Lipika Kamra is an Assistant Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University. She received her DPhil from the University of Oxford in 2016. Her research and teaching interests crisscross political and social anthropology, gender studies, international development, and South Asian studies. Her current book project examines the relationship between counterinsurgency, state-making, and development in modern India. She is also conducting research for a new project on women voters and democratic politics in India. In this interview with Divanshu Sethi of Catharsis Magazine, she discusses women voters in India, women representation in politics, gender and politics in today’s world, the impact of social media on politics, and pluralising the South Asian Feminist discourse.
Divanshu Sethi: What has changed for women voters in India over the years?
Lipika Kamra: The gender gap in voting has greatly reduced, and in the 2019 elections, women voters might outnumber male voters in several states of India. More women are coming out to vote in elections at all levels has meant that political parties have started to take women voters more seriously. They make promises that target women as a separate voting bloc. We now see parties talking about women’s safety, health, and education in campaigns and manifestos. The major shift here lies in women being treated as a separate electorate during elections, whereas earlier it was assumed that they will vote for whoever their male relatives tell them to. However, this increased attention to women as voters does not necessarily mean improved gender indicators or reduced inequalities.
D.S: Many Indian political parties have pledged to support some idea of an equal representation of women in the Lok Sabha. Some parties have already done this in fielding more women candidates in the upcoming elections. What do you think about this development? And what role do women representation in politics play in improving the conditions of women in society?
L.K: Measures taken by Mamata Banerjee and Naveen Patnaik to field more women candidates are a welcome change. It is the first step in the direction of correcting the abysmally low representation of women in legislative bodies. Women make up only 12 per cent of the members of parliament (MPs) in India today and only 8 per cent of the representatives in state assemblies. We need more women in elected bodies, firstly, in order to ensure that these institutions become more balanced, and secondly, to ensure that women’s issues are adequately debated and addressed. This is not to say that only women representatives should work for the interests of women citizens, but a greater representation of women in democratic institutions could promote a more gender just society.
D.S: Women leaders like the New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have portrayed a counter to the narrative of Alpha male-dominant leaders which has witnessed in many parts of the world. What does it say about the relationship between gender and politics in today’s world?
L.K: These examples tell us that politics need not be a masculine domain. We need to complicate the relationship between gender and politics, and go beyond the binary of women leaders as challengers of alpha-male politics or as compliant actors acquiescing to the masculine. Yes, the sphere of politics remains largely masculine, but women are also able to negotiate with it to find their own space.
D.S: You are working on a project titled— Social media and everyday life in India — with Dr Philippa Williams of Queen Mary University of London which examines the role of WhatsApp in everyday political conversations in India. What has been your experience in researching a topic like this? Can you discuss some of the ideas you have found during the research?
L.K: Researching this topic is fascinating during an election where digital platforms such as Whatsapp have become a crucial part of election campaigns. We are interested in how social media might be transforming offline conversations about politics. The research is still ongoing, so I cannot make any big claims or arguments. But what we increasingly find is that there is a close relationship between digital spaces of political communication and non-digital spaces of politics. We are examining how both of these interact with each other and shape each other.
D.S: What is it that makes social media more impactful to voters than the traditional methods of political campaigns like banners, advertisement, speeches etc.? And what kind of future of political campaigns you see with the advancement of such digital tools?
L.K: The impact of social media lies in its ability to circulate information faster through personal networks. When people receive political messages from their personal contacts, they tend to believe it more. So the impact is far greater than a banner or speech. When the messages on social media are more impersonal, for example, party advertisements on Facebook and memes on party-based Whatsapp groups, they have an impact through repetition and reinforcement. In other words, when people are repeatedly exposed to the same information, they start to pay more attention to it.
Digital tools are definitely reshaping how political campaigns are done, but I do think that more traditional campaign strategies such as door to door campaigning continue to be important, particularly in rural India.
D.S: You have discussed the importance of pluralising the South Asian feminist discourse with more research from rural areas. What kind of studies or questions would you like to see in the field?
L.K: We need more research that understands how women navigate the spheres of state, society, and household in their everyday lives. We already have a growing body of work that deals with women’s relationship with state-directed and NGO-led development programmes in rural India. To take a step further, we need to take gender as central to understanding democratic politics, citizenship and social movements. We need to ask: How do rural women in South Asia negotiate with different types of feminism: those perpetuated by the transformative politics of the state and development actors, those developed by vanguard movements, those promised by electoral politics, and those emerging from the grassroots.