By Nita Bhalla and Satarupa Bhattacharjya
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - When Preeti Joshi heard of the gang rape of a fellow student, she joined a movement of thousands of outraged young Indians who have taken to the streets of New Delhi almost every day protesting for justice and security for women.
Beaten and raped by five men and a teenager on a moving bus in the capital on December 16, the 23-year-old student died from her injuries on Saturday, her plight shaking the conscience of many urban middle class Indians who consider gender rights as important as poverty alleviation.
India's politicians, seen as out of touch with the aspirations of the urban middle class, have been caught off guard by the protests. For the first time, they head into national elections due by May 2014 with women's rights as an issue.
Even so, the issue is unlikely to be the defining one.
Massive rural vote banks have been untouched by demands for gender equality and the fury across India's cities may fade, just as unprecedented protests in New Delhi over corruption did 16 months ago.
"Rural populations in this country are more concerned about basics such as development," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a Delhi-based gender rights think-tank.
This jars with what urban protesters like Joshi want.
"I thought we lived in the world's biggest democracy where our voices counted and meant something. Politicians need to see that we need more than bijli, sadak, paani (power, roads, water)," said Joshi, 21, a student of social sciences at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Sexual violence against women in largely patriarchal India is widespread, say gender rights activists, and crimes such as rape, dowry murders, acid attacks, honor killings, child marriages and human trafficking are common.
But the savagery of this crime - where the victim was raped for an hour and tortured with an iron rod which did serious damage to her internal organs - has stirred national debate and put gender issues on the political agenda.
The victim's name has not been released. Her alleged attackers have been detained in connection with the crime and police are likely to press murder charges this week. Prosecutors are expected to seek a death sentence for the adults.
"The girl's assault and death were the lancing of wounds that have festered for years. Women had shut up for fear of social pressures but now there's a collective voice to demand change," says Renuka Chowdhury, a parliamentarian and spokeswoman for the main ruling Congress Party and former minister for women and child development.
"This is for the first time, perhaps, that politicians are seeing women as a constituency. People will slowly learn to accept that a woman's vote will matter in times to come."
GOVERNMENT UNDER FIRE
The government's initial response to the attack drew criticism.
It angered protesters by trying to throttle the largely peaceful demonstrations by imposing emergency policing laws, barricading roads and closing down underground train stations.
And it was a week before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a statement, in which he appealed for calm and promised to create a safer environment for women.
"We will examine without delay not only the responses to this terrible crime but also all aspects concerning the safety of women and children and punishment to those who commit these monstrous crimes," Singh said in a rare televised address to the nation on December 24.
One senior government official who did not want to be identified said Singh had been waiting for the home minister and the Delhi authorities to deal with the issue first.
Many protesters have also expressed disappointment at the low profile of younger politicians such as Rahul Gandhi, seen as the Congress Party's prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 elections and who could have helped bridge the gap between the demonstrators and the political establishment.
His first comment, extending sympathy to the victim's family and urging respect for women, came after the student had died.
Analysts said the slow and bumbling response from the elite illustrated how India's politicians are out of touch with the demands of the country's urban youth.
"Whatever the trigger, one thing is absolutely clear: India's political class has been left bewildered by the street protests involving large numbers of mostly apolitical and leaderless individuals," wrote political pundit Swapan Dasgupta in the Times of India on Sunday.
But gender rights are unlikely to make a significant dent in India's elections. Similar street protests in August 2011 over corruption fizzled due to the inability of organizers to maintain public pressure and keep the media interested.
Despite gender sensitive laws being in place for decades, including those outlawing practices such as dowries and child marriage, they have been poorly implemented largely due to a lack of political will, activists say.
Many of India's legislators are elderly men who rely on the support of the rural masses, where deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes mean blame is often first assigned to the victims of sex attacks.
One of the most powerful female figures in Indian history is former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, mother of Rahul, heads the Congress Party and there are also more than one million female politicians in village councils.
Yet only 11 percent of seats in India's lower and upper houses of parliament are held by women, ranking it 110th out of 145 countries, below less developed nations such as Niger and Pakistan, says the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a Geneva-based union of national parliaments.
For almost 18 years, moves to give women greater power at the national and state level through the Women's Reservation Bill, which would guarantee 33 percent of seats to women at those levels, have been blocked by male legislators.
"Political parties give tickets for fighting elections on the basis of electoral calculations. How many women are there in Indian politics who can get elected time after time? Very few, right?" said Nirmala Sitharaman, spokeswoman for the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
Gender rights activists also point out that political parties have allowed male legislators who themselves face rape charges and other crimes against women to represent them.
Six serving state legislators have been charged with rape, while 36 others including two national parliamentarians have faced charges of sexual harassment, molestation or assault on a woman before holding an assembly seat, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a Delhi-based think-tank. (TrustLaw is a global hub for free legal assistance and news and information on good governance and women's rights run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. For more stories, visit www.trust.org/trustlaw)
(Additional reporting by Aditya Kalra; Editing by Nick Macfie and Dean Yates)