By Saurabh Gandhi
Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist
Some know her as the widow of Sanjay Gandhi, former Indian National Congress (INC) leader and son of former Indian Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi. The gen-next know her as the mother of Varun Gandhi. The media, until recently, often referred to her as the ‘sister-in-law’ of Sonia Gandhi (INC President and Chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance-UPA, which was in power for the last decade). This is in spite of the fact that Maneka Gandhi had severed all her ties with the INC due to a fall-out with her mother-in-law after Sanjay Gandhi’s death. She also contested against former PM Rajiv Gandhi from the high-profile Amethi Lok Sabha constituency in 1984 but lost because of the huge sympathy wave in favour of the INC after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
In many ways, she has been the ‘other’ Gandhi, or rather, the ‘forgotten’ Gandhi. This was not always the case. In 1988, Maneka Gandhi became India’s youngest Cabinet Minister in the Janata Party led government at 33 years of age. After this, there was no looking back for her. She made her mark as the Minister for Environment and Forests (MoEF) with a focus on animal welfare. She is still referred to by many as an animal rights activist as she was instrumental in creating India’s Animal Welfare Ministry. Her role in initiating the OASIS (Old Age Social and Income Security, the scheme which went on to become the basis for the New Pension Scheme) as Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment in the BJP led government won her many well wishers. She officially joined the BJP in 2004.
In that year itself, the tides of time changed and the other Gandhi ‘bahu’ came into prominence. Very little could be heard about Maneka in the last ten years during which Indian politics was dominated by the Sonia Gandhi led INC. Today, however, times have changed again. The BJP is in power and the sister-in-law is now the Union Cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development and is making heads turn with some of her ideas and actions.
Within hours of taking oath, Maneka Gandhi had to deal with the horrifying Badaun rape case. While commenting on the issue, she floated the idea of “rape crisis cells” in order to ensure speedy action in such matters. She has written to Members of Parliament asking them to co-operate and find 300 square feet areas in their respective constituencies for the proposed crisis/trauma centers (to be christened Nirbhaya, in memory of the Delhi brave heart who was raped and killed in December 2013). These Nirbhaya centers will serve as a temporary home for victims of sexual assault where they can get all kinds of help, including counseling and advice on the next course of action. Apart from medical help, there will also be legal assistance and help in getting the FIR filed. The fact that rape victims face numerous hurdles and threats in getting an FIR registered bears testimony to the need for these centers. If implemented effectively, this could go a long way in ensuring speedy justice to the victim.
Recognizing that crisis centers alone won’t solve the problem, Gandhi has also rooted for 33% reservation for women in police stations. Since law and order is a state subject, she can only issue an advisory to the state governments in this regard. However, the law and order of Union Territories (UT) is under the central government and hence, she has directed them to ensure that their police forces have 33% women in their ranks. The average representation of women in the police forces is only 5.33% across India. Women are grossly underrepresented in the police force even as they make up 49% of the population. This is a fundamental problem and cannot be solved by one directive or an advisory. However, it’s great that the government is at least talking about implementing it wherever it can. Once a few states (or UTs) implement it, others will be forced to follow suit. As Women and Child Development Minister, Gandhi has also promised to revise adoption guidelines and clear back log of children awaiting adoption.
While the other ‘bahu’ is busy introspecting her party’s loss, one must say that Maneka is making all the right noises as a minister. What remains to be seen is whether she can leave a legacy important enough whereby she will be remembered for having made a difference to the lives of the Indian people (and animals, too).
A commerce graduate from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, Gandhi is a politics enthusiast. He has been an intern at Youth-Ki-Awaaz and has a keen interest in current affairs. Innovation in India’s education system and gender equality are issues which are very close to his heart. When not following news, he is either reading or crossing movies off his “To see list”. A self confessed social media addict, Gandhi can be reached on Twitter @saurabhgandhi92. Call him mad and he will love you for the rest of your life.