By Swaraj Mishra*
It is heartening to see political parties offering tickets to more and more women to correct the imbalance in women’s representation in Vidhan Sabhas and Lok Sabha. However, we still have a very long way to go as the number of women elected to Odisha Vidhan Sabha has still not reached even a 10 percent level so far. And interestingly, there was a situation in Odisha when not even a single woman candidate could get elected to Vidhan Sabha. The total number of women in our 140 member state assembly was ‘ZERO’.
That happened 48 years back in 1971.
Elections to Odisha Vidhan Sabha (the 5th after Independence) were held on 5th March, 1971. There were in all 835 candidates in fray and of them 12 were women. Actually a total number of 17 women had filed their nominations. But one nomination got rejected in scrutiny and 4 others were withdrawn, leaving 12 women to contest the elections. The contestants included well known names like Rani Ras Manjari Devi (Swatantra Party) from Athagarh, Ex-minister Saraswati Pradhan (Utkal Congress) from Bhatli and Ananda Manjari Devi (Jana Congress) from Sukinda. Besides them were quite a few popular names like Rajmata Chandra Priya Mardaraj (Congress) from Khallikote, Kamal Kumari Devi (Swatantra Party) from Pallahara, Basant Kumari Devi (Jana Congress) from Choudwar, Kuntala Kumari Acharya (Jana Congress) from Pipili and Meera Das (PSP) from Balikuda. It was expected that some of them would certainly make it to the Vidhan Sabha. But that didn’t happen.
Rasa Manjari Devi in Athagarh and Ananda Manjari Devi in Sukinda were very close. Rasa Manjari lost by a margin of only 949 votes to Dr. Radhanath Rath (Independent) and Anand Manjari who had earlier won Sukinda seat in 1967, lost to Sanatan Deo of Utkal Congress by only 2805 votes. Similarly, Basant Kumari Devi was pushed to the third spot in Choudwar outdone by the high profile fight between Biju Patnaik and Kanhu Lenka. But the case of Saraswati Pradhan in Bhatli was rather unfortunate. She had won twice from Bhatli in 1961 and 1967 on Congress ticket and had been a minister in Biju Patnaik’s cabinet. But fighting with the ticket of the newly formed Utkal Congress Party, she lost to the Congress candidate Kunja Bihari Naik and was relegated to the fourth position. On the whole, it was a sad story for all the 12 women candidates. They all lost the elections to give Odisha its first ever all-men Vidhan Sabha, with the most unsolicited membership composition ever, 140 men and 0 women.
But the story doesn’t end there. Since none of the political parties could secure a majority in 1971 elections, Odisha had a coalition government led by Biswanath Das. But his government collapsed in a year’s time and a Congress government took over in June 1972 under the leadership of a woman, who was not a member of the House. So she had to get elected to Vidhan Sabha through a Bye Election held in November 1972 and she become the ONLY woman member of the assembly, the Chief Minister.
She is Nandini Satapathy, the only woman Chief Minister Odisha has had so far. It was as if the zero woman assembly was a canvas created providentially for the grand welcome of this leader.
*The author is a columnist.