Women leadership in Arunachali politics

[ Tongam Rina ]

PASIGHAT, 10 Apr: Marina Kenglang is the Indian National Congress’s (INC) candidate from the 53-Changlang North (ST) assembly constituency. Currently the president of the women’s wing of the Congress in the state, she is one of the rare kinds in Arunachali politics where allegiance and loyalty to the party are often slippery.

A Congresswoman since she was 25, the 52-year-old politician has been a grassroots worker, climbing bit by bit from being a supporter to an avid worker of the Congress, a zilla parishad chairperson, to now a formidable candidate for the legislative assembly. Up against her are three candidates, all males, including the sitting MLA and deputy speaker of the legislative assembly.

The leader has already prioritised what needs to be done for the betterment of her constituency. She says that there is a massive issue of unemployment, dropouts, and drug addiction in her constituency, which needs to be attended to immediately. She says that focus should be on human resources instead of unnecessary physical infrastructure, which has been the case so far in the state.

What makes St Bede’s Shimla graduate Kenglang a standout is that she is one of only seven candidates in the current legislative election.

Dasanglu Pul has already been declared elected uncontested from the Hayuliang constituency. The 46-year-old Pul will be a third-term MLA, a rarity in state politics for women politicians. She joined politics after the demise of her husband, former chief minister Kalikho Pul.

Chakat Aboh too joined politics after her husband Tirong Aboh was murdered in 2019. She is seeking reelection from 56-Khonsa on a BJP ticket. Tsering Lhamu is seeking reelection on a BJP ticket from 1-Lumla. A former panchayat leader, with a postgraduate degree in history, the 48-year-old too became an MLA after the demise of her husband Jambey Tashi.

One of the new faces in politics is 38-year-old Jeremai Krong. A graduate in biotechnology from Bangalore University, and PGD in management, she is the INC candidate from 44-Tezu constituency. The former HR professional in several multinational companies, she says that her overall aspiration is to work for the overall development of her constituency and the Mishmi society. She has been working as a social activist for the last five years, and is an active awareness campaigner on mental health.

Carved out of East Kameng district, which has seen better representation of women in politics, 12-Pakke-Kessang has a woman candidate, the INC’s Gollo Yapung Tana. The Pakke-Kessang district Congress president, Gollo will take on the state BJP president, who is seeking another term. She is also a loyal Congress leader, having spent close to three decades in the party.

“Hum Congress ko ek ghanta bhi nehi chora (I have not left Congress even for an hour),” she says. The mother of three says that she will work towards addressing the problem of unemployment, empowerment of women, and helping people seek justice.

The BJP has chosen Nyabi Jini Dirchi as its candidate in 29-Basar. In a constituency which is seen as an NPP stronghold, Dirchi is credited with reviving the BJP in her district. A zilla parishad chairperson, she isn’t exactly new to politics.

Gum Tayeng and Jummum Ete Deori – two of the sitting MLAs – won’t make a comeback this time around.

Tayeng also joined politics after the Dambuk seat fell vacant following the death of her husband, bureaucrat-turned-politician Jomin Tayeng. The former teacher went on to become an MLA for three terms.

BJP insiders say that the party denied a ticket to Jummum Ete Deori, while Tayeng did not seek one. The BJP age criteria seemed to have been applied to Tayeng, though it was rarely the case for male representatives within the state or in the whole country.

While there have been exceptions like Omem Moyong Deori, the Congress stalwart from the state, and Komoli Mosang, the first cabinet minister, Niari Welly, the first woman elected MLA, most of the female elected representatives have come from political dynastic families. But for those who follow Arunachal politics, it won’t be difficult to understand why wives become the representatives and not the other relatives. Wives are often the ones who deal with the electorates firsthand.

It’s said that in Arunachali politics it’s all about money; yet it’s not completely about money. Now, the question is why there are very few women representatives. From kitchens to markets to offices, and in campaign trails, it’s women all across. One place that is out of reach is the legislative assembly. Will it change? The answer is yes, but not sometime soon. There is a strong need for implementation of reservation of seats in the legislative assembly.

Doimukh Govt College Principal Dr Taw Azu advocates reservation of seats, as is being done in panchayats. It may be for a stipulated time period – 15, 20, or 30 years, she says.

“The first batch of women panchayat leaders who came through reservation was observed to be under-confident and shy. But in a matter of a year, they were found to be confident and vocal. So, reservation with a capital ‘R’ is the need of the moment,” the academic says.

