General Elections 2024 | The missing women in Indian politics

Despite decades of struggle for equality and plenty of political rhetoric about representation, why are there no rising stars or national leaders among India’s women politicos?

April 19, 2024 05:05 pm | Updated April 21, 2024 07:41 am IST

The low number of elected women in Parliament contrasts sharply with the rise in women voters across India.

The low number of elected women in Parliament contrasts sharply with the rise in women voters across India. | Photo Credit: PTI

Phase 1 of the General Elections 2024 is over. There is still a long way to go before June 4 when the votes will be counted. Till then, we will be inundated with endless speculation, conjecture, guesses, accusatory statements by opposing sides — and the ritual photographs of women lining up to vote, holding aloft their election identity cards.

That image has become a cliché. But behind it is a story that has changed little, much like the photo itself. It is the story of Indian women and politics, why they are there, why they are missing, and whether anything will change in the near future.

Read more | Also missing: women at this year’s G20

Going by the candidates already in the fray this election, it seems as if change, if any, is incremental. Women constituted only 8% of the candidates in the first phase on April 19. This could change slightly by the end of the election cycle.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, women were only 9% of the candidates. And fewer were elected. In fact, the success rate of women candidates was a little over 10% in 2019.

Also, although there were more women in the current Lok Sabha — 78 — than previously, they added up to only 14%. These low numbers contrast sharply with the increase in women voters. In 2019, their numbers were marginally more than that of men — 67.18% women compared to 67.01% men.

Despite decades of struggle, Indian women continue to fight each step of the way for recognition.

Despite decades of struggle, Indian women continue to fight each step of the way for recognition. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

This data, however, masks the other granular details. In several States, this time there are no women candidates. In others, only a handful. For instance, in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, out of the six parliamentary seats, there is only one woman candidate, former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti. In Uttarakhand, of the five seats, there is one woman, a Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate who comes from an erstwhile royal family. In Punjab, so far, only two women have been selected. One is Praneet Kaur, who switched sides from the Congress to the BJP. Kaur is a four-time MP from Patiala and was earlier married to former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh, who left the Congress and joined the BJP in 2022.

Mehbooba Mufti, the first woman chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and President of Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party, at a press conference in Srinagar on April 3, 2024.

Mehbooba Mufti, the first woman chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and President of Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party, at a press conference in Srinagar on April 3, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

In the bigger States, there are more women contesting, but their percentages are still low. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, 76 women are contesting out of a total of 950 candidates for 39 seats. Although this is an increase from 2019, when 67 women contested, they add up to only 8% of the total. In 2019, only three of the 67 women who stood for elections won.

Also read: General Elections 2024 | When campaign trails were carnivals

In Uttar Pradesh, with 80 parliamentary seats, the first phase has seen only seven women contesting compared to 80 men. We will have to wait for the final figures from Bihar, which has 40 parliamentary seats. Rajasthan, with 25 Lok Sabha seats, has 10 women candidates, while Gujarat with 26 seats has so far got eight women contesting although this number could increase. In Kerala, out of 194 candidates contesting 20 seats, only 25 are women.

Will reservation help?

The only two States where political parties have committed to field more women are Odisha (Biju Janata Dal, 33%) and West Bengal (All India Trinamool Congress, AITMC). In 2019, 41% of AITMC’s candidates were women.

Will the picture change if the Women’s Reservation Act is finally implemented? It was passed last year after being on a slow burner since 2008, when it was introduced.

It could, because the experience of elections so far has shown that barring a couple of exceptions, no political party is willing to commit to ensuring that one third of its candidates are women for either Lok Sabha elections or for State assemblies.

The reasons are obvious. While no political party objected to the introduction of 33% reservation for women in panchayats and nagarpalikas in the 90s, the idea of this being replicated in State legislatures and the Parliament has been resisted. There is much more power and money at stake, and simply put, men who have dominated electoral politics do not want to cede this space to women. Or any space for that matter. Despite decades of struggle for equality in the widest sense, and loads of political rhetoric about ‘Nari Shakti’, Indian women continue to fight each step of the way for recognition and for the rights guaranteed to every citizen.

Most of the women who do make it, despite this, are generally from political families, or women who have a public profile that a political party thinks it can leverage to win the seat. In both cases, the women must have financial resources, or the ability to raise resources. In fact, money power has been a major factor in Indian elections for decades. It discourages independent women, or even men, who have been active in the civic and political space, from contesting.

Not all the women elected from political families are silent spectators. They have made their mark and become politicians in their own right. Take Supriya Sule from the Nationalist Congress Party, for instance. She is the daughter of a powerful and experienced politician, Sharad Pawar, and this paved her way into politics. But her interventions in the 17th Lok Sabha have established her as a politician in her own right.

In the past, you could say this also about the late Jayalalithaa, whose entry into politics was facilitated by men. But she emerged as a strong politician who could win multiple elections, and served as chief minister of Tamil Nadu six times.

Former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha

Former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalitha | Photo Credit: S. Subramanium

With their own might

We have also seen a few women without political connections who have managed to get elected and have performed exceptionally well as parliamentarians.

Take the feisty Mahua Moitra from the AITMC. As a member of the 17th Lok Sabha, she intervened, asked tough questions, and would not be bullied. For this, she paid a price. Apart from the expected misogynistic comments from some male members of Parliament, and vicious trolling on social media, Moitra was expelled from the Lok Sabha on charges of allegedly accepting money to ask questions. She is contesting again and her opponent from the BJP is a woman from an erstwhile royal family. It will be one of the more interesting contests to watch.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (far left) with party candidate Mahua Moitra (in green) and others at an election rally ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, in Nadia, March 31, 2024.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (far left) with party candidate Mahua Moitra (in green) and others at an election rally ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, in Nadia, March 31, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

Moitra follows in the footsteps of other such women, not least Mamata Banerjee, the only woman chief minister in India today. Banerjee has succeeded without any godfathers. Also, while Mayawati’s influence is diminished today, one cannot forget this Dalit woman who fought against casteism and sexism to become a factor in Uttar Pradesh politics.

There was also the late Sushma Swaraj, who was outspoken but also had the ability to work with people on the opposite side of the political divide. One of those with whom she had a friendly relationship was Sonia Gandhi, who came into politics by accident, but whose presence in the Congress Party and in Parliament has shown that she has mastered the game of politics.

Congress leader Sonia Gandhi (left) with then Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi, 2013.

Congress leader Sonia Gandhi (left) with then Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi, 2013. | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

Women who are already active in politics, in the larger understanding of that term, also make a mark if elected. For instance, in the 1977 elections, held after the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, when she and the Congress party were defeated, several women were elected as first-timers. Women like Pramila Dandavate, Mrinal Gore and Ahilya Rangnekar from Maharashtra were already veterans in politics and social movements. During their time in Parliament, they worked with other women members cutting across party lines to push through several important laws that affected women, such as the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1986, and made important changes in the rape laws.

In contrast, there are women who have been in the Lok Sabha for several terms, yet their voices are hardly ever heard. These would be the women political parties select because they can win based on their popularity as actors, for instance, or in seats where there had been an erstwhile hereditary ruler. We note their presence only if they are selected again as candidates during an election.

There can be no argument, given the realities of the status of Indian women and of our electoral system, that without reservation, the percentage of women in Parliament and State assemblies will not reach the desired one-third of the total. These bodies are supposed to represent “the people”. If half the population does not find representation, then clearly something must change.

The writer is an independent journalist and author.

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