Why Aren't We Dealing With the Lack of Women in Indian Politics?

At all levels of government, India performs abysmally in terms of women's representation in political bodies. But nobody seems intent on tackling this.

In today’s political landscape, motherhood is often deployed as a tool to highlight the ‘sacred’ nature of a subject, ranging from the gau mata to Bharat mata and Ganga mata. At the same time, issues around women’s rights and empowerment, varying from triple talaq to Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, are regular topics of conversation in political circles. But an important question remains: do the men in Indian politics only want to talk about women, or are they also willing to make an effort to share power with them?

Women representation in numbers

The figures on the representation of women in parliament reveal an appalling state of affairs. According to a study conducted by Inter-Parliamentary Union, India ranks 149th in a list of 193 countries in terms of women’s representation in the lower or single house of parliament (Lok Sabha, in the case of India) as of July 1, 2017.  The average percentage of women’s representation globally stands at about 22%, whereas in case of India it is a mere 11.8%. Countries like Rwanda, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Fiji and Ghana rank higher than India. In South Asia, Nepal (48), Afghanistan (54), Pakistan (90) and Bangladesh (92) rank much higher than India. Even in the Rajya Sabha, the representation of women stands at a meagre 11.1%.

An empirical study of the members of legislative assemblies reveals how skewed the gender representation is in state legislatures. Out of 4,128 legislative constituencies, only 364 are represented by women legislators.

State/Union territory Women MLAs/ Total MLAs Percentage
Mizoram 0/40 0
Nagaland 0/60 0
Karnataka 6/224 2.67
Arunachal Pradesh 2/60 3.33
Manipur 2/60 3.33
Jammu and Kashmir 3/89 3.37
Himachal Pradesh 3/68 4.41
Goa 2/40 5
Punjab 6/117 5.12
Kerala 8/140 5.71
Assam 8/126 6.34
Meghalaya 4/60 6.66
Maharashtra 20/288 6.94
Uttarakhand 5/70 7.14
Odisha 11/147 7.48
Telangana 9/120 7.5
Tripura 5/60 8.33
Delhi 6/70 8.5
Gujarat 16/182 8.79
Tamil Nadu 21/235 8.93
Sikkim 3/32 9.37
Jharkhand 8/81 9.87
Uttar Pradesh 42/403 10.42
Andhra Pradesh 19/176 10.79
Chhattisgarh 10/90 11.11
Bihar 28/243 11.5
Madhya Pradesh 30/230 13.04
Puducherry 4/30 13.33
Rajasthan 28/200 14
West Bengal 42/297 14.14
Haryana 13/90 14.44
Total 364/4128 8.81

In order to ensure adequate representation of women in local bodies, parliament passed the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments in 1993, reserving one-third of the seats in all local bodies for women. In addition, some legislative bodies, like Bihar and Delhi, have reserved more than one-third of the total seats for women. Notwithstanding the object and purpose of the above-mentioned amendments, there has hardly been any improvement on the ground.This was reflected in the recently-held local body elections in Mumbai and Delhi.

In the BMC elections, only 15 out of 113 unreserved constituencies were won by women. Similarly, in Delhi’s municipal corporation election, 138 out of 272 constituencies were reserved for women. Major political parties like AAP, Congress and BJP offered seven, six and two tickets respectively to women in unreserved constituencies. Ironically, most of the tickets given to women candidates in reserved constituencies were prompted not by their personal stature, but for their husbands or other male relatives.

This dismal state of affairs is replicated even at the national and state levels, where there is no reservation for women candidates. During the 16th Lok Sabha elections, the largest party, the BJP, gave only 38 of 428 tickets to women candidates, while the Congress gave 60 tickets. Similarly, other national parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party fielded 21 women, Communist Party of India fielded six, Communist Party of India (Marxist) fielded 11 and Nationalist Congress Party fielded four.

Political parties led by woman leaders too have been guilty of continuing with the underrepresentation of women. In the last legislative assembly elections in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress gave only 43 tickets to women out of a total of 293 seats; in UP, Mayawati’s BSP gave 21 tickets to women out of 403; in Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK then led by J. Jayalalithaa gave 29 out of 234 seats to women. Given the centrality of political parties in Indian politics, it becomes immensely difficult for candidates to contest independently. None of the 206 women candidates who contested the 16th Lok Sabha elections independently were able to win their seats.

Constitutional and international law obligations

The obligation to provide a level playing field in terms of opportunities finds its place both in the constitution as well as in international law obligations.

In addition to the aspirations expressed in the preamble of our constitution, Article 39A says the state must ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reasons of economic or other disabilities. In addition to this, Article 46 imposes a duty on the state to protect weaker sections from social injustice and all forms of exploitation. Article 14, which established the right to equality as a fundamental right, inevitably mandates for equal opportunity, which is reflected in Article 15(3).

Women voters. Credit: Reuters/Files

Women voters. Credit: Reuters/Files

India is a signatory to the Convention for Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which obliges states, under Article 7, to take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in political and public life and, in particular, to ensure that women are as eligible as men to contest elections to all public bodies, that they have the ‘right to participate’ in contributing to government policy and its implementation.

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is binding on signatory states including India, says that “every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions […] to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”

Given all of this, it is perplexing to witness the parochial and discriminatory approach of the political class on issues of representation. While on one hand they appear to uphold the banner of inclusive representation based on criteria like caste or region, on the other hand they display a conspicuous apathy to women’s representation. This can be attributed, inter alia, to the understanding that women don’t exist as an exclusive ‘political class’ or a ‘unified vote bank’. There can be manifold reasons for women’s underrepresentation in India, ranging from socio-historic reasons and the inherent masculinity of popular politics to institutional hurdles like family and marriage and the current socio-economic and political policies.

Taking a cue from global experiences, there are various mechanisms which can be adopted to ensure adequate representation of women after being adapted according to India’s peculiar needs. For instance, nearly half of the top 50 countries in the IPU list have a ‘voluntary party quotas’ system. Voluntary party quotas have been applied in different ways. For example, in some European countries like Sweden, the ‘zipper’ system requires party candidate lists to alternate between one male and one female candidate, so that every three candidates must include one woman. The soft quota system is based on the rationale that gender parity will occur gradually over time, without the need for rules, and is used in democracies such as the US, Australia and New Zealand. Reserved seats are the most widespread gender quota system used in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and in the Arab region. Legal candidate quotas are the preferred system in Latin America and the Balkans.

Equal participation of men and women is not only a prerequisite for justice and democracy, it is an inevitable condition for harmonious human existence as well. Effective representation of women in decision-making structures will have a bearing on the policies, vision and structure of institutions. And that’s something everyone should be fighting for. 

Haris Jamil is a research scholar at South Asian University and Anmolam is president of Buddies for Legal Aid and Awareness.