Shakti is a non-partisan women’s collective, passionate about female leaders in politics. Their long-term objective is to enable more women to be elected as MLAs and MPs from all sections of society; to support women who are interested in political leadership or in furthering other women’s political careers.
When I reached out to Tara Krishnaswamy, founder of Shakti, she generously agreed for this telephonic interview from Bengaluru. She was heading to her workplace from the airport when I called her and it took her a few seconds to gather her thoughts when I introduced myself. But from then on, she swung her apolitical bat, hitting sixes out of the park, question after question and fielded them like a pro; her fiery nature crackling through the phone.
Telling me about the story behind Shakti, she said, “It’s not a very old organisation. It was formally started in the December of 2018, just before the Elections for two reasons. One is, just before the election, people have their eyes and ears for the topic. They’re willing to spend time on addressing these issues.
And two, it has been a long-time passion of mine. Shakti is essentially a citizen’s movement, not an NGO. It’s a modern notion of mobilising people for a cause.”
As the co-founder of Citizens of Bengaluru, Tara has been doing citizen movements for a while and been organising various campaigns for the same. “My own confidence coupled with the ability to mobilise change through social media and the looming elections, all gave birth to the idea of Shakti.”
Tara has always been passionate about gender issues. In fact, the first articles she wrote were about gender and women in the workforce, why women drop out of the labour force, women and economics and of course about education and women. It’s the socio-economic parity of women which she has always been passionate about.
Women in politics – A career worth pursuing?
A lot of people believe that women are not interested in politics, women don’t really want to run for elections or women are not winnable and political parties have extremely male-dominated flagships. The myth about women in politics is extremely firmly entrenched.
Just like in the old days, when women first started to become engineers or doctors, before the families could object, the big objection was that why does a woman want to become an engineer? Or even, can women even become engineers? It was considered to be a male thing.
Tara continues, ‘In India, that is especially ironical because we have had a woman Prime Minister and we have had so many women Chief Ministers and yet there is resistance in political parties to give tickets to women to stand for elections. This, despite the fact that many women are interested in pursuing politics as a career.
Patriarchy in society is the biggest roadblock and Tara felt that the time had come for women to enter politics and take the space they deserve.
I ask her that isn’t it ironic that we are demanding from the very people who do not seem to want this?
Tara promptly responds that historically, women have been in this situation time and again. “The people who need to give you permission are born into patriarchy even within your own family, right? The person who ‘allows’ you to work, ‘allows’ you to spend your money, ‘allows’ you to go out is the husband (or the father) and he is the one who is also restricting. So women are in patriarchy and in this position worldwide…
So, in politics creativity means that the public starts putting pressure because the only thing that politicians care about is the sheer numbers, so the louder the public voices get, the more likely they are going to be listened to.”
‘Then why not launch Shakti as a political party in itself?’ I ask her.
Presenting a very stark view of the reality, Tara tells me that 99.9 per cent of political parties that are launched in India fail. There are over 2000 parties in the country and hardly a handful of parties that get any reasonable number of seats. Also, the idea of launching a party sounds ambitious and ideal but it’s not enough. Once you launch a party you need to win the elections in order to make a mark. She rounds it up with an interesting analogy.
‘It’s like saying women need to work in the aviation industry and then saying why don’t they launch their own plane but if I launch my own plane it will need sustenance to survive on its own. And I don’t want that. Starting another political party is not the goal here. I want India to change.’
What change would women politicians bring
So far, the women in Indian politics have been mouthpieces of patriarchy perpetuating the same ideas as their male counterparts.
Tara immediately throws the ball back at me. “When a woman wants to become a journalist, a banker or a computer scientist, people don’t say how are you better than a man or what difference are you making. I become a banker because I want to be a banker, I don’t need to be any better than any man to be a banker. I could be an ordinary employee or an extraordinary employee that is based on my capabilities.
The same is true for women in politics. We have fifty per cent of the population and we live in a country where we have a Constitutionally Representative Democracy. What that means is if fifty per cent of the society is women, we should have 50 per cent of women politicians in government…in assembly…in the party. We don’t need to jump any higher bar…we don’t need to be any better or any worse.
If the voter wants to vote for an MLA who’s a rapist, what can you do, if the voter wants to vote for a woman who is regressive in her views, what do you do about it. That depends on the voters. Women have a right to govern simply because they want it, they don’t need to be better than men, or a young fellow who says I am a feminist, I am a feminist but I don’t need for every woman to be a feminist, it’s her choice.”
This comes as a breath of fresh air because we have been constantly demanding women to prove themselves to be better than men for any given job. Studies have shown that for every job, while men are hired for potential, women are hired for the work that they do. That itself is an unfair start.
How Shakti supports women politicians
Tara carefully explains that first and foremost, Shakti does not align with any political party.
Collecting information on women candidates state by state
‘We supported all women candidates. We do promotions of roles of women in your state party. So we go state by state. We reach out to women candidates from different parties but after that, we collect information about them and put it together on our page. So, if you want to explore the women that are running in your constituency, you can go to our webpage and go down, drop down and see it yourself these are the women running the community.
