A woman winning a close election against a man results in an increase in the ratio of female candidates fielded by major parties in the next election, according to a study

A body of new data, including original analysis by The Hindu, is showing for the first time that women politicians are slowly but surely opening the door for other women politicians.

The Hindu’s analysis of data from the 2013 Assembly elections has shown that women are significantly more likely to contest and win from a constituency previously held by women. Women were twice as likely to contest election in a constituency held by a woman than one held by a man in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, The Hindu’s analysis of 2008 and 2013 election results found. In Delhi, meanwhile, women were three times more likely to contest in a constituency held by a woman than that held by a man. (Mizoram had no women MLAs in its outgoing Assembly and so could not be considered for this analysis.)

Women were over four times more likely to win in 2013 a constituency that was held in 2008 by a woman in Chhattisgarh, while for Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh the probability rose to nearly six and seven times respectively. Only in Delhi did the three women who won in 2013 win from constituencies previously held by men; no woman won a second time in Mizoram.

Undoubtedly, the proportion of both candidates and winners who are women is still very low. Women formed between 4% (Mizoram) and 8% (Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) of candidates and between 0% (Mizoram) and 14% (Rajasthan) of winners, well below their share in the voter turnout and in the total population.

But the doors might be opening slowly, and in unexpected ways. Economists Sonia Bhalotra of the University of Essex, Irma Clots-Figueras of the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid and Lakshmi Iyer of Harvard Business School analysed Assembly election data for 16 States between 1980 and 2007 for a working paper that they discussed with The Hindu. They looked only at candidates fielded by major parties (and not independents as well), and only at close elections won by a woman against a man, so as to make sure that the constituencies they were looking at were not unusual in any particular way (since that constituency could just as easily have voted in a man).

They found that a woman winning a close election against a man resulted in a 9.2% increase in the proportion of female candidates fielded by major parties in that constituency in the next election. This increase was driven by women re-contesting and not by new women entering the field, they found.

Reduction in bias

Further analysis suggests that what’s driving this increase in women candidates is not a reduction in voter bias, but a reduction in party bias. Voters were not necessarily more likely to vote in a woman after a woman has held office, but political parties that had had a successful woman candidate were more likely to nominate women in the future.

However, the impact of women's electoral success was limited in important ways, they found. For one, the effect slowed with time; in the subsequent election, the increase in female candidates fell to 4.2%. The increase in future female candidacy was limited to constituencies in which women won. Additionally, while its effect on women’s candidacy was clear, the electoral success of a woman, however, did not have an impact on the chance of a woman winning the next election, they found.

In short, their data indicates that once a party takes a chance on a woman candidate, her performance seems to make them more amenable to nominating more women. “When we look deeper it seems that it works by them being more amenable to nominating the winning women again. We wish we could say it made them more amenable to nominating any woman but we do not find evidence of this,” Prof. Bhalotra told The Hindu.

This relative relaxation in party bias, if not voter bias, is also the pathway that economist Rikhil Bhavnani, assistant professor at the university of Wisconsin-Madison, identified in his pioneering research on the impact of reservations on women’s candidacy and electoral success. Making use of a natural experiment — the reservation for women of one-third of municipal seats in Mumbai in 1997, followed by the rotation of reservations in 2002 throwing some reserved seats open — Professor Bhavnani found that women were five times more likely to win election from an open constituency that had been reserved for women in the previous election than from a constituency that was open both times.

Prof. Bhavnani found that “reservations mainly work through introducing into politics a cohort of women that are able to secure party tickets and win office after reservations lapse” and not evidently through a decrease in voter bias towards women. The Hindu’s findings from the 2013 and 2008 Assembly results appeared consistent with the demonstration effect that his work had uncovered, he said in an email to newspaper.

All of this taken together, it seems to be the case that once a political party takes a chance on a woman and she wins, she does well enough at the very least for her political party to renominate her, if not for other political parties to also put up female candidates against her and for independent female candidates to be inspired to run. Then why aren’t more parties doing it, and more often?

Representatives of the two major national parties admitted to The Hindu that they were a long way off from adequate representation for women. “This might be increasing but the numbers are still very, very low and a lot more needs to be done,” Nirmala Sitharaman, BJP spokesperson said. “There are still far too few women getting tickets, and that is why we have been pushing for the Women’s Reservation Bill,” Congress minister and MP Girija Vyas, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, added.

rukmini.shrinivasan@thehindu.co.in

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