The 21st century has inherited the unfinished agenda of globalising democracy in a more vibrant form. In many instances there is a feeling of unease about the achievement of representative democracy because of the ongoing tendency of democratic nations to exclude or marginalise large sections of society. This is particularly the case for women right across the world. For democracy to be truly representative and inclusive all citizens must have equal opportunities to participate within democratic processes. If these conditions are not present the benefits of democracy for social and economic development will be severely limited, as such genuine democracies cannot allow for inequality or discrimination based on an archaic patriarchal mind set. Yet, after 65 years of freedom and democracy India’s democratic structures continue to be restricted by their patriarchal foundations and women still fail to enjoy full and equal citizenship right across the country.
This paper will discuss the challenges and opportunities before India’s women in their quest for political space and their ongoing struggle for an active role in India’s destiny making. It will outline the current status of women’s representation in decision-making bodies and will reinforce women’s fundamental right to participate in politics. Further, it will emphasise the centrality of the realisation of this right for the achievement of genuine democratic governance and gender equality throughout India.
Indian Polity and Governance Structure
Governed on the terms of the Constitution, the Indian polity is a sovereign, secular, democratic republic with a parliamentary system of government. The Indian governance structure is based on a three-tier model which corresponds to the Central Government, State Government and the Municipal Corporation or Gram Panchayat (at the village level). Candidates from political parties and independent candidates contest elections to these governing bodies once every five years.
Women as Political Actors
The participation of women in Indian politics can be dated back to the freedom movement from the 1920’s - 1940’s when women became actively engaged in the Independence struggle and contributed significantly to the establishment of a free and independent India. The spirit of the freedom movement was captured within the Constitution of India, which guarantees equality with non-discrimination to all Indian women. It stipulates equal opportunities and equal pay for work. It also advocates for affirmative action for women and children by the state. The law renounces cultural practices, which are derogatory to the status of women, by ensuring a humane environment for work and maternity relief. Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution also prohibit discrimination on the grounds of caste, colour, religion or place of birth and guarantee adult franchise providing the framework for women to participate equally in politics (equality of women under the law).
In spite of the progressive nature of the Constitution, after India gained independence traditional social structures that restricted women’s social participation were quickly reinforced. Women were once again relegated to the domestic sphere and marginalised from decision-making processes at the family and community level. Politics in particular was promoted as the domain of men and over the last six decades of democratic rule, Indian women have continued to be excluded from participating fully in this democracy. Whilst the Constitution guarantees women the right to vote, they have largely been excluded from political dialogue. Further, traditionally women have not made informed voting choices but have been influenced by the preferences of male family members or have voted along caste lines. However, this voting pattern changed after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October 1984 and the accession of the Prime Ministership by her son Rajiv Gandhi. Women across the country defied family and caste preferences and came out in force to vote for Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress Party in December 1984. This voting choice was underpinned by a deep feeling of sympathy for the younger Gandhi – the youngest Prime Minister in India’s history.
This has been followed by a noticeable shift in women’s perception of their own role in politics. Today younger women are increasingly engaging with politics as active political actors. They are involved in political dialogue, active in student politics, engaged with the media and are increasingly challenging traditional political frameworks and structures. Women are now voting in equal or higher numbers than men. In the 2009 General election women made up 54 percent of those who voted. Further, in the state elections held in the first half of 2013 women voters have generally outnumbered men. In the state of Tripura, which had its highest ever turnout of voters in the 2013 elections, 93 percent of women voted as opposed to 90 percent of men. The statistics were similar for Nagaland where 91 percent of women voted as opposed to 89 percent of men. While in Meghalaya women represented just over 50 percent of all voters. The latest elections of 2013 concluded in the four states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi witnessed a stark change in male and female voter turnout. 72 percent of women exercised their right to vote as against 45 percent, three decades back. The male turnout was just slightly above the female turnout, at 74 percent. Women voters also outnumbered men voters in Rajasthan, which is considered one of the worst hit states in terms of sex-ratio. Women’s voting choices are reflective of this change and young women are moving away from traditional voting patterns to make independent and informed choices about whom they want to be represented by in politics.
However, women have not formed a vote bank or a significant voting constituency and in spite of widespread gender inequality and discrimination against women, gender has not become a major political issue. While women have become more active engaged voters and are now voting in larger numbers than men they have not recognised their power to shape political dialogue and governance.
Power Politics: An Overview
The distribution of power within the Indian democracy is based on a gamut of overarching traditional conditions that influence the way society votes. Major determinants in the system include religion, caste, regions and communities. Voting for candidates based on cultural sameness obfuscates the motive behind democracy. However, these factors have continued to be extremely influential for Indian voters. Real time issues such as lack of development, corruption and women’s issues have so far been relegated to the background of Indian politics. However, the country has been observing a new wave of late. The nation is gradually awakening to a fresh conscience. The rise against corruption in political spaces and call for enhancement of women’s safety in the country are inspiring phenomena. Yet, the power of female voters is yet to be fully realised and gender issues continue to be marginalised from the political domain.
