Kolkata, July 16 (IANS) In a country where they have been playing second fiddle to men for centuries, women candidates outnumber men in the ongoing polls to the West Bengal village councils, the third tier of India's electoral democracy.
An estimated 90,000 rural women are contesting the pollls out of a total of 169,000 candidates, that is over half the total number of candidates in the elections that would decide representatives in 58,865 seats.
This is to fulfill a legislative requirement that 50 percent of seats in panchayats be reserved for women in a move seen to give them greater empowerment and enable them a say in decisions that affect their daily lives.
Although West Bengal society is still quite patriarchal, the move has sent ripples of excitement through the Bengal countryside with political greenhorns being fielded as candidates by both ruling Trinamool Congress and the main opposition CPI-M.
In some families, sisters-in-law are contesting against each other as candidates of rival parties.
While some of the women candidates may be proxies for male political wannabes who had to give way to women to fulfill electoral requirements, most women are serious contenders in their own rights.
"A unique feature about West Bengal is that since it is a very politically conscious state, the candidacy of women is considered a step to further women's development. A lot of women from among backward Muslims, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and from the economically marginal sections are in the fray," former state women's commission member Bharati Mutsuddi told IANS.
"These women have jumped into the fray crossing a lot of hurdles, reservations and doubts," she said.
However, Mutsuddi, a former CPI-M legislator, also alleged that many women candidates of her party were forced to withdraw their candidature due to the terror unleashed by the ruling Trinamool Congress.
Law Minister Chandrima Bhattacharya said: "It is a welcome development to see so many women candidates in the race. If women occupy high positions in the political administration, that boosts their self-confidence and enhances their prestige, thereby helping women's empowerment."
The Left Front government had passed an act in the state assembly making it mandatory to reserve 50 percent seats in panchayat bodies for women. The Trinamool Congress government termed this legally untenable and passed an amendment declaring that a maximum of 50 percent seats may be reserved for women in rural bodies.