Women in politics


LAST week a young woman was shot dead in Ballabhgarh area of Faridabad district that falls in Delhi National Capital Region (NCR) for a simple refusal that was unacceptable to an enfranchised man. The perpetrator belongs to a family with political clout. About a 100-kms away in Hathras of Uttar Pradesh, the birthplace of Gautam Buddha’s mother Mahamaya that is known as birthplace of satirist Kaka Hathrasi, shot into national limelight after the alleged rape and murder of a Dalit girl. Violent crimes against women get their shameless justification from the structural notions about gendered roles and relations. Both these cases have been dissected from caste, class, religion, gender, legal and political perspectives. There is a need to refocus the lens on the security of women.

The disdain for women’s rights is not surprising in a country, where legislators who should be accountable to frame policies for women’s empowerment are accused of crimes against women. As per an Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) report, between 2009 and 2019, there was 231 percent increase in the number of candidates contesting and an 850 percent increase in the number of MPs with declared cases of crime against women in Lok Sabha. None was convicted though. All national and regional political parties have fielded candidates or have sitting legislators accused of crimes against women. It will be unreasonable to expect any concern for women’s issues, particularly, security from such powerful men, who can obliterate and manipulate the rule of law, interfere with police investigations, and eventually compromising court’s ability to deliver justice.

In 2017, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) won 325 out of 403 seats in Uttar Pradesh, way beyond the halfway mark. Soon after winning India’s most populous state, it declared “Implementation over mere lip-service – BJP has given maximum number of women MLAs in 17th UP assembly, highest since independence”. There was a marginal improvement from 8% (32 out of 403 MLAs) in 2012 to 10% (40 out of 402 MLAs) in 2017 assembly polls. It is noteworthy that 31 out of these 40 MLAs, i.e., nearly 75% are crorepatis.

The 2017 election was perhaps not an aberration. The 2019 General Elections mark a paradigm shift in terms of women’s representation in legislatures. With 78 women MPs from across the country, women’s representation in Lok Sabha improved to 14 percent from 11.3 percent in 2014. The improved representation notwithstanding, the diversity of this cohort leaves much to be desired. So far only women from political families and those belonging to the field of entertainment and sports or financially sound families have been able to sustain themselves in Delhi’s political panchayat. Others who stray into the arena are disparaged as ‘item girls’.

A March 2019 ADR report shows that about 85 percent of women MPs are crorepatis in both the upper and lower houses of the parliament. More than 75 percent of women parliamentarians of the BJP and the Congress were crorepatis. In some of the regional parties almost all women legislators were crorepatis. A Lokniti-KAS study too suggests that the socio-economic status determines women’s participation in elections with the upper caste and wealthier women being more active. More generally, the pathway to women’s political participation is impeded by patriarchal culture.

Government schemes such as Swachh Bharat Mission, Ujjwala Yojna, financial inclusion programmes such as Beti Bachao, PM Jan Dhan Yojana, Sukanya Samridhi Yojana, and Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana include emancipation of women as one of the goals. This approach has limited efficacy as women’s issues are tied to other agendas. Building toilets doesn’t ensure sanitation, just providing gas cylinder doesn’t ensure health, providing cycles won’t ensure accessibility, till a women feels tied down in her laaj and sharam, not secure enough to step outside her dahleez. Until then, achchhe din is a long time coming for women in India.

Women’s security, education, health and livelihood feature routinely in political discourse. However, it is difficult to prepare a conducive environment for women’s fearless political participation without systemic reforms. Unfortunately, none of the Indian political parties have addressed the challenge of lack of women in leadership positions. The process of ticket distribution is intrinsically linked to winnability instruments such as caste or religion, and not with women’s issues.

More women in leadership will transform policymaking by making it more inclusive. However, as per a January 2020 report by Inter-Parliamentary Union-UN Women, India was placed #134 on women in ministerial positions and #142 on women in parliament index. In absence of reservation, an enabling environment will remain a distant possibility. Indeed, countries with the high women’s representation in legislatures have enshrined it in a reservation system.

It has been ten years since the Women’s Reservation Bill was cleared by the Rajya Sabha in March 2010, but despite multiple reintroductions, it is still pending in the Lok Sabha. The impending Bill seeks to reserve one-third of all seats for women in the Lok Sabha and the state legislative assemblies. Only time will tell if tragedies such as Ballabhgarh and Hathras will be an issue during the assembly and general elections. Parties need to move beyond manifesto bullet points and symbolic roles to women as spokespersons and create safer spaces within their structures for women to become visible in the electoral scene. Along with the parties, the Election Commission of India (ECI), election funders, including private organisations and corporates, too need to step up and support free political participation by women.

Ramya is a public policy consultant and analyst. She comments on politics and international affairs of India.