Where are India’s Women Lawmakers?

Women’s absence from political participation hurts democracy

By: Neeta Lal

As assembly elections to four states and one union territory get underway, India’s women are being targeted as never before, with inducements that range from utensils to washing machines, blenders to saris, even gold, a courtship indicating that while India’s politicians lust after women’s votes, they care little about electing them to office. The Inter-Parliamentary Union reported in January that India ranks 148th of 150 countries in women’s representation, behind regional peers China (86th), Pakistan (116th), Bangladesh (111th), and Afghanistan (71st).

Skipping past the idea of actually electing them to office, homemakers in the southern state of Tamil Nadu have become the most sought-after, with every political formation trying to outwit one another in luring them with announcements like financial assistance for marriage as well as assistance packages for destitute women, widows and the elderly. In the east, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are pulling all stops to poach women voters from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress, announcing a spate of women-centric initiatives. The feisty Banerjee, meanwhile, is ensuring none of this happens by announcing her own quota of freebies for women – girl student welfare schemes, microfinance for women entrepreneurs and housing for senior citizens, among others.

This political competition is reflective of the high stakes involved. In West Bengal, for instance, in the past two Assembly elections, the percentage of women voting on polling day has been higher than men — in 2011, women outvoted men with 84.45 percent against 84.22 percent and in 2016, with 83.13 percent against 82.23 percent. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, nearly half of the state’s voters are females.

While women aren’t complaining about the proffered sops or the electoral populism that surrounds it, many are questioning why these states don’t put in place concrete legislative measures to improve their political participation and truly empower them. While women voters’ turnout has surged in recent years, their representation in political and lawmaking bodies, both at the state level and in the Parliament, remains abysmal. Across India, nine of 10 legislators are men. Globally, India ranks 122d of 153 countries in women’s representation in Parliament, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020. While the 2019 Lok Sabha elections witnessed a spurt in representation of women candidates, only 14 percent of India’s parliamentarians are women.

This low political participation is further diminished by the fact that successful women candidates are more likely to come from political or wealthy families. In fact, over 42 percent of women MPs come from such families compared to 15 percent of male MPs, says a survey by a Delhi-based political think tank. There are numerous examples of high-profile Indian women politicians belonging to powerful political dynasties peppered across the political spectrum. Congress leader Sonia Gandhi (pictured above) and her daughter Priyanka Vadra, Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, Vasundhara Raje, Supriya Sule, to name a few.

There is a strong case for having women in leading political positions. Recent research shows that women-run countries fared better on social and health parameters than those led by men. From Germany to New Zealand and Denmark to Taiwan – nations administered by women have arguably managed the pandemic better.

Economically too, women-led governments outshine those headed by men. A survey by London-based think tank International Growth Center revealed that economic growth is higher in constituencies led by women than in those led by men. The survey also discovered that “women are less likely to have a criminal record, less likely to accumulate rents in office, more likely to oversee road completion and less likely to be politically opportunistic in their allocation of effort”.

Political observers feel that the Indian bias against women in politics is rooted in socio-cultural reasons, the sign of a patriarchal society. “Women’s access to public office is often restricted by voter bias in favor of male politicians,” said Sudeshna Bose, Professor Sociology, Delhi University. “They believe that women won’t make competent politicians as they may not be able to work the levers of power or navigate the corridors of bureaucracy due to their soft image.”

In addition, women’s limited knowledge about how political institutions work, their self-assessed leadership skills, and a generally diffident view of their own capabilities further harms their chances to enter politics, adds Bose. 

This deficit is ironic because women have enjoyed great political success in the country since the 1960s. India was the second country to elect a female head of state, Indira Gandhi, in 1969. She went on to dominate the country’s political landscape for decades. Similarly, the late Jayalalitha was a three-term chief minister of Tamil Nadu; late Sheila Dixit was Delhi’s three-term CM; Mayawati managed Uttar Pradesh for two terms as CM and Mamta Banerjee has ruled Bengal for over a decade.

Given these dynamics, experts say in a gender-unequal society like India, quotas or reservation of seats for women is the only effective solution to ensure their fair participation. However, the Women’s Reservation Bill, which reserves 33 percent of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies, and was introduced by Parliament way back in 1996, has still not been passed by any government. After the Rajya Sabha cleared it in 2010, the Lok Sabha has never voted on it despite being pushed by national parties like the Indian National Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the general elections in 2019.

Apart from such measures, activists also advocate grassroots mentoring of women to help them realize their political ambitions. Some NGOs are already active at the state and district levels. The Netri Foundation grooms politically ambitious women through training modules, research and advocacy efforts. Sakhiree, a local NGO, has been helping women in Bihar nurture their political ambitions for over two decades now. Shakti, a women’s collective, is similarly coaching women for roles of political leadership.

The incubation of women at these organizations augurs well for the country’s democratic traditions, opines activist Shreyasi Gupta, a facilitator at Netri Foundation. “We’re helping women take baby steps towards political involvement. And far more women than we’d imagined are coming forward to leverage this opportunity. It’s a sign of their political awakening and maturity while also being a harbinger of a more gender-balanced political system in India in the future.”

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