After her promise to field women candidates on 40 per cent of Uttar Pradesh’s 403 Assembly constituencies, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, on Wednesday (December 8), unveiled a poll manifesto exclusively dedicated to women in the poll-bound state.
The Congress general secretary, who is leading her party’s poll campaign in the state against the ruling BJP and a renascent Samajwadi Party, has made a plethora of promises to the state’s women who have, for two consecutive elections, outnumbered the men in voter turnout.
Titled ‘Shakti Vidhan’ and backed by a campaign song that invokes the Durga Stuti to highlight Vadra’s women-centric poll slogan ‘Ladki Hoon, Lad Sakti Hoon’ (I am a woman, I can fight), the manifesto focuses on five key areas – economic empowerment, education, dignity, safety and health.
Political commentators are still unconvinced about the prospect of a substantial revival of the Congress in the state where the party has been pushed to the fringes over the past three decades.
The electoral fight in UP, as several opinion polls have shown recently, clearly seems to be between the BJP that had won a massive 300+ seat mandate in 2017 and the still-evolving pre-poll coalition that Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav is cobbling together with smaller parties like Jayant Chaudhary’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP and OP Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party.
Even Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, as of now, seems to be nowhere in contention for power amid a growing perception that the party’s core Jatav vote bank that had stood with it despite electoral reverses in 2014, 2017 and 2019, could finally split in the upcoming election between other parties.
Congress sources say Vadra believes that by departing from the traditional caste-oriented electoral arithmetic in UP and wooing more amorphous but numerically formidable blocs such as women, migrants and youth, she could script a surprise turnaround in her party’s fortunes.
The Shakti Vidhan, say sources, is one among several “novel ideas” that the younger Nehru-Gandhi sibling wants to experiment with and that the party’s general manifesto, which is expected to be released next month, would focus on promises for other sections of the state’s electorate.
The promises that Vadra has made on behalf of the Congress in the manifesto for women has been drafted after extensive public consultations carried out by the party’s manifesto committee helmed by former Union minister Salman Khurshid.
Vadra’s earlier promise for reserving 40 per cent tickets for women candidates – she claims that 60 women candidates have already been finalised as against 40 men and that her party has been flooded with applications for tickets – was more of an “internal revolution” that she plans to bring within the Congress organisation in UP and one that other state units of her party will emulate in coming years.
However, the Shakti Vidhan envisages more substantive measures that the Congress hopes to employ in administration and governance should it, against the present odds, come to power in UP.
Among the promises made in the women’s manifesto are reserving 40 per cent jobs in government vacancies for women and providing tax concessions and incentives to those private businesses that employ 50 per cent or more women.
Vadra also promised that if Congress is voted to power, women-run businesses will be provided loans at lower interest rates and an exclusive tax refund fund will also be set up for them. The promises for economic empowerment also include a salary of Rs 10,000 for Asha and Anganwadi workers, loans at four per cent interest for women self-help groups and reservation of 50 per cent for women in allocation of government-run ration shops
Given the high prevalence of crimes against women in UP according to successive reports of the National Crime Records Bureau, the manifesto lists specific promises to ensure greater safety and security of women in the state.
These include setting up state and district-level helplines, working women’s hostels in 25 cities of the state, 25 per cent reservation for women in the police force and setting up free legal aid services in every district of the state for women victims of any crime.
A new law that would entail action against officials concerned in the event that preliminary investigation is not carried out within 10 days of a case registered for rape or other crimes against women has also been promised in the manifesto along with a promise to set up an empowered six-member all women commission, comprising two judges, two social workers and two government officials, to take cognizance of complaints of crimes against women.
The manifesto also promises a fair share of freebies such as free transport for women in all state transport buses, three free gas cylinders in a year, a monthly pension of Rs 1000 for all widows and senior citizen women, free internet for women categorized under below poverty line level and government-sponsored treatment of up to Rs 10 lakh for any disease or ailment.
Vadra’s special focus on UP’s women makes sense considering that for two consecutive state assembly elections women have outnumbered UP’s men in voter turnout and the benefit of this surge seems to have directly aided the BJP’s electoral growth in the state.
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Centre and chief minister Yogi Adityanath in Lucknow have consistently rolled out schemes directed at women and the electoral dividends for the BJP have been substantial. In the 2017 polls that saw the BJP registering its unprecedented two-thirds majority victory, over 63 per cent women voters – a rise of nearly four per cent over 2012 – had exercised their franchise against 59 per cent men.
The BJP had also contributed to the largest and unprecedented chunk of women MLAs – 34 – in the UP assembly in 2017.
Though this was still drastically low given that the UP assembly has 403 members, of which over 300 are BJP MLAs, it showed a better strike rate of the saffron party’s female candidates – the BJP had fielded a total of 43 women candidates in 2017 – compared to its rivals.
The SP had fielded 33 women candidates in 2017 of which only one emerged victorious while Mayawati’s BSP had given tickets to 19 women, of which just two won. The Congress, which is now promising 40 per cent reservation for women candidates, had contested the 2017 polls in alliance with the SP and contested 114 seats, fielding just 11 women candidates, of which only two won.
Incidentally, though the chief of the Congress’s six-member legislative party in the UP Assembly is a woman – Aradhana Mishra ‘Mona, the only other woman Congress candidate who won the 2017 polls – Rae Bareli MLA Aditi Singh – is now with the BJP.