Women’s Political Representation: An Unfulfilled Promise

Gender quotas are amongst the affirmative policy tools designed to increase women’s representation in politics, but this promise in the Indian political arena has merely remained an unsatisfied fable.

Undoubtedly, the women in India participate in voting and run for public offices and political parties at lower levels much more than men. Women turnout during India’s parliamentary general elections was 65.63%, compared to 67.09% turnout for men. India stood 149th in a 2019 list of 193 countries ranked by the percentage of elected women representatives in their national parliaments, trailing Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan and dropping three places since 2018.

The Women’s Reservation Bill, 2008, is a pending bill in the Parliament of India which proposes to amend the Constitution of India to reserve 1/3rd of all seats in the Lok Sabha and in all state legislative assemblies for women. The seats were proposed to be reserved in rotation and would have been determined by draw of lots in such a way that a seat would be reserved only once in three consecutive general elections. The Rajya Sabha passed the bill on 9th March 2010. Ironically, however, the Lok Sabha never voted on the bill. The bill is still pending, and holding a shock and awe of unfulfilled promises.  

In the year 1992, the 73rd and 74th amendment acts were passed, providing one-third reservation to the women representatives in urban and rural local bodies.  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.

Women MPs in Lok Sabha from 1952-2014; cr. Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, 2017; Economic and Political Weekly, 2011

Paradoxically, political parties led by women leaders too have been guilty of continuing with this trend of 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 was able to win their seats.

Given all of the provisions in the constitution and the respective affirmative actions, it is mystifying to witness the narrow-minded and discriminatory approach of the political class on issues of representation.

Elected women in representatives in panchayats; cr. Lok Sabha (unstarred Q No. 6343)

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 parade an obvious laziness towards women’s representation. This sums up the understanding pattern that women don’t exist as an exclusive ‘unified political-vote bank’. There are multiple reasons for women’s underrepresentation in India, fluctuating from socio-historic roots of patriarchy and the intrinsic masculinity of contemporary political trends to social institutions such as marriage and kinship.

One of the reasons for this underrepresentation of women in the political arena is given by Sylvia Walby. She argues that the structured hierarchy confirms total control of women’s labour both in the private and the public sphere by men; what she calls as “patriarchal mode of production”. She argues that men benefit materially from patriarchy; they derive concrete economic gains from the subordination of women.

Read Walby’s Theory: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-1-349-24737-0_10

Maybe this is precisely the reason why women representation is being vehemently opposed by nearly all political parties, as men control women’s productivity both within the household and in the paid work sphere. Within the household, women are supposed to provide round the clock service to the members, throughout their lives- which is obviously unpaid. Thus, women’s labour is being expropriated by the male-dominated private sphere, and eventually in the political sphere of the society.

The endless and repetitive labour put in by women is, thus, not considered work at all, and is often deemed as unproductive. Hence, it remains unpaid; this is the vicious exploitative circle which engulfs women’s lives and gives rise to their systemic oppression in every field of society.

Labelling the female toil as unproductive and confining it into the domains of married life creates the hegemony of males in the paid labour market. A consistent buff is bequeathed upon them to gather profit from the public sphere and to control the mobility of the other gender. The Women’s Reservation Bill challenges this whole notion of segregation of spheres according to gender. It makes a probability for women to enter into uncharted territories for them, which are generally masculine. The WRB invariably means more and more women in positions of power and decision-making which actively influences public life and thus a threat to the stable status quo.

The low representation of women in the legislature can be traced to the patriarchal structure of Indian politics, noted a January 2011 analysis by the Economic and Political Weekly. It stated that the lack of reservation for women in parliament and state assemblies, unwillingness among political parties to give tickets to women, a general lack of awareness of electoral politics among women and the lack of family support– were some of the specific reasons for the gender skew.

In the last general election, a 71 years old lady named Pramila Bisoyi won the election and became the MP from Odisha. She belongs to an economically lower class, but now she is representing their constituency in the parliament. She implicitly stated to the NDTV, “Women are so habituated with our patriarchal and male-dominated society that they don’t find it odd upon getting deprived of, using the power and rights of their positions. They have forgotten their ability to fight for survival. Along with this, criminalization and investment of enormous money in the election also restrict a woman from entering the field of politics.”

Similarly, Remya Haridas, a 32-year MP from Kerala, is the second-ever Dalit MP, breaking the age-old thinking of our society. In Bihar, Ritu Jaiswal, an educated mukhiya in Singhvahini village, created another example of women entering into politics without any political background.

Nevertheless, these are only a few success stories of women representation in politics; India still has a long way to go to achieve equal women representation in the parliament. As when it comes to their involvement and role in decision making, the power still lies in the hands of men.

Ramya Haridas, MP from Kerala; cr. Deccan Herald

Increasing women’s presence in parliament potentially offers an opportunity for women’s voices to impact policy-making and to address the root causes of gender inequality. We need women politicians and ministers to bring up issues concerning women in the parliament and engage in active participation for their upliftment. All women living in this patriarchal Indian society have lived experiences of being victims of structured aggression, and we all have a shared memory of trauma. The ‘personal is political’ idea basically implies that only those sections of people who experience certain oppression personally can explain the politics around it. But some recent political theorists fear that many women in politics, especially those associated with the current right-wing led government are a compelling example of the instrumentalization of women to accomplish the political goals of the majoritarian trends as opposed to being women’s rights advocates dedicated to solving problems affecting women.

Women’s reservation bill in limbo: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-times/womens-reservation-bill-in-limbo/articleshow/70003330.cms

Since the passing of the Women Representation Bill still remains a distant dream, another effective way to increase women parliamentarians is to field more women candidates for contesting. It can provide a successful impetus to the participation of women in the regional electoral political arena and can act as a baby step towards the implementation of the WRB. But one of the criticisms of this respective brainchild policy is that it would just promote the representation of the creamy layer rather than the real oppressed mass, who do not have any political heirloom.

With the diversity and heterogeneity of Indian society, adequate representation of all major social groups, including women, is essential to make the greatest possible improvements to people’s lives. The Women’s Reservation Bill is imperative for a more egalitarian and gender-just society, though we know that we have to walk many more miles before we dream of it. As a community that had to organise mass movements to ensure their political suffrage, we know that battle scars are just the predecessor of a new dawn. A new dawn, where states will not focus on territorial capture, but on the wellbeing of their citizens.

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Feature Image Credits: Scroll India

Nirmanyu Chouhan



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