United States’ former President Barack Obama had once made an interesting observation, “I am actually convinced that if we could try an experiment in which every country on Earth was run by women for just two years. I am confident the world would tilt in a better direction.”

Obama’s suggestion was directed as a solution to address erosion of global democratic culture, liberalities, agenda of sustainability and overall peace and prosperity.

There is hard empirical data to validate Obama’s hypothesis as countries with more balanced gender-equal conditions and political leadership fare significantly better on economy, health, education, inclusive and happier societies. It is not without a reason that the top-3 countries on the World Happiness Index, Finland, Denmark and Iceland have amongst the best gender-equal conditions and political leadership by women.

The country at the bottom of the World Happiness Index, Afghanistan, has arguably the most repressive and gender-unequal conditions. However, with abysmal levels of global gender-inequality still prevailing and the accompanying trends, it is estimated that the aspired levels of gender-parity will not be reached for the next 130 years!

Typically, countries with democratic and liberal dispensations have been more amenable to the idea of gender-parity, and tend to have more equitable participation of women in leadership positions. However, with the looming retreat and backsliding of democracies (advent of right-wing ‘strongmen’ e.g., Ankara, Budapest, Tel Aviv etc.) across the so called ‘Free World’, there is a collateral pattern of decrease in UN member countries, with women leaders.

From 17 in 2022, it is down to just 11, now. Clearly there seems to be a pattern of decreasing women in leadership positions with the hardening or regressing of political culture towards illiberal, intolerant and undemocratic anchorages.

It is not as if the women leaders were found wanting in recent years to address the most severe challenges. The exceptional leadership of Angela Merkel in Germany (Chancellor from 2005-2021) and Jacinda Arden in New Zealand (Prime Minister from 2017-2023), demonstrated that.

They stood out for their exceptional, empathetic, and transformational leadership. Their challenges ranged from managing the pandemic imperatives, refugee crisis to even terror attacks. However, neither of the two are now in power, for different reasons. They left on their own volition, and choose to remain away from partisan politics of their respective lands. Neither was personally power drunk.

But the curse on increasingly right-wing and nativist politics has not spared the Shangri-la of democracy, Scandinavia. Finland’s most popular Prime Minister of the century, Sana Marin, who was lauded for managing the pandemic and leading her nation to join the NATO is case in point.

She took Prime Ministership at the young age of 34 years in 2019 and was soon hailed as the ‘icon of progressive leadership’. Even though she increased her party’s vote share and number of MP’s, the Center-Left leader’s coalition block was defeated, as Finland moved sharply to the Right. And the hard-Right party had its best result.

Throughout her successful term, she had to endure intrusive, sexist, and personalised comments and faced criticism about her social behaviour. She was even asked to take a drug test, which she did, and cleared.

While the strong advocate of the welfare state couldn’t be pinned down for her executive decisions, she was questioned on her partying, dancing, and dressing, which became the topics of discussion. Not wanting to pretend or lie, Sana straightforwardly commented, “I am going to be exactly the same person as I have been until now and I hope that it will be accepted”.

But Scandinavia too, like the rest of the democracies, has changed and recently Sana announced her resignation from her party’s leadership to pursue a quieter life, all at the age of 37.

Jacinda Arden too had famously announced that she “no longer had enough in the tank” and therefore posited the importance of simply being a human, and recognising the writing was on the wall, in terms of one’s ability to handle responsibility anymore.

This can happen to anyone, only if they are honest enough to publicly admit the same. Her legacy is immortalised in her parting words with the sort of adjectives used, “I hope in return I leave behind a belief that you can be kind, but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader, one who knows when it's time to go”.

All societies that have gender-parity tend to be more efficacious and progressive, as opposed to those that remain gender-biassed. Experiments of affirmative action, increasing the representation of women police officers in Peru, and later Mexico, did lead to a collateral reduction in corruption.

Similarly, there is data to validate the salutary impact of development in Indian villages (pursuant to the 1993 law reserving 30% of Village Panchayats) that were headed by women in India, as opposed to otherwise, especially in terms of sanitation, schools, clean water projects, this despite the issue of men still controlling the levers of power, overtly or covertly.

Yet, while the Indian sub-continent had been a pioneer in women emancipation and empowerment in the political realm with Sri Lankan Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the world’s first female Prime Minister in 1960 (later, joined by the likes of Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina, Bidya Devi Bhandari), it is now on the retreat. Only Sheikh Hasina is in charge. Partisan views about her aside, the trajectory of socio-economic development of Bangladesh with a per capita GDP higher than India now, is testimony to her leadership.

The representation of women in India is still abysmally low with only 78 Members of Parliament (14% of the total) in Lok Sabha and worse, a decline in Rajya Sabha, from 10 years ago.

Feminisation, beyond partisanship, of Indian politics could lead to a drastic shift in policies, priorities, and perspectives towards which the Indian society is effectively blight sighted. However, the recent political passions and urgencies seem to be completely bereft of adequate ‘womanifestoes’, and if anything, the issues, and symbols hark back to revisionism of patriarchal times.

Token lip-service towards the Women's Reservation Bill which includes all parties without any exception, the shocking rank of 148th out of 193 countries, on the percentage of women representatives in national parliament for the ‘world’s largest democracy’, does not seem to concern us, adequately. Is India missing a trick in not talking, debating, and unleashing the power of its underrepresented strength of 700 million women?

History is also instructive that if we don’t invest enough in conditions and environments that encourage women in political leadership, then it doesn’t take long to backslide towards ‘as things were, earlier’. Unsurprisingly, illiberalism and polarisation is on the rise, women leadership is under strain, and the world is poorer for the same.

Barack Obama presciently alluded to the dangers of an alpha-male ‘strongman’ who did away with all pretences of democracy, and instead invested in anti-science, denied climate change, downplayed pandemic imperatives etc. Polarisation and hate mongering, was the very successful political appeal of his successor, Donald Trump.

Lt. General Bhopinder Singh (Retd), is the Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. Views expressed are the writer’s own.

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