In the 60th year of India’s Independence, a woman becoming the President of India is symbolically important. So we are told. Leave aside the politics surrounding the forthcoming election to the post of President. Forget that electoral mathematics ensures that the United Progressive Alliance's choice, Pratibha Patil, will indeed become the next President of India. The question before us women is whether her election to this high office has any meaning for us, whether it will make any difference to women in India, and whether we should welcome such a symbolic gesture on the part of the ruling alliance.

There is no doubt that symbols do have a place. They hold a meaning if they are backed by efforts to bring about changes that go beyond symbols. They are important at times when such a change seems difficult but is part of a struggle. But if they become an excuse to postpone what can and should be done, then they become empty symbols.

Uneven progress

Sixty years after Independence, it is true that the lives of millions of women in India have been transformed. They are now more educated, many of them have skills and economic independence, many have reached high positions and entered careers their mothers could never have dreamed of. But there are also millions who remain as badly off as their mothers, women who have no education, no life skills that can pull them out of poverty, no access to decent health care, often not even a roof over their heads.

For these women, such symbols have no meaning. They need real policies, real action, real change. They need to see and believe that a free India will also mean they can dream of a different life, one that is not crushed under the burden of unrelieved poverty. They need to know that their children have a future where they can aspire for a better existence. They need to hear that their daughters will be able to survive and be valued as human beings.

Instead of holding sms polls on television on such issues, it would be instructive for the media to talk to the women who have lost their husbands to the spiral of death that has taken the lives of so many farmers in Vidarbha, to the women of Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur who live each day under the shadow of violence, to the women living in the slums and pavements of Mumbai where the monsoon rains bring with them another kind of hell. Ask them whether a woman as President means anything, whether they even know that such an eventuality is imminent.

Why now?

If symbols are considered that important, then the other question to ask is why has it taken 60 years before the idea of having a woman as President has finally struck our politicos? Surely, in a country where women have played a central role in the struggle for freedom, where we have had icons like Sarojini Naidu and Sucheta Kripalani, to name just two, we did not have to wait this long to find a suitable candidate for President.

Mysteriously, despite promises and pro-women rhetoric by political parties, the Women's Reservation Bill never seems to make it to the statute books.

 •  Thwarting women in power
 •  Parliament still a man's world Of course, we know that Patil's name was pulled out of the hat when no agreement was possible on other male candidates. The 'woman' aspect was merely the spin given to a clever political ploy that achieved the immediate goal of upstaging the opposition and getting support from the allies of the Congress Party.

When it comes to real power sharing, the reality is that this is just not happening. The Women's Reservation Bill, for instance, has still not been passed by Parliament. Whatever its shortcomings, this Bill represents an effort at creating avenues for meaningful power sharing at the very top, in Parliament rather than just at the panchayat and municipal level. But mysteriously, despite promises and pro-women rhetoric by political parties, this Bill never seems to make it to the statute books.

Real power sharing

One could argue that some women in India are powerful and that we should not complain about power sharing. Congress President Sonia Gandhi, for instance, wields tremendous power in government and in politics. But apart from her, where are the women holding important portfolios in government? One Sonia Gandhi, or even a Mayawati who stands out for her remarkable electoral victory in the recent Uttar Pradesh elections, does not mean women have a share in political power and decision-making. If women can head banks and corporations, why do we not have women who run important ministries, such as Defence, Home, Finance, Commerce, Agriculture and even Human Resource Development? In 60 years, not a single woman has made it to these ministries. Are women only competent to hold ceremonial positions?

Indian women have had enough of symbols. A token Dalit, a token tribal, a token Muslim, a token woman — those days are gone when these would satisfy or make a difference. We need to make the kind of changes that will result in real power sharing with those who have been excluded and marginalised. And that includes women.