The Tamil Nadu government’s decision to reserve 100 wards in Chennai for women to hold municipal posts was rightfully celebrated as a meaningful way to increase gender parity in civic services. But just weeks after new councillors have taken office for the first time in eleven years, media reports have emerged that show that while namesake authority may belong to the officials, their male relatives (husbands especially) are calling the shots.
This kind of power redistribution is not unheard of in Indian politics, where seats reserved for women are contested by women candidates, while the actual power remains in the hands of male kin. In 2011, a sarpanch in Chhattisgarh, where 50% of seats were reserved, named Hemant Kumari even formally transferred power-of-attorney to her husband. Those who elected her to power in the first place were, rightfully, peeved, and lodged a complaint. The sarpanch claimed that she had personally made the choice to delegate authority to her husband. While this may be true, it was a dereliction of the duties entrusted to her.
It may also not be true at all, of course. Internalised misogyny is an interesting thing, and political power has a tendency to be ethically corrosive anyway. Journalist Omjasvin MD, who investigated the unofficial power transfers happening in some wards around Chennai, has reported receiving numerous calls from people justifying and defending the same (and that husbands, not councillors, picked up his own calls). Most of the councillors themselves have yet to speak; but it would be unsurprising if some echo Hemant Kumari’s sentiments, at least publicly.
The Tamil author Salma, who wrote in secret and pseudonymously, entered the public arena in a similar way. Her husband – who had previously enforced great constrictions on her mobility – asked her to contest in panchayat elections in 2002 in Tuvarankurinchi, for a seat reserved for women. This could have gone just like the story of many women who have been elected to powerful seats, wherein the power itself remains in someone else’s hands, and normal life for them and other women remains much unchanged. In Salma’s case, however, she was able to utilise the public servant role to actually pursue a political career, as well as to come out of anonymity as a writer.
What has happened in rural panchayats for decades appears to be happening in the metro of Chennai now, making a mockery of what women’s political reservation was supposed to encourage. In fact, DMK Women’s Wing Secretary and former Member of Parlimanent Kanimozhi Karunanidhi reportedly warned the new councillors and Chennai’s new mayor Priya Rajan (the first Dalit woman to hold this position) at an event earlier this month: “If you fail to use this opportunity, then it won’t benefit in empowering women of the next generation. Use this opportunity to break the impression that the woman councillors won’t work but only family members would run the show.”
Maybe some of them will still surprise us in good ways, coming out of the shadow roles they’ve been relegated to. Of course, it is up to those they serve, those who elected them, to hold them accountable – and demand that they do.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in March 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.