indian capital, Delhi, the Congress Party's Shiela Dikshit is trying to win a second term in office as chief minister.

The sponsorship of so many women leaders is rare in India's male-dominated politics. Women make up less than 10 percent of the Indian parliament, and less in most state legislatures.

This prompted women groups to start a campaign seven years ago to get more women into political office. But these groups say that except for a handful of high-profile leaders, political parties continue to deny adequate representation to women.

The director at the Center for Social Research, Ranjana Kumari, says only eight percent of candidates are women. According to her, women get sidelined because they are not able to manage important factors such as caste and the ability to raise money.

"Women … they do not want to indulge in these kind of practices, so their winnability [ability to win] is seen as low… so they are not getting the adequate number of seats to contest," she said.

Delhi's chief minister, Shiela Dikshit, got the top post five years ago largely because of backing from another woman - Congress Party head Sonia Gandhi. Mrs. Dikshit says women in politics are not taken seriously.

"There is a resistance in getting women to come to the top, because there is somehow skepticism about their capacity and capability," she said. "That mindset needs to be broken."

The spokesman for the BJP, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, says women candidates are viewed as honest and active in their work. He says his party wants to put forward more women, but there are not enough candidates to choose from.

"But unfortunately in India and definitely in these states, there are a lot of backward areas where women are not active in the political field and good women don't want to come openly or fight for election," he said.

Women's groups dismiss such arguments, and say men are simply not willing to share power with women. They say many of the women who win high political offices are wives or widows of powerful politicians - or those who have founded their own small parties.

These groups have been fighting since 1996 for legislation to reserve one-third of the seats for women in parliament and state legislatures. But their campaign has made more headlines than headway, as parliament has repeatedly failed to pass the bill despite the ostensible support of mainstream political parties.

Women's groups say they will continue their struggle for more representation, because women in politics will mean greater focus on development issues such as electricity, water, and education that should be the center of India's political agenda.

Veena Nayyar, of the Joint Women's Program, says more women leaders will also help raise the status of women in a society where they face widespread discrimination.

"Women coming into power is a much better world because [women] are not thinking of fighting and power over others, but power through education, power through health," she said.

The three women fighting for the top slots appear to agree. They are campaigning for more roads, more electricity and more schools and also promising to support the proposed legislation reserve seats for women.