As the tears over the brutal rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi dry up, the attention of the nation cannot but remain on the rapidly deteriorating gender relations in the country. Much of this attention will be on the male mindset and what should be done to change it. And there is no doubt that there is an urgent need to sensitise the Indian man to the rights of women.

But it will be a pity if this debate leaves out the larger context within which this crisis has occurred, including the contribution of the political economy of the last two decades.

The link between political economy and gender relations may appear tenuous, but that is only because we haven’t paid sufficient attention to what the prevailing relationship between economics and politics is doing to our society.

Politicians of a variety of hues have seen their task as essentially one of first generating rapid growth and then using these resources to gather political support through vote-gathering welfare schemes. And this divide between the economic and the political has been widened by the economics of liberalisation concentrating on urban centres and the rural areas being the main recipients of political patronage.


This compact is now showing signs of strain at several points. The economic slowdown has reduced the resources available for patronage. The growth of cities and urban poverty has made it difficult for politicians to restrict their patronage to the villages. And, of great significance to gender relations, the reliance on patronage has fundamentally altered the social and economic fabric of rural India.

One of the corollaries of patronage politics in rural India has been the decline of agriculture. With the government shifting its attention from public investment in agriculture to rural welfare, agriculture became that much less profitable. The share of agriculture declined from around a third of GDP in 1991 to around a sixth of GDP today.

Just as agriculture was declining the management of patronage emerged as a major alternative career option. A farmer who could become a cog in the political wheel often found that role much more lucrative than agriculture. This was particularly true when they were innovative enough to find ways to cut themselves a slice of the patronage cake. Even when they could not do so directly they could find other ways to leverage their power to identify the beneficiaries of patronage.

The impact of the decline of agriculture on rural society cannot be measured in economic terms alone. As the French were fond of pointing out in WTO negotiations, agriculture is multifunctional.

It is the basis of rural social and cultural life, with several festivals that are celebrated even in our cities being based on the agricultural cycle. The decline of agriculture then also means the withering away of several traditional practices, including those related to gender.

Those familiar with the extreme inequities of the rural patriarchal family system will instinctively believe that this is a good thing. But the assumption that there can be nothing worse than the traditional agriculture-based patriarchal system may require more careful scrutiny. For all the inequities of the earlier system, it at least had an economic role for women.

Women workers play a significant role in agriculture, taking care of critical operations. The decline of agriculture reduces this economic role.

The system of political patronage that replaces agriculture has a much smaller role for women. Women do not usually play a prominent role in the violence of rural political confrontations. Even in situations where there are reservations for women in panchayat bodies, they are typically occupied by the relatively older married women in political families, and not unmarried women.


Over the last two decades this bias against women, especially single women, has been converted into demographic trends. With the use of available technology child sex ratios are being dramatically distorted.

The effects of the movement from agriculture to patronage have seen the heartland of the Green Revolution in Punjab and Haryana becoming the centre of a region with rapidly declining child-sex ratios. And this skewed population is coming back to haunt the men of these regions.

A twenty-year-old young man born after liberalisation in these regions has very little scope for meaningful association with women.

The chances of relating to them at agricultural work are now much less. And with a demographic pattern of just seven or eight women for every ten men, the competition for meaningful interaction with single young women gets that much more intense.

With the old agriculture based value system — with all its inequities — no longer available, this competition takes on a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest form.

If in the old system a young woman accompanied by her husband was seen as being out of bounds, in the social Darwinism that has emerged they are targets of jealous rage. And any relationship between a man and a woman that is outside the control of the local power structure, whether it is marriage within the same gothra or a couple at a pub, is seen as justification for violence.

It is tempting in the midst of the collapse of gender relations to blame the government of the day, Bollywood films, and the like.

But we need to ask ourselves if these failures are only the symptoms of a more widespread and chronic disease.

(The author is Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore.