Female Parliamentarians at a Historic High, but Parties Must Do More

Unlike in many democracies, only 13% of parliamentarians in India are women. This problem will not be resolved until parties decide to field more female candidates.

The just-concluded inductions to the Rajya Sabha brought the number of women MPs to 25 of 245, just over 10% of the house. This brings the tally of women in parliament to 103 (there are 78 women in the 17th Lok Sabha), which is a new record.

This paucity of women’s voices in the uppermost echelons of lawmaking is not a matter of pride for the nation.

Number of women in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Photo: Author provided

Electoral outcomes cannot exceed inputs, be they direct elections to the lower house or indirect elections to the upper house. With political parties fielding 8-9% female candidates in the last decade of Lok Sabha elections, the houses could not have been more female.

Their often cited excuse is a lack of winnability of women, a complete fallacy in the face of counter-evidence. In every single Lok Sabha election since 1952, women have won at a greater rate than men, as per Election Commission statistics. The graph of the data from 1957-2019 clearly illustrates that.

Parties are particularly skilled at electoral math, especially the winning ones, making their data-devoid arguments on winnability implausible. Even so, Rajya Sabha victories are foretold, given the parties’ strengths in state legislatures are known quantities. That implies that the gender of candidates for Rajya Sabha seats is irrelevant to the election and the gender proportion of Rajya Sabha is entirely predicated on the parties’ willingness to field women.

Graph on ‘winnability’ of candidates. Photo: Author provided

However, the strength of women in the Rajya Sabha has been dismal since 1957, as seen in the table. The average number of female Rajya Sabha members is 9.5% while the highest was 12.7%, in 2014.

In fact, if every woman who was ever a member of the Rajya Sabha, including her multiple terms, were counted, the cumulative would be a measly 208, not even equalling the Rajya Sabha’s strength of 245.

This effectively puts paid to political party claims, bogus anyway since electoral outcomes point to exactly the contrary, that they do not field female candidates for reasons of winnability. Nothing stops them, except patriarchal domination that deliberately denies the constitutionally guaranteed political representation to women.

This raises the spectre of non-adherence of parties to political equality of genders, even as they are required to swear by the constitution of India in order to register and legitimise themselves with the Election Commission. The lacuna in powers accorded to the ECI denies it the teeth to discipline parties and prevent this travesty of poor representation of nearly half the voters.

Women in the Rajya Sabha. Photo: Author provided

In other democracies like South Africa, Australia, Sweden, Germany and the UK, political parties have acknowledged this skew and course-corrected to enable a democracy that hears diverse voices on legislation and policy. Parties self-enforce with voluntary quotas or minimum limits of 33% or 50% women in their candidate lists and party leadership roles. Most of our neighbours, from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Nepal and Bangladesh, have reserved parliamentary seats for women. Both these tactics have boosted the number of women in world parliaments.

What is clear though, in seven decades, is that such skew will not be resolved magically, but instead needs purposeful intervention. Citizen activism like Shakti – Political Power to Women, National Association of Women’s Organisations (NAWO) and others, exert public pressure towards policies requiring half the election tickets to be accorded to women or arming the ECI with disciplining capabilities. A combination of these, and/or women’s reservation, is critical for the Indian electorate to have genuine representation.

Disclosure: Tara Krishnaswamy is a co-founder of Shakti – Political Power to Women, a non-partisan citizen’s collective with the goal of increasing women’s representation in parliament and state assemblies.