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Women In Indian Politics

Updated: October 4, 2014 4:03 pm

What is even more significant is that in many cases these women leaders have not emerged through the familiar South Asian paradigm of dynastic advantage. Sonia Gandhi, obviously, is a clear example of a dynastic leader, with an almost iconic relevance, but in fact, in this respect, she is in the minority among women leaders today

The polls of the world’s largest democracy have delivered their verdict and India waits with bated breath to learn whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration will be different than the earlier. While India exults after yet another peacefully concluded election, one question remains: What is the role of women in Indian politics? The issue has come sharply into focus for some years now, partly because of the thwarted moves towards providing one-third reservation for women in legislative bodies including the Parliament, along with more successful moves to enforce such reservation in elections to rural panchayats. Of course, such an issue naturally becomes more apparent during a period of elections as well.

What has emerged quite clearly in the current very long drawn out election process is how little has changed at one level since Independence. The candidates fielded by the various political parties are still dominantly male: women account for only five to ten per cent of all candidates across parties and regions. This is the same broad pattern that has been observed in virtually the 15 previous general elections in the country.

This is the case despite the hullabaloo made over the Constitution (84th Amendment) Bill relating to women’s reservation even last year. The very parties that were most explicitly in favour of pushing for such reservation have put up the same proportion of women as always, and certainly not more than other parties that had opposed the Bill. The Congress party, led by a woman and supposedly pushing for reservation for women, had only 9.8 per cent of women among the candidates. For the BJP, the proportion of women candidates is better at 10.4 per cent. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) which is most vocal supporter of women rights had fielded only 1.7 per cent women candidates.

Along with this, India also falls in the lowest quartile with respect to the number of women in Parliament (9.13 per cent, 16th Lok Sabha). Even Rawanda (63.8 per cent), South Africa (40 per cent), Mozambique (39.2 per cent) and many others have much more women representatives, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s report released on women in politics over the world. That said the recently concluded 16th Lok Sabha elections have delivered a record 61 women as members of the Parliament, highest since independence, raising their parliamentary participation to 9.13 per cent. And representation of women leaders at the grassroots level in India is nearly 50 per cent, especially since the passing of the 73rd Amendment of 1992, which allotted one-third of all seats to women. The panchayati raj, the bedrock of rural government, has fostered more and more women participants and leaders. Some states, like Karnataka, had inducted women into rural politics even before it was mandated by the Constitution. Several states, including Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar and most recently, Uttarakhand, have allotted not just the required 33 per cent of panchayat seats for women but have increased it to 50 per cent.


What may be more significant in terms of political power than the proportion of women fighting the Lok Sabha polls is the importance of women in inner-party structures. . Here women are by and large even less represented, in all parties. In most parties, the women members are by and large thin on the ground if not invisible in the actual decision-making bodies and rarely influence the more significant party policies. Most often, indeed, they are relegated to the “women’s wing” of the party, and made to concentrate on what are seen as specifically “women’s issues” such as dowry and rape cases, and occasionally on more general concerns like price rise which are seen to affect especially “housewives”. Despite all this, only the foolhardy would suggest that women are unimportant in Indian politics today. In many ways, most of them are qualitative, they have never been as important as they are today. This is most evident in the proliferation of women leader s and in the fact that even though some of them may head parties that are relatively small in the national context, they simply cannot be ignored.

What is even more significant is that in many cases these women leaders have not emerged through the familiar South Asian paradigm of dynastic advantage. Sonia Gandhi, obviously, is a clear example of a dynastic leader, with an almost iconic relevance, but in fact, in this respect, she is in the minority among women leaders today. Thus, Jayalalithaa and Mayawati may have originally based their rise in politics on their proximity to particular male leaders, but they are clearly now significant leaders in their own right, who can influence not only the decisions of their own parties but even the course of national politics. Mamata Banerjee, despite or indeed because of her controversial nature, is the leader of a party who can claim to have got where she is on her own, without male assistance in any of the more obvious ways.

Of course, one myth that is easily exploded by the role played by such women leaders is that political leadership by women is dramatically different from that by men. Nor is it necessarily more colourful, as some of the more extravagant male politicians like Lalu Prasad Yadav can establish.

Indeed, the truth is that most of our women political leaders are no better or worse than men, and in fact a bit of reflection would indicate that this is only to be expected. In fact, nor have women leaders been typically anxious to give greater representation to other women within their own organisations or in the political process generally. Of course, the most prominent woman to have been in post-Independence politics—Indira Gandhi—was an especially clear example of this.

But there is one interesting question that is thrown up by this relatively new development in Indian politics. What is it that makes the political system receptive to the emergence and even dominance of certain women leaders, even as it continues to suppress the voices of ordinary women as party workers and citizens? Why is it that in terms of qualitative impact and media prominence women leaders are suddenly up front as never before? Clearly, the answer is not to be found in any dilution of the male chauvinism which runs deep in Indian politics. If anything, the campaign process so far has indicated a resurgence of patriarchy which has been exploited by those arguing both in favour of and against particular women candidates. Thus, for example, men have castigated women candidates (and one in particular) for being no more than housewives and doing no more for the country than bearing children. Such remarks are breathtaking both in their ignorance of the many complex demands of household management, child-bearing and child-rearing, and in their implicit assumption that male public activities necessarily do a lot “for the country”. But several women candidates have just as eagerly presented themselves as bahus or betis, therefore, relying quite as much on traditional patriarchal notions of femininity and what criteria make women fit for political life.


What does seem to be the case is that—barring striking exceptions where dynastic charisma is seen to matter more than anything else—most women politicians have found it difficult to rise within party hierarchies, and have managed to achieve clear leadership only when they have effectively broken out and set up parties on their own. Yet once these women become established as leaders, another peculiarly Indian characteristic seems to dominate—that is the unquestioning acceptance by the (largely male) party rank and file of the leader’s decisions. One thing that is missing here is the name of a woman from rural areas or from a general house. But why is it so? Reason is that general housewives focus on three issues: healthcare, education, and the funds to make these two things happen.

That brings us to the larger question — the future of women politicians in India. Is it too much of a coincidence that the women who really do well in politics are only those who head political parties? After all, can anybody dictate terms to the Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati or the AIADMK supreme, J.Jayalalithaa, or Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee? As for Ms Sonia Gandhi, well, she runs nothing less than a political empire where the Congress party is concerned! If we take other parties, particularly in the Hindi heartland, it will take a lot of effort to even recall the names of prominent women politicians.

What all this suggests, therefore, is that the political empowerment of women not only has a long way to go, but finally may not have all that much to do with the periodic carnivals of Indian electoral democracy. This is not to say that the electoral representation of women is unimportant, but rather that it needs to be both deeper and wider than its current manifestation in the form of the prominence of a few conspicuous women leaders.

By Nilabh Krishna

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