Political Parties: The Case of Missing Women
The number of women who vote in elections and the nature of women’s voting choices are indicative of women’s increased political engagement and participation. However, this is only one element of political participation and women are increasingly presented as voters but not as participants within governance structures. Women are extremely under-represented within all major parties and the patriarchal nature of party structures excludes and discriminates against women who choose to defy social expectations and actively participate in politics.
There are two types of political parties within Indian politics; the first are membership-based parties that hold regular party elections and the second are family dynasties. The majority of the country’s political parties fall into the second category. These parties are extremely patriarchal and women are largely excluded from engaging with party decision-making processes and are not allocated tickets to contest elections. However, the patriarchal foundations of membership-based parties also influences their engagement with women as voters, political actors, and potential representatives and women do not make up more than 10 percent of any party’s membership based at either the state or national level. The two major political parties in the country, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have both reserved 33% of seats for women in all decision-making bodies within the party. However, these reservations are not being implemented and women continue to be marginalised from decision-making bodies and are not allocated tickets to contest elections. Only 556 women contested the 2009 national election out of 8070 candidates and only 59 of these women were successful in winning their seats.
Without the support of political parties it is difficult for women to overcome the challenges they face when entering politics. Women often do not even have the necessary resources to compete with their male counterparts, they are restricted by the widespread perception that men are stronger and more effective leaders, and in many cases they are unable to navigate the political hierarchies of the contemporary political arena without the patronage of male leaders.
Women’s Political Representation
Indian women make up 48 percent of the country’s population and 47.5 percent of the registered voting population, yet they remain significantly under-represented in decision-making bodes at both the state and national level. Currently women hold only 11 percent of lower house seats and 10.6 percent of upper house seats in national parliaments. Further, in 2012 only four women held ministerial positions. This amounts to a disappointing 9.8 percent of all ministerial roles. At the state level women make up less than 7 percent of the Legislative Assembly members across the country.
In the last national election in 2009 only 43 women were given tickets to contest elections by the Indian National Congress and only 44 were given tickets by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Further, no more than ten percent of tickets have been allocated to women in the upcoming state elections in Delhi, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram. Only three out of 67 women candidates who contested the Delhi State Assembly Elections in 2013 won. Noticeably, five million voters in the city are women. 67 of 1,110 male candidates made it to the remaining seats. This stands as a stark example of gender inequality in political spaces. In Rajasthan 25 women secured seats out of the 166 in the fray. Total number of candidates stood at 2096 for 199 seats. The scenario was replicated similarly in the remaining states, marking itself as a trend, with its roots steeped in patriarchy.
Women’s exclusion from policy-making bodies has led to inappropriate responses to women’s issues and gender insensitive policy-making more broadly. Since the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi on 16 December 2012, women’s safety and security has come onto the political agenda. However, the approach taken by the government has been extremely patriarchal and patronising. Rather than highlighting women’s rights to live in a safe and secure environment without any fear of violence, the government has presented women as defenceless, weak and in need of protection. This regressive approach focuses on the female victims rather than the male perpetrators and exemplifies the patriarchal and insensitive nature of India’s parliament to women’s issues.
In contrast to national and state level politics women’s political participation in local politics is significantly higher. In 1992 the Government of India passed the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, which reserved 33 percent of seats for women in local governance bodies across the country, which are known as Panchayati Raj Institutions. The reservation works on a rotational basis in which 33% of constituencies are reserved for women for one term of government at which point the reservation rotates to another constituency. The reservation of seats is chosen at random or by lottery. India has a direct voting system, which means that in each reserved constituency only women candidates are able to contest the election and each community member who is eligible to vote selects their preferred candidate. Using the first past the post methodology, the woman with the most votes is then elected to represent the electorate. After completing their term women elected representatives can re-contest their seats, however, the candidacy is once again opened up to men. Since the implementation of the reservation system women’s political participation in local self-governance has skyrocketed. Currently, over 1.5 million women hold positions in Panchayati Raj institutions, 36.8 percent of all those elected. The emergence of successful and effective women leaders has led many states to voluntarily increase the reservation of seats for women to 50 percent. In states such as Bihar, which has increased the reservation to 50%, women make up 54 percent of all elected representatives at the Panchayat level.
The reservation of seats in the Panchayati Raj Institutions has demonstrated that women can not only contest and win elections but that they can also be strong and effective leaders. By enabling women to take on leadership positions the reservation system has also given voice to women’s concerns and issues in local governance bodies. Further, it has had positive outcomes for female elected representatives as well as for the wider community. Female elected representatives experience higher self-esteem and confidence and have improved decision-making skills. Women’s participation in Panchayati Raj Institutions also ensures that the needs, values, and priorities of the whole community are taken into consideration when developing and implementing policies rather than just those of male constituents. Women’s political participation also has positive outcomes in the development within their communities and studies have shown that women elected representatives are bringing about necessary changes within their villages in spite of the adverse social and political environment. This includes challenging the status of women, transforming social perceptions of women as innocent, weak and inferior to intelligent, strong and capable leaders, and taking steps to address key issues such as violence, poverty and inequality.