And then it’s a combination of campaigns that we run. Like social media promotions – we do Facebook live sessions, Twitter promotions and interview with the candidates.
Shifting media focus to women from men
The first thing is to tell the voters that hey, you have a choice there are women standing, take a look at them before you make your decision. Just because the media focus is largely on men don’t imagine that you don’t have women candidates to vote for, or that they are not qualified or they are all wives of somebody or something, like that. So we highlight candidates from all parties.
Dialogue & panel discussions
We invite women as panellists where every person can reach out to them. So the panel is put together to make sure that there is representation from all parties. Some of them may be regional party candidates, or AAP candidates, or BJP or Congress candidates. Some of them have already run for election, some have won, some of them have lost so you need to talk to them about what went wrong. Some got rusticated due to party issues, some of them have won as MLAs and want to be MPS things like that. So, we have those dialogues where we bring people in and that gets a lot of media coverage.
Recently, we had the campaign to present a letter to the law minister asking him to table the women reservation bill. So, when we did that, we had 260 plus organisations and people including India’s first man to space, Rakesh Sharma, Kiran Majumdar Shaw, right-wing people, left-wing people, centrists, students, bankers, farmers, rape survivors, abandoned women, Dalit groups, tribal society to IT people, lawyers and bankers.
What about male politicians fighting elections through their wives?
Tara immediately darts back. “If you look at most men in politics, they are sons of somebody, fathers of somebody or nephews of somebody. The men are using other men for political power but we don’t look at it because it’s the same gender, but when the man is using the woman for political power you are looking at it because of two different genders.
But the more important thing is that once the woman comes in power, she cannot be accompanied to the assembly or to the parliament. She has to make the law, she has to answer on the bills…to do the research. She has an office in Delhi, or wherever her constituency is.”
Lack of women in Indian politics - Truth or myth?
I remark at the glaring difference between so many women social entrepreneurs who are changing the world but haven’t taken a plunge in active politics.
Tara agrees with the fact that there are many social entrepreneurs but it’s not true that women do not participate in active politics. “I am just giving an example of the Communist Party(CPI-M) had announced that if you go to their website you can see that their women’s wing AIDWA has 1 crore women. 1 crore women are a part of AIDWA.
The BJP announced that 3 crore women party members are there. These are the people to promote to the rank, to give tickets to, and these are the people to nurture.
So, my point is that it is not a lack of women. When you join a party you go to the party office… you work on the party program, it’s a thankless job. You have to be motivated and attached to the party to do this. They are your own party women, but none of them is getting it. Women are only getting 8 per cent of the ticket. 92 per cent of tickets is going to men. So, it doesn’t matter even if half that is dynastic for women because it’s only 4 per cent. But if half that is dynastic to men then its 45 to 50 per cent. It’s not because people like you and me aren’t jumping in.”
How to become a woman politician in India
And that brings me to my next question. What if I want to become a politician? How should I go about it? I can hear a smile in her voice as she tells me. “I will say you are in the perfect place at the perfect time because today, most parties want to increase their footprint."
Try out a political party you align with
“Find a candidate that you like, man or woman. And just go, try out a party. Go to a local party office, sign up, watch the activities. You are not marrying a party. You can try it out for a couple of months, go to another party. See what works for you. Try to get the hang of it.
It always helps when you identify a person in the party locally whom you like or align with.”
She adds with a sense of joy. "It’s really fun because it allows you to do things that you are not allowed to do in your job. Like if you want to put out posters or you want to call MPs, you can’t do that as a part of your job, I can’t do that as a part of my job, but I can do it outside my job. Come up with placards, with slogans and lots of fun things like that.”
Mobilise people in your neighbourhood
Tara adds, “This gives you an idea of your own leadership qualities and abilities to convey a message, mobilise people, encourage them to make a change. See how far you are able to go with your own capabilities. It could be an issue that you care about like street lights not working and the area is unsafe for women or there is a liquor shop with a school next door. Try addressing these issues. These kinds of experiments will increase your network and give you awareness of what you want to do next.”
Find support in Shakti
She continues, “Even if you are an independent woman candidate, we will highlight you. So, if you are running in Maharashtra…the elections are coming up, you start your own party or you want to run as an independent candidate, then when you run in Maharashtra we will highlight you.”
That seemed like a simple enough answer but what I am still finding trouble dealing with is why Tara herself hasn’t taken a plunge in politics.
But Tara laughs and says “I am an IT person. I am already doing the job that I love doing. Apart from that, my work at Citizens for Bengaluru, a civic movement I started (takes up my time). We are basically trying to fight for better amenities in the city like better public transport, more sort of citizen specific governance, ward committee and other issues for over three years now.”
I understand that her hands are full at this time. But a woman leader like her who can raise her voice for issues that matter and mobilise people and resources for a cause is exactly the kind of women leaders we need.
But perhaps, we will have to wait for that one.