Marina Kenglang says also that it will take some time before women take the centrestage of power politics. She says that acceptance is a huge issue as women aren’t easily accepted as leaders by community members. She said that she sought the ticket because it was easy to come by as Congress is an opposition party and there aren’t many seekers. “It’s a long fight, and there is a lot of hard work to be done,” she says, adding that women should work harder with determination.

Prof Kesang Degi of Rajiv Gandhi University’s education department says that it’s not that women aren’t interested in party politics. They simply aren’t given the chance. Citing the example of Jarjum Ete Gamlin, who switched from the Congress to be a candidate in the parliamentary election in 2019, she said that there is a certain level of discrimination against women leaders and an immense amount of gatekeeping by political parties, which makes it difficult for women.

“Gatekeepers should make way,” she says, while advocating “a change in attitude, mindset and also awareness.” She says that Arunachali women may be providers but not necessarily decision-makers.

No one knows deprivation better than Gamlin. A Congresswoman for more than two decades and an advocate of clean elections, she was denied a Congress ticket in the last parliamentary elections, prompting her to seek a ticket from the JD (S).

The social activist says that until and unless the elections are state-funded and political parties keep their commitment to reservations of seats for women, the patriarchal power mongers will continue to marginalise deserving and capable women in electoral politics.

India has already passed a new legislation that seeks 33 percent reservation of seats in the legislative assemblies and the Lok Sabha for a period of 15 years. However, it can come into force only after the next census is held. India has not had a census since 2011, and it is not yet sure when the next census is going to be. On the other hand, experts have already expressed doubts about the seriousness and intent of the government regarding the implementation of the Act, which was finally passed after six unsuccessful attempts after it was first introduced in 1996.

Arunachal Pradesh Women’s Welfare Society (APWWS) president Kani Nada Maling says that it’s imperative for educated and capable women to step forward and actively participate in politics to change the existing scenario.

“There’s a crucial need for a shift in the attitude of male political leaders towards women within their parties. Political parties must foster a supportive atmosphere where talented leaders, regardless of gender, are identified and encouraged to take on more responsibilities. This includes providing opportunities such as party posts, tickets for elections, and necessary support to women leaders,” Maling says.

In the state, women are active participants in campaigning and also the target voters of politicians.

Maling says that election time is a good time to start negotiations and ask the leaders to invest in women and children’s rights. “Just dancing and shouting will not help,” Maling says, adding that “political leaders of the state have given the impression that women are only means of entertainment, which is a bitter truth that exists in our state.”

She further says that token representation will not help. “Unless and until there are strong women leaders in the assembly, it is useless to speak about political empowerment. We want bold and educated leaders to represent us, not rubber stamps of men. Elect a leader who works for the empowerment of women and don’t support leaders who are polygamous.”

On lack of women elected representatives, Dr Taw says that women are not seriously considered “leaders” or decision-makers, adding that there is a patriarchal notion/indoctrination of men being the head of the family. She says also that women are seen as homemakers, caregivers, caretakers, supporters from the background, and that women prioritise home, children, and husband over careers. She says that electioneering requires money and muscle power, which women lack.

“The need for hobnobbing, meetings/sittings at odd hours to court power in the corridors of power is regarded not-women-friendly,” she says, noting that women are much ahead of men in education and other fields where money and muscle power is least required.

“Indication of progressive society is the one where man and woman are served with the same opportunity, including equal participation in politics/policy making” says a former secretary general of APWWS.

Krong cites several reasons, including lack of support from family, in pursuing a career in politics, as it is considered a chaotic and tough job with little or no work-life balance. She attributes lack of awareness, which has kept women away from power politics. She says that to improve the situation, there is a need for education and awareness about ways in which women can contribute in politics and why women should consider a career in politics.

“Women need encouragement and support,” she says, adding that the quota/reservation will help to a certain extent.

As the state is headed for the legislative and parliamentary polls on 19 April, the dismal performance of the political parties has continued to deprive women of a chance to be elected representatives.

There is just one woman candidate for the parliamentary polls of the total 14 candidates for the two parliamentary seats. Toko Sheetal, representing the Gana Suraksha Party, is contesting from Arunachal West seat.

The BJP, which has put up candidates in all the 60 legislative assembly constituencies, has just given four slots to women leaders, while the Congress, which has sent 19 candidates, have given three seats. The National People’s Party, which has the second-highest number of candidates with 20, has scored a zero, and so has the People’s Party of Arunachal, the Arunachal Democratic Party, and the Lok Janashakti Party – the other political parties in the election.

The only consolation is that there will at least be one member sitting in the legislative assembly, unlike in 2004, when there was none.