However, after two decades of reservations women’s participation within the Panchayati Raj Institutions remains problematic and women face a range of structural and procedural challenges that restrict their capacity to become effective leaders. Women’s increased vulnerability to poverty, lower educational status, and lack of financial independence are all compounded by the perpetuation of traditional and outdated social attitudes, which give preference to male leaders. Women are often assumed to be a proxy for male family members who are not able to contest the seat due to the reservation system and their capacity to complete their role and to make independent decisions is constantly questioned. The violent nature of politics, in which political actors often experience physical and emotional violence, can also have a negative impact on women’s political participation. Female political actors are particularly vulnerable to violence and women who are active within politics often face harassment, character assassinations and even threats of or actual physical violence. This violence can reduce women’s capacity to carry out their role as elected leaders as well as their will to engage with politics more broadly.
In spite of these continuing challenges to women’s participation in Panchayati Raj Institutions, the reservation of seats has been successful in increasing the number of women in local self-governance from 4-5 percent to a minimum of 33 percent of all elected representatives. The remaining challenges will only be overcome as more and more women take on leadership roles and traditional and cultural social values that discriminate against women are broken down.
Patriarchy and Governance
The marginalisation of women from governance structures is representative of a larger imbalance between men and women throughout the country. The prevalence of conservative and patriarchal mindsets amongst elected representatives and the community at large is a key reason for the continued resistance towards women’s political empowerment. Women’s engagement in governance threatens the status quo in two key ways. Firstly, women’s participation in politics enables women’s voices to be more prominent and influential within governance processes. This in turn leads to more gender sensitive policies and service provision and to a more gender just society. The realisation of gender equality inevitably involves a reduction in men’s power in society and over women. As such, for many men this is not a desirable outcome. Secondly, the majority of India’s leaders are men and their position as leaders gives them power and prestige within their communities. The elevation of women leaders, particularly through political reservations, threatens this position of power. In India’s current political scenario the reservation of 33 percent of seats in governance bodies for women would result in almost 33 percent of male leaders losing their seats, their jobs and their influence in destiny making. As such, for male leaders, the promotion of women’s political empowerment is often directly counter to their personal and professional interests, which can go a long way in accounting for the lack of political will for addressing women’s political marginalisation.
Looking to the Future
Women’s full empowerment cannot be achieved until and unless they have the opportunity to contribute equally in all the spheres of the society including the political domain. While women continue to be excluded from leadership positions, issues concerning women will also continue to be neglected. The Constitution grants equal opportunity to women to participate in the political discourse, to contest elections, and to take up leadership positions in local, state or national level governments. The full and equal participation of women in politics is also essential to the achievement of gender equality in our society. The increase in women’s representation will lead to women’s issues being raised more often and it will bring meaningful change to the way elected bodies govern, particularly in the issues they prioritise.
Given the benefits of increasing women’s participation in politics as voters, political actors, engaged political party members and elected representatives, it is vital that steps are taken to enable equality within the political spheres. One policy intervention that has the capacity to accelerate this process is the expansion of the reservation system to state and national politics. This would ensure that women are included in all policy and decision-making bodies across the country. Women’s groups and civil society are putting growing pressure of political parties to address the gender imbalance in politics by increasing the allocation of tickets for women and developing and implementing quotas for women at the party level. However, the stakes are high and women are considered to have a lower chance of winning their seats, which means that most political parties are unwilling to allocate tickets to women. As such, an institutional intervention is required to overcome the discrimination and marginalisation of women from higher-level politics.
The Women’s Reservation Bill proposes the reservation of 33 percent of seats for women within the state and national parliaments. The Bill has the capacity to significantly alter India’s political landscape by reserving 181 seats in national parliament and 1,370 seats in the state assemblies across the country. The Bill follows the model set out at the Panchayati Raj level in which the reservation of seats would be chosen at random and rotated between constituencies after each term of government. However, while the Panchayat reservation is indefinite, the Women’s Reservation Bill proposes a reservation for only 15 years, with the possibility of another 15 year extension.
In addition to of the passage of the Bill, political parties must take steps to enable women’s engagement with policy-making and governance. Voluntary quotas at the party level have been effective in many countries such as Germany, Norway and Sweden to enhance women’s political participation. These measures, including reserving space for women in the general membership of political parties as well as in party decision-making and policy making bodies, can be used in India to increase women’s participation in political parties and political discourse.
Women’s participation in politics is a human right. It is also vital for overcoming widespread gender inequality and discrimination and for achieving key development outcomes such as improvements in health and education status. Women leaders have the capacity to challenge and overcome traditional and patriarchal social, cultural and political structures that are preventing India from achieving its potential as a global leader. Facilitating their participation in politics will enable them to become forerunners in economic and social progress. Throughout India men’s dominance in politics must be challenged. It is women leaders who hold the keys to our future.
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