Swetha Shetty, 42, was tired of hearing the same advice, repeatedly every time there would be discussions on what women should do to solve socio-political and economic issues that plague half the population of India. “Why don’t you join politics?” “Why don’t you start a party?” So she did.
Shetty has now launched the National Women’s Party, a political party, the first of its kind, that was born with the sole intention of giving a platform to women in politics.
"Male chauvinism of political parties is no secret,” Dr Shetty said. “If women have a platform in politics where they don’t have to beg their male counterparts for a ticket, I think more women could join the field.”
The party, which was registered in 2012, only launched in Delhi in December 2018. With a symbol-- a woman with folded hands, and over 1.45 lakh members, the party is looking to contest for 50 seats in Madhya Pradesh in the 2019 elections.
Apart from Delhi, the party also recently launched in Mumbai. In fact, Dr Shetty also hinted at possible "alliances" with some “northern parties” that had approached them since their Delhi launch.
But why not join an existing party to further women’s participation? Why segregate?
“It’s not segregation, it’s a safety net"
Dr Shetty, who works as a medical practitioner in Hyderabad, has also founded the Telangana Mahila Samiti, an NGO that works toward providing vocational courses to women and runs orphanages.
“The key areas where women lag is in education and then employment. Policy makers don't think of women and girls while making policies because not enough women are policymakers," Dr Shetty said. "Every woman's experience is different. If we have more diverse women lawmakers, women's problems would be better represented in Parliament."
Shetty also said that despite 72 years of independence and a number of political parties at national and regional levels, the absence of women was curious. The reservation bill granting women 33 percent seats in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha remains languishing in the lower house since 1996. As of now, there are barely 11 percent women in both Lok Sabha (64 out of 542 MPs) and Rajya Sabha (27 out of 245 MPs).
"Every party has women's wings. But these entities are just to create publicity that look, we are a woman-friendly party. That is just not enough," Shetty asserted. It is interesting to note that the ruling party BJP had fielded only 38 female candidates on 428 seats it contested. The Congress had fielded female candidates on only 60 out of 464 seats it contested.
From women-friendly to woman-led
According to Shetty, a mother of two, giving women positions of power and authority was necessary not just for addressing women's issues better but also for overall better governance. She also said that in many cases, women had shown that they were better leaders and more sensitive to the needs of the subjects, especially women.
In 2018, the research arm of the United Nations, UN University, released a working paper in which researchers found that Indian constituencies ruled by women showed "significantly higher economic growth". The paper also stated that women politicians were less likely to be "criminal and corrupt, more efficacious".
Shetty said that there's a visible difference in funds allocated for development projects when there's a woman at the helm. "Rs 300 crore was allocated for 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao'. But Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal has allotted over 5,600 crores for Kanyashree alone."
While Shetty's views are lofty, her party is yet to begin campaigning and still needs funding. Due to a paucity in resources, NWC will be campaigning mostly on social media rather than going door-to-door or holding rallies. "Cell phone penetration is at great heights today," she smiled.
Yet an even bigger problem could be her stand on the Sabarimala row — one of the most contentious debates of women's rights in India. "The court's judgment needs to be respected. But traditions are not to be forgotten either," she said.
She added that it was a tricky line and that she was "neutral" to the issue.
Meanwhile, the new party president said that her party's agenda would focus mainly on women's education, health employment and security. She stressed that they would also focus on agriculture as many women were involved the sector at grassroots level.
"Agriculture and allied industries employ so many women. They contribute to 20 percent of India's GDP. These women need to be given their dues," Shetty said.