The newly formed Congress government in Karnataka may have tried to experiment with experienced leaders and newcomers, but political critics feel that the party, which had launched its campaign based on women-centric policies and schemes, nominated just one woman minister, Laxmi Hebbalkar, to the cabinet.
Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s cabinet consists of 34 ministers, including eight first-time ministers, one of whom is Hebbalkar.
“They have a new face in Nayana Motamma and Kaneez Fathima, who has been elected for the second time as an MLA. They could have given one more ministry to a lady in accordance with the commitment to give women more power to bring change,” said a woman Congress leader on condition of anonymity.
Hebbalkar, a powerful politician from Karnataka’s Belagavi region, was appointed the Minister for Women and Child Welfare in the Siddaramaiah government on May 27 — the day when she also got into her new role of a grandmother. She has already proven her political strength with her second consecutive victory from the constituency over a BJP candidate by a margin of 56,016 votes in the recently concluded assembly elections.
Despite facing political setbacks, such as losing the Belagavi rural assembly seat in 2013 (the same seat she won this time) and the Belagavi Lok Sabha seat in 2014, Hebbalkar’s political ascent within the Congress persisted. In 2015, she was appointed as the Karnataka Congress Mahila Morcha chief, and then defeated BJP’s Sanjay Patil in 2018 to regain Belagavi rural.
Known for her political resilience and sharp acumen, Hebbalkar hails from the influential Lingayat Panchamasali community and has risen through the ranks under the guidance of her political mentor, DK Shivakumar, who is now the deputy chief minister.
She has managed to navigate her career successfully despite facing strong opposition and competition from the economically powerful and influential Jarkiholi clan. Similar to the Jarkiholis, Hebbalkar’s family is involved in the sugar factory business, owning Harsha Sugars Ltd in Belagavi, and has actively participated in cooperative societies in the region.
Hebbalkar’s inclusion in the state cabinet puts a stamp on her career, considering the controversies and allegations she has faced over the years.
During the SM Krishna regime in the early 2000s, allegations were made regarding the allocation of G-category sites belonging to the Belagavi Urban Development Authority to Hebbalkar’s family when Shivakumar was the urban development minister.
Her name once again cropped up when allegations were made that her family purchased agricultural lands before the e-tender for solar projects was announced.
In 2018, Congress workers from the Belagavi district wrote a letter to Siddaramaiah, claiming they had concerns about alleged illegal activities involving Hebbalkar.
Hebbalkar’s growing influence in the Congress has often been attributed to her mentor Shivakumar’s efforts to groom her. Insiders say Hebbalkar’s growing influence within the party, with the backing of Shivakumar, to wrest control of the primary land development (PLD) bank in Belagavi from Jarkiholi brothers was one of the major reasons for the exit of Ramesh Jarkiholi from the party to join the BJP.
Like her mentor Shivakumar, Hebbalkar has also come under the scrutiny of investigative agencies for her business transactions. Income tax raids were conducted on her premises in 2017 and 2019, and undisclosed assets worth Rs 162 crore were uncovered, stated IT officials. She was also summoned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in connection with a money laundering case involving Shivakumar.
It is important to note that women’s representation in politics has become abysmal over the years, and the data also indicates so across political parties. In this year’s assembly elections, Congress had given only 12 tickets to the women candidates, including Hebbalkar, while the BJP and JDS had given 14 and seven.
Historically, despite 50% of the voting electorate being women, Karnataka has disappointingly sent a limited number of women to the state assembly or even the Lok Sabha. Since 1952, only 13 women have been elected to represent Karnataka in the Lok Sabha.
This year only 10 women out of 186 were successful in getting elected across Congress, BJP and JDS. Of them, three are from BJP, four from Congress, two from JDS, and Latha Mallikarjun, daughter of veteran leader and former deputy chief minister, late MP Prakash, fought as an independent. She won the Harapanahalli assembly constituency and later extended her support to the Congress.
Let’s take a look at how many women from Karnataka were elected as MLAs in the last two decades and how many were made ministers in the respective governments.
In 2008, when the BJP made forayed into the south under the leadership of BS Yediyurappa, three out of the 107 women candidates won the assembly polls, of which, two were from the BJP — Shobha Karandlaje (Yeshwanthpur) and Seema Masuti (Dharwad) — and one from Congress — Shama Ghatage (Kudhachi).
Shobha was the only one to make it to the cabinet where she was appointed as rural and panchayati raj minister and later as the energy minister.
Siddaramaiah-led Congress came to power in 2013, and out of 175 women candidates, six managed to win — BJP’s Shashikala Jolle (Nippani) and Y Ramakka (Kolar Gold Fields); Congress’ Umashree (Terdal), Sharada Mohan Shetty (Kumta), Shakunthala Shetty (Puttur), and JDS’ Sharadha Poonja (Shimoga rural).
In this government, Umashree was made a minister, and she was given the women and child development portfolio.
In the following election year in 2018, despite the BJP winning 103 seats, the Congress and JDS formed a coalition under the chief ministership of HD Kumaraswamy. He inducted Jayamala, an MLC, into his cabinet to handle the women and child ministry. In this election, seven out of 219 women candidates won – BJP’s Shashikala Jolle (Nippani), Roopali Naik (Karwar), K Poornima (Hiriyur), and Congress’ Laxmi Hebbalkar (Belagavi Rural), Anjali Nimbalkar (Khanapur), Kaneez Fathima (Gulbarga Uttar), and Roopkala Shashidhar (KGF).
The BJP, having managed to lure 16 Congress and JDS MLAs to their party in 2019, formed the government under BS Yediyurappa’s leadership and had just one woman minister, Shashikala Jolle, who was also given the women and child development ministry.
Interestingly, since 1957, the former state of Mysore witnessed the election of 13 women to the assembly. The subsequent elections in 1962 saw 18 women being elected. However, since then, the number of women candidates winning the seats has consistently declined. The 1989 election showed a slight improvement with 10 women winners, but that remained an exception.
Commenting on the political situation, former two-time MLA and advocate Pramila Nesargi said some men prefer to limit women’s roles to being schoolteachers or nurses, or actresses or air hostesses rather than allowing them to become MLAs.
“Something is fundamentally wrong with the entire system. Society itself, not just men, tends to oppose women’s progress. Despite women’s superiority intellectually, creatively, and in management skills, political parties are often afraid of their potential success, leading to a reluctance to promote women. This fear is such that men may eventually be the ones seeking reservation if more women actively participate in politics,” Nesargi told News18.
Congress’ Hebbalkar also believes that women should not have to rely solely on reservation or family connections to enter politics. She believes that women can excel in any field. Politics may be a tough job, but two women can make a huge difference right from the Zilla Parishad to the top, she said.