Where Are the Women in Indian Politics?

Even though it would appear that more women are participating in electoral politics in India, there are several qualitative ways in which they are politically excluded. 

As the Lok Sabha elections 2019 begins to wrap up, the discourse is slowly shifting towards questions about voter participation. A recent report has suggested that women may be the deciding factor for this election by constituting the swing vote. The report suggests that voter turnout amongst women is higher than ever. While this might appear to be a positive development on the surface, one must ask: does an increase in number necessarily indicate more meaningful political participation?

Numbers can often obscure qualitative social realities. Statistics cannot tell you how much agency a woman was able to exercise in casting her vote. To understand that, women, as a category, cannot be treated as uniform—especially as a political category. Caste, class and demographic differences need to be accounted for if we wish to understand the nuances of how and why women vote because these intersections are instrumental in defining the political aspirations that these women may have.

Socio-economic differences are also crucial when we try to understand how much space a woman is able to carve for herself in the political sphere. Recently, when former Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi quit Congress and joined Shiv Sena because of alleged harassment that she faced within Congress, questions were raised about her principles. But other commentators wondered if Chaturvedi was simply trying to survive in politics as a woman. Even when a woman is contesting for a seat, one must interrogate her agency: “token” women candidates may receive tickets to contest from certain constituencies because parties may believe that they have a better chance to win. But can it be concluded that such representation is problematic?  

In this reading list, we explore these questions in greater detail.

1) Voting and Female Empowerment

Universal suffrage is necessary for representative democracy to work properly. To this end, women’s participation has been on the rise. In a study conducted in 2014, Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi found that during the last 50 years women’s vote share in India has increased significantly, which in their interpretation is an encouraging development. They equate this rise with female empowerment since there does not appear to be any discernible connection between any government policy and increased women’s participation. However, it is inadequate to measure empowerment in this manner, since the government is not the only social instrument that functions within the patriarchal framework to restrict women’s agency.

Our analysis reveals a sharp decline in gender bias in voting over time, across all states, including the traditionally backward states. This decline is solely driven by an increase in women participation while male turnout remains unchanged over time. This is a positive and encouraging trend in Indian politics. Particularly, as this improvement does not seem to be brought about by a deliberate top-down policy action but largely due to voluntary participation of women voters in elections, that is the reason, we term this phenomenon as one of self-empowerment.

2) Making Political Decisions

What are the factors that guide how women decide whom to vote for? A 1996 National Election Survey found that 17% of the women who responded were influenced by the opinion of their spouses, and another 19% of the women reported that the opinions of their family members mattered when choosing who to vote for. Rajeshwari Deshpande, in her article analysing voting behaviour among women in 2004, suggests that these trends may mean that women are more dependent on familial opinion when making political choices because they are kept away from institutional and social resources that would allow them to form independent political opinions.

Genderwise profile of Congress and BJP voters across major social groups is presented in Table 6. It shows how the BJP’s support comes from the privileged sections within women. There is a sharp variation in support extended to the BJP by women from different social groups. The urban, rich, graduate and the upper caste women support the BJP in a more pronounced way. The percentage of votes that the party receives from these sections is much above than its average vote among women. On the other hand, the Congress support base among women is more balanced across social groups. The Congress receives slightly less than its average support among the poor and upper caste women and receives nearly 12 percentage points more support than the average among Muslim women. In all remaining social groups it hovers around 2 percentage points of the average.

3) Active Participation

In 1987, Gail Omvedt wrote:  “the exclusion of women from political power has been more marked than their exclusion from 'productive' work or even property rights. The contemporary era is no different.”  Writing in the context of zilla parishad elections in Maharashtra when an “all women’s front” emerged to contest from 24 districts, the author argued that the continued political exclusion of women prevents them from significantly affecting change in terms of combating the violence that these women face in their everyday lives. However, she pointed out how political parties are only motivated to support women candidates only if it is politically advantageous to them.

Party leaders initially seem to react to the idea of supporting a women's front by talking of percentages—You stand for 50 per cent, leave 50 per cent of the seats'. But whether it is 50-50, 60-40 or whatever, women generally respond to this sort of things with an underlying cynicism, for they know well that before the existence of Samagra Mahila Aghadi women would not have been allotted even 10 per cent of party seats. The women's front is determined to put up candidates for 100 per cent of the seats and is confident that in fact in every district, every taluka, every village they can find women ready for such a struggle and capable of running the ZPs as well as the bosses currently sitting on them. They ask only for the help of the parties in doing so. 

Deshpande’s article shows how more than 75% of the respondents from the 1996 National Election Survey supported women’s reservation and active political participation. However, the manner in which political parties are organised today usually prevents more women from rising within party ranks.

Parties argue against nominating women candidates because they doubt their winning ability. Our calculations from the official data of the Election Commission clearly negate these apprehensions. Election data since 1998 show that the success rates of men and women candidates do not differ in a major way and in many cases women candidates are more successful than their male counter- parts. These observations cannot be far fetched as party nominations for men and women are totally disproportionate. Therefore, the doubts about women's winning ability does not hold. It also means that both men and women voters are not appre- hensive of women candidates. Of course, it is too simplistic to assume that women would en masse vote for women or would prefer women candidates to men candidates, at least at the national and state level elections. Instead, the patterns of women's voting reveal a definite, focused understanding of the political choices they have.

4) Influencing Decision-making

Even when women are elected to office, it does not necessarily mean that they will be able to influence decision making within political parties to a great extent because of systemic inhibitions. For instance, in 1996, Gyanendra Kr Yadav and Ravindra Kumar Verma wrote that there was a marked increase in women legislators in Bihar since the Janata Dal came to power. Yet that did not yield any significant reforms in favour of women’s participation because the basic structure and methods of functioning of political parties remained the same.

There is no such rising trend among political parties to nominate women candidates in assembly elections. In fact, the Congress which nominated 32 women candidates in 1985 put up only 19 in 1980 and 17 in 1990. This suggests that women have not sufficiently influenced the intra- party organisational power structure, particularly in terms of allotting tickets during elections. The social classification of women contestants could not be obtained. In short, women's participation as political actors has improved but their grip over power structure, at least at the party level, has not been impressive.

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