New Delhi: Women empowerment — an issue that leaders of various political parties often talk about, especially during their election campaign speeches, but hardly do they make any real effort to promote women in politics.
That the Women’s Reservation Bill — envisaging 33% quota for women in the Lok Sabha and in all the state Legislative Assemblies — is still stuck despite being introduced in Parliament nine years ago, shows the reluctance of political parties in empowering women in politics.
Some regional parties have, however, shown the way.
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s party Biju Janata Dal (BJD) had fielded seven women candidates for the Lok Sabha elections, keeping his promise of giving 33% tickets to women. Odisha has 21 Lok Sabha constituencies. The party had fielded only two women candidates in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and both emerged winners.
Following Patnaik’s announcement, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) released its list of candidates comprising 41% of women.
The move by the TMC and BJD, however, failed to motivate the national parties.
On Women’s Political Empowerment Day, 24 April, ThePrint looks at the candidature of women in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections and what data tells us about their representation in politics.
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Very few women candidates
According to the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, as of 21 April 2019, both the BJP and Congress continued to have a poor record when it came to giving election tickets to women — BJP had given tickets to 429 candidates, of which 53 were women (12.3%), the Congress has named 387 candidates, of which 47 were women (12.1%).
This abysmal figure is telling as all parties, at one point or the other, had extended support to the Women’s Reservation Bill.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi had promised the passage of the Bill if the party came to power in 2019. The BJP too promised the same in its 2014 Lok Sabha manifesto. But, five years on, the BJP continues to pass the buck despite being the ruling party. The BJP has yet again promised to pass the Bill in its 2019 manifesto.
The year 2014 saw a meagre 11.3% women representation in the Lok Sabha, which is the highest till date. At present, India is at the 149th spot in a list of 193 countries ranked according to percentage of women legislators elected to the national Parliament. India’s neighbouring countries fared relatively better. While Bangladesh is at the 97th spot, Pakistan is at 101st spot.
Performance of women candidates
Political parties’ hesitation to field women candidates is baffling given an analysis of data from the 2014 Lok Sabha election results by ThePrint that shows that performance by women candidates was mostly a reflection of how their respective parties fared overall.
In 2014, the Congress had fielded 60 women candidates, and only 4 had won. However, only 44 Congress candidates made it to the Lok Sabha anyway.
The BJP had fielded 38 women candidates, with 30 of them emerging as the winners. This also mirrors the national-level wave in favour of the BJP in 2014, with the party winning 282 of the 428 seats it had contested.
The AIADMK saw a 100% success rate of their women candidates with all four of them winning in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This shows that women candidature doesn’t have a negative impact on the winning factor of a seat.
“Parties remain consumed by the false notion that they are taking a risk by giving tickets to women. They have a perception that women are weaker candidates, which is actually not the case”, said Gilles Verniers, assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University and co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data.
On a question that women candidates not always fare well in elections, political scientists believe there may be more factors at play than what meets the eye.
“Often in India, the ‘safe’ or ‘winnable’ seats go to male candidates, and female candidates are deliberately relegated to tougher seats,” said Upasana Mahanta, associate professor and executive director, Centre for Women, Law & Social Change, Jindal Global school.
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In state Assemblies
Female representation in state Assemblies doesn’t look all promising at all.
According to an economic survey from January last year, only 9% of MLAs in India are women. The survey says the highest percentage of women legislators are in the state assemblies of Bihar, Haryana and Rajasthan (14%), followed by Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal (13%) and Punjab (12%).
In the 2018 Assembly elections held in five states, only 9% of the elected MLAs from the five states were women.
Interestingly, from many feminist quarters, there has been a longstanding demand for representation of religious minorities, Dalits and OBC women within the 33% quota for women (that the Women’s Reservation Bill envisages) due to the fear that only upper caste, upper class women will take up all the seats.
“But eventually, many people realised that if we wait for the perfect reservation which accounts for caste and communal disparities, then the Bill may never be passed,” Mahanta told ThePrint.
While there are various entry points for women to be a part of politics, some of it is often the result of dynasty politics. A popular criticism of reservation in Parliament is that it will only help women from political families who are already privileged with access.
“Sure, many women we see in politics today are from political families. But so are many male politicians. If there is a beti-biwi brigade, there is also a chacha-bhatija brigade,” said Mahanta.
On this, Verniers said: “This is an elite recruitment of sorts, yes. But it is still one of the many entry points for women to be a part of politics”.
The growing turnout of women voters may just be the swing factor in this election, said a brokerage Centrum Broking report earlier this year.
It is reported that 65.63% of the total women electorate in India voted in the 2014 election, as opposed to the 55.82% in 2009 elections. With the increase in the turnout of women voters over the years, the attitude of political parties towards fielding women candidates may also see a change.
“More parties are beginning to realise that women have begun to vote independently and have greater composition in the electorate. So now they are looking at women as a specific segment of the electorate just like our parties look at caste & communities as specific segments of the electorate,” Verniers said.
Political parties may be fielding more women candidates to woo the increasing women electorate. But, there isn’t any data to categorically prove that women voters tend to vote for women, or that there is any correlation.
Women representation in panchayats
In 1993, the Parliament had passed a constitutional amendment that called for reservation of one-third seats in all rural and urban local bodies for women. The affirmative action that exists in panchayats and urban local bodies is often seen as a model that can potentially be emulated in the national and state levels.
At present, 19 states have taken the initiative to implement 50% reservation for women in their panchayats.
“Research shows that women leaders in panchayats often show excellent efficacy, especially their expenditure and development work priorities,” Verniers said.
However, it has also been pointed out that some panchayats are often headed by women who are just proxy leaders with the men in their families calling the shots.
A common fear is that if women reservation is implemented in Lok Sabha, one would see a similar scenario wherein women MPs would only be the de-jure leaders while their husbands/brothers would be the decision-makers.
While this is a reality in some cases, political scientists caution against dismissing the idea of affirmative action for women in politics solely because of this phenomenon.
“For every example of a voiceless female proxy leader in panchayats, there are examples of women leaders doing exceedingly well in panchayats. Why do we discount the latter?” Mahanta said.
Unfavourable conditions for women
The conditions under which women have to compete also have an impact on their effectiveness as leaders.
“You don’t get elected just based on who your husband is. You have to convince people based on more than just that. We need to resist facile generalisations like these. There is no ‘one kind’ of woman leader in panchayats or generally in politics,” Verniers told ThePrint.
More importantly, it might not be entirely fair to connect the question of women representation to the impact women may have in politics.
“First and foremost, it is a question of political equality. If you have as meagre as 11.3% women representation in the national parliament, it is a problem. Moreover, it is fundamentally misogynistic to expect that it should be the job of women to clean up the political mess that men have left behind them,” said Verniers.
There are also voices that want the debate of women representation to go beyond reservation alone.
“Political empowerment isn’t top-down. It comes from bottom-up. In many cases, women don’t have the access points. They lack financial support, family backing, among other things. Many a times, the household responsibilities aren’t shared by their partners — all of these deter women from joining politics. A reservation alone won’t fix this,” Mahanta said.
Maharashtra, as a progressive state, has not so far had a woman CM. Few powerful, effective Cabinet ministers in Mantralaya. Even Smt Pratibha Patil’s elevation to the presidency was a happy coincidence.
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