Saharanpur: Hordes of men are cramped into a small room inside a kothi in Nangal village of Saharanpur. The rest spill out into a courtyard, eating pakoras and aloo puri with greater enthusiasm than they display in sloganeering for their party’s candidate. The men have come to attend Haji Fazlur Rehman’s rally in the village- he is the Lok Sabha candidate representing the grand alliance between Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal formed in Uttar Pradesh. As we push through the ever growing swarm of men inside the room, we realise there is no single woman in sight.
Further along the lane outside, we come across a small kirana store run by a young woman. Another middle aged woman stands outside, but slips into its shadowy interior when asked whether she attended Rehman’s rally and how she would decide on whom to vote for. “Auratein thodi na jaati hain rally me. Jaha mard deta hai waha dedenge,” (Women don’t attend rallies.I will vote for whoever my husband votes for) she says.
About 21 million women eligible to vote in India have not been registered in the voters’ list, according to Prannoy Roy’s new book on the elections “The Verdict”. The concentration of these disenfranchised women is the highest in Uttar Pradesh, where a balking 10% of eligible women will be denied the right to vote. In other words, about eight million out of 21 million missing voters are from UP. However, registering to vote hardly seems enough, especially since politicians do not see women voters as a separate electorate . Even when addressed, women’s interests are assumed to be restricted to safety concerns. Fazlur Rehman’s rally in Saharanpur is no exception to this trend.
The Saharanpur Lok sabha seat, won in 2014 by the BJP candidate Raghav Lakhanpal, is now hotly contested between three candidates: the Congress’ Imran Masood, the BJP’s Raghav Lakhanpal, and the Mahagatbandhan’s Haji Fazlur Rehman. Fielded by the BSP, Rehman is a relative newcomer to politics, having only contested in a Mayoral election in Saharanpur before this- which he lost to BJP’s Sanjeev Walia.
As the day progresses, Rehman and his entirely male entourage of political workers and local politicians campaigns through the district with gusto, fuelled by the food provided at each stop. At one such rally held in Saharanpur city in the house of Samajwadi Party MLA Sahab Singh Sahni, various leaders of the Mahagatbandhan discuss issues ranging from the minimum price of sugarcane to issues of national security. Again, there is not a single woman in attendance at the rally. Sitting in the middle of the stage in a bright orange suit and stiff smile, Shagufta Khan, the local zilla adhyaksh from the Samajwadi Party and an ex minister for state, is the only exception to this exclusively male gathering. Her short speech, an amalgamation of the rhetoric already espoused by various male leaders who spoke before her, refuses to address women as a separate electorate as well. “Vote for us and you will vote out a government that remains intrinsically against its people”, she says. But before she can conclude, she is cut off as the mike is passed on to the next—inevitably male—speaker.