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Get Rid of Your Biases, Rajeev Gowda on Being an Ally to Women in Politics

Rajeev Gowda is a former Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha from Karnataka (2014-2020). He heads the Research Department of the Indian National Congress (INC). He has an elaborate experience in academia and an active engagement in civic action. He has led several youth initiatives including women’s safety campaigns and continues to mentor such initiatives.

Tell us about your political journey and your initial thoughts on the idea of joining politics

Rajeev Gowda: I grew up in a family of freedom fighters and politicians. My childhood was spent listening to stories about fighting for India’s freedom and even getting arrested. I grew up wanting to devote my life to the nation's service, as my father and uncle did during the freedom struggle. My mother also inspired me. More than politics, my mother was driven by social work and activities to empower women. She was also a great partner to my father in development activities. They campaigned together; she played her part in campaigns and followed up with the people. Growing up with role models such as my mother and her sisters was highly inspiring and motivating.

I believe that expertise is one thing that matters today. With that goal, I focused on the U.S. model where professors like Henry Kissinger moved from Harvard to become foreign ministers. So, I decided to build my expertise in macroeconomics and public policy.

I aspired towards this goal from the age of 5, and I finally entered Parliament at 50. I stayed focused, and that ultimately got me my break in 2014. As the Head of the INC's Research Department, I prefer substance rather than rhetoric in politics. This position is a strong reflection of my capabilities and of my team.

In your encounter with women in politics as your colleagues and your mother being a political figure, did you feel that the challenges faced by men and women in politics differ?

Rajeev Gowda: Women operate in a much more challenging environment than men. There are all sorts of physically demanding activities, including a good deal of political strategizing that takes place later in the night, in the houses of different people, over a drink or two. None of these things should be a problem, except that in the Indian culture, there is a cultural bias against women where people talk loosely about them if they drink or socialise much with men. In 2009 there was an incident in Mangalore, where a group of young women were attacked in a pub by an orthodox radical group for supposedly violating Indian Values.

Further, political activities require a tremendous amount of money. Crores of rupees are tossed into election campaigns both at the assembly and the parliamentary level. To win, one needs to possess and command that kind of money. While there are many wealthy individuals and families, I have not come across successful women entrepreneurs who are ready to say, we have done well, we will now build a career in politics.

Nowadays, with Twitter and Facebook, the barriers have been lowered. People can tag you and say bad things about you in public. In this sort of environment, you see many instances of people threatening women with violence, including sexual violence, threatening their families, their children’s safety, leaking their phone numbers among other things.

In response to the 2009 Mangalore attack mentioned above, I, along with my colleague, started reaching out to the media houses, social media, colleges and institutions to organise a series of simultaneous protests across Bengaluru city. Several volunteers and groups joined us. The initiative gave me a tremendous amount of self-confidence in my capabilities as an innovative organiser. The best part was that this was all done with practically no money.

This did come to the attention of my party members and perhaps, changed their image of me from a pure intellectual to a courageous person with the capability to mobilise and work with the urban middle class who regarded politics as poison. However, in spite of all this, I was denied a ticket from Bangalore South to contest in the Lok Sabha election and this was not the first time.

In politics, things are different, one needs to catch the attention of the leadership first and then prove one’s worth. And with my own experience in politics, I realised that it is very difficult to get visibility and appreciation for one’s capabilities. Many men and women in politics, instead of proving their worth, find an easier way by having a Godfather or mentor. Leaders often fight for tickets for those close to them, so there's a lot of time and energy spent hanging around politicians to become close to them. It may seem like a waste of time. But this is a practical aspect of being a politician. So, the other major challenge is that politics demands availability at all times. In only some cases, women might get better opportunities. For example, if they are not the sole breadwinners in the family and/or if they can employ household help and if they have supportive families. But the challenge is that not many men in their families feel secure about all of this.

What are some positive examples of initiatives to promote women’s political participation and representation?

Rajeev Gowda: Kiran Mazumdar Shaw founded the Bangalore Political Action Committee (BPAC), a neutral organisation that provides training to politicians who want to work in civic governments. With 50% reservations for women in local bodies in Karnataka, there are many opportunities for capable women to break in at this level at least. At the parliament level, things are more complicated, but at the local body level, there are many openings reserved for women alone. As an Advisor to the BPAC, I have witnessed her efforts to create an environment that nurtures women in their political careers at a level where there are significantly more opportunities.

