No woman constituency
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The past two decades have witnessed the arrival of a paradoxical consensus over women's issues in the public sphere. The consensus is celebratory in nature and grants a sudden and flashy visibility to women and issues of gender inequality. Starting with the much acclaimed 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, the consensus developed as part of the top-down agenda of the Indian state. It had diverse manifestations, ranging from the establishment of state-sponsored "women's studies" centres to the public applause over the appointment of the first woman president, and from a vigorous campaign against female foeticide to the recent public outrage over the gangrape in Delhi.
This consensus contains a dual paradox. At one level, it is obviously inconsistent with worsening gender realities in the country. More seriously, the ideas of gender justice enrolled in it create mostly an illusory space for women's politics. This consensus masks the complex and systemic dimensions of issues of gender justice and extends only token, symbolic remedies that discourage consistent political action and depoliticises women's issues in the long run.
The new consensual politics of gender imagines Indian women to be a socially and politically cohesive group and assigns agency to them — but only in a superfluous manner. It does not recognise the layered nature of gender reality in India. In its celebratory versions of women's empowerment and representation, the new politics of gender does not encourage routine political participation of women and keeps women's issues confined to sporadic protests. This has two implications. One, it creates an impression of the consolidation of a "woman constituency". At the same time, since this constituency is not real and since it is not effective in the electoral arena, the new politics also emboldens the likes of Asaram and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat to disregard women and their interests.