At the same time that I organised protests in 2009, the Pink Chaddi Campaign, with its Facebook group, demonstrated the power of social media in organising women for political mobilisation.

At IIM Bangalore, I launched a programme called ‘India - Women in Leadership’, which was focused on training women politicians. It was an intensive 47-day program done in partnership with the Center for Social Research and was supported by UN Women. All of this was a lot of effort. Still, Bangalore had a conducive environment for this and we could raise funds for scholarships for the programme. I could not replicate this programme at IIMB as I left and moved to the Rajya Sabha. Still, I am happy to be involved in similar initiatives like the Femme First Foundation and the Indian School of Democracy in an advisory capacity and as a mentor.

What are your thoughts on the Women’s Reservation Bill?

Rajeev Gowda: The Women’s Reservation Bill is only about representation. It does not think through the other dimensions of the complexities involved in having a political career. The basic idea behind reservation is that many other things will follow if you force the system to accommodate women. Like in the Panchayati Raj System, enough individuals have got in on their merits without being a part of the political dynasties. People do not talk about these complexities of political life or a political career that much. They are often idealistic or naive to think that they will be given a chance to run and represent if they are chosen. Unfortunately, this works for a certain number of profiles. Moreover, other factors such as publicity make existing public figures such as movie stars or sports stars preferred over otherwise meritorious candidates sometimes.

Have you ever faced backlash for supporting the Women’s Reservation Bill because of your being from the opposite gender?

Rajeev Gowda: No, see, my party is led by our President, a woman who is one of the longest-serving political leaders in the country. I have grown up with mighty and capable women like my mother, classmates, colleagues, wife, and daughter. So, if you were to ever interact with me in person, you would not see any gender-related discomfort. Also, we aggressively support the Women’s Reservation Bill. A few years back, Mrs Sonia Gandhi wrote to Prime Minister Modi about bringing forward the bill as everyone was ready to back its passage but there was no response.

Do you have any recommendations for political parties and the governments on what they can do to increase political representation and participation of women at the grassroots level?

Rajeev Gowda: The party leadership should play a key role in improving women’s representation. Most parties want to include and accommodate representatives from many communities and groups because of the so-called vote bank politics. One way of doing it is by giving a ticket to someone who embodies that community. In this sense, women may not necessarily be seen as vote banks.

Remember, 50% of the voters are women, and nothing comes in the way of sending out a good signal. There are concrete examples of efforts made by parties with strong leadership. In the last Lok Sabha Elections, the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha and Trinamool Congress in Bengal gave more than 1/3rd tickets to women. Out of those who got elected, some women were from the backward, poor and tribal communities. In these elections, the increase in women candidates also provided a path for women from backward communities to join/enter politics or become politicians.

The Indian National Congress also chose similar candidates. Two of our candidates from Kerala and Tamil Nadu are MPs today. For this, the party leadership has to resist the pressure of other competitors, and this may lead to losing a seat or two. Still, for the bigger parties, it should not make a big difference.

We see men politicians also engaging in direct or indirect violence against women online. What can be done to prohibit such actions online?

Rajeev Gowda: One needs to report these perpetrators, and the online platforms need to take action. They need to get these people off social media and suspend their accounts, but I do not see enough of this happening. I think it is also because many of us are not bothered to report and ask for suspensions because we feel strong enough to face all these attacks and dish them out ourselves.

What would you like to tell your men colleagues in politics about becoming better allies of women?

Rajeev Gowda: I was recently at a mobilisation meeting of the party office bearers at the Bangalore Division. It so happened that for a few hours not a single woman had spoken from the stage. When my turn to speak came, I raised my concern about women not being invited to speak at the event. I was not exactly shouted down, but I was asked to stick to the topic after being told that there was ample space for women. While I got applause from one section of the audience, the organisers saw it as unnecessary criticism. Happily many women did speak thereafter.

If you have biases against women and other classes, religions, and people with different sexual preferences, get rid of these. Human beings need to be valued for their own innate and intrinsic worth. We also need to be affirmative in reaching out to support and encourage various groups and identities who never got space at the table.

[All photographs are taken from Rajeev Gowda's Facebook page]

[This interview was conducted by Vatsla with additional inputs from Kashish, Ira, Manisha, Mihir, Ritisha, Simran, Natasha and Treesha]

This interview is a part of the Worth Asking - 2021 by Women for Politics. This series aims to bring conversations with women in politics about politics as a career choice and with men politicians about their role as allie

Read previous interviews in the Worth Asking Series, here.

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