ELECTORAL PARTICIPATION OF WOMEN IN INDIA
Updated: Feb 1
The electoral participation of women in India has witnessed two positive trends. Firstly, the proportion of women voters has significantly increased since the 1960s with the 2019 general elections recording identical turnout of men and women electorate for the first time in India’s electoral history, 66.79 percent and 66.68 percent, respectively. The 2019 general elections witnessed not only the highest number of women candidates contesting (724), but also the highest number (78) of women winners. Secondly, women’s participation in election campaigns has also increased since the late 1990s. With that being said, women continue to be underrepresented in the state and central legislative bodies and are mostly stalled and relegated to lower ranks within the political parties. The pendency of the ‘Women’s Reservation Bill’ even 25 years after its introduction in the parliament reveals a lack of seriousness amongst political parties in increasing women’s participation levels in the electoral process. These factors act as an impediment in the process of ‘feminization of politics in India’. Briefly explaining the historical context of women’s electoral participation in India, this paper will try to represent a time-series analysis of women’s participation levels as voters, campaigners, candidates and in legislatures; along with listing the determinants of women’s electoral participation and the barriers faced by women in exercising their political right.
So to begin with, political participation is defined as the active involvement of citizens with institutions through mechanisms like voting, campaigning and lobbying along with contesting in elections to hold political office. In a democracy, citizens come together and act collectively to realize their common interests. Active participation by citizens helps in resolving the collective action problems by converting multi-peaked preferences into single-peaked preferences through cooperation, coordination, and enforcement. In a democracy, voting can be understood as an accountability and legitimacy mechanism through which citizens can hold their government accountable. For a healthy and vibrant democracy, the participation and engagement levels of women in the electoral process is an important indicator. The Preamble to the Constitution of India guarantees ‘social, economic and political justice’ as well as ‘equality of status and opportunity’ to all its citizens. However, despite the constitutional guarantee provided to women in electoral politics, they are continued to be discriminated against. There is an unbalanced representation of women not just in legislative bodies but also in the executive wing and the judiciary. Over the years, very few women have held ministries; with crucial portfolios largely allotted to men. Women face discrimination not only in terms of seat-allotment but also in terms of party ranks and decision-making powers; leading to their marginalization in this realm of democracy.
Amartya Sen, through the concept of ‘missing women’, argues that persistent gender inequality between men and women is a common phenomenon in developing countries, particularly in India and China. However, despite the existence of such exclusionary practices, the electoral participation of women in India has significantly expanded since the late 1990s while reaching an all-time high in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It was reported that men held an 8.4 percentage-point turnout advantage over women in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. This gap was reduced to meagre 1.8 percentage-point in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections; hinting a significant improvement in the turnout of women electorate within just a decade.
A Brief Historical Overview of Women’s Electoral Participation in India
The Swadeshi Movement of Bengal in 1905 marked the beginning of women’s participation in nationalist activities and gave rise to the question of universal suffrage and voting rights for women. With that being said, only limited voting rights were extended to women based on the ownership of property across different provinces in between 1920 and 1929. There was minimal to no change in this status even after the Government of India Act was passed in 1935. The Act enfranchised one woman for every five enfranchised men. It also reserved 41 seats for women in the provincial legislatures and a limited number of seats in the central legislature despite severe opposition which gave rise to cleavages in the nationalist movement on the lines of gender and religion. With that being said, women took complete advantage of this provision; with close to 80 women being elected as legislators in the 1937 elections. The new Constitution adopted after independence denied reservation of seats for women on the basis of gender, and this led to a decline in their political participation levels post-independence. It was argued that the overall improvement in terms of education and employment opportunities for women would percolate into the political sphere too, and eventually, women’s representation in legislatures would increase. As a result, women’s political participation became largely constrained by social norms. Their electoral participation was largely limited to familial connection rather than their interest in active politics. Moreover, the societal ethos prevailing at that time prevented the active participation of women in politics. Although women were allotted a few seats in the 1951 Lok Sabha elections, scholars argue that this initiative was largely symbolic that was aimed at appeasing women to take part in the Freedom Struggle against the British; with women managing to win as low as 4.4 percent of the total seats in 1951.
Moving on, the demand for greater representation of women in political institutions gathered steam with the publication of the “Status of Women in India” report in 1976. This report particularly suggested reservation of seats for women at the grassroots level which eventually led to the adoption of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts, which reserved 33 percent of the seats for women in local government institutions. Then again in 1995, the idea of reserving seats for women in the parliament was mooted; resulting in the introduction on Women’s Reservation Bill in 1997. It is rather unflattering to note that the bill is still pending in the parliament even after 25 years of its introduction.
A General Discussion and Analysis on Women’s Electoral Participation
Women’s participation levels in various electoral processes are varied and distorted. Their share as voters is significantly higher as compared to their involvement as active campaigners. Figure 1 represents the representation of women in various rungs of Indian politics in the form of a pyramid; with the proportion of women as voters outnumbering the proportion of women as legislators by a huge margin.
Figure 1: Representation of Women in various levels of Indian politics
Participation of Women in legislatures
As shown in the figure above, the participation of women in political processes decreases as the degree of involvement increases (bottom to top: thereby explaining the need for a pyramid representation). According to a research, Indian women are more likely to run in two types of constituencies: First, where the number of men candidates is relatively more than women; second, in those constituencies which are historically reserved for disadvantaged groups. Women are grossly under-represented in the central as well as the state legislatures, accounting for just 14.4 percent of the total strength of the Lok Sabha [78 women MPs out of 543 total MPs] in the 2019 elections and 11.5 percent in the Rajya Sabha as of 2018; as opposed to the world average of 24.6 percent in case of Lower House and 24.3 percent in case of Upper House. Comparing the 2019 Lok Sabha elections with recent federal elections of other nations, it is shocking to note that India fared worse than its South Asian neighbors like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh vis-à-vis women representation in the lower house; with the share of women representatives in the lower houses of these countries being pegged at 23.6 percent, 20.2 percent, 32.7 percent, and 20.6 percent, respectively. A key reason behind their relative success in women political representation could be because these countries have reserved seats for women in their legislature.
A few reasons behind the abysmal participation of women in political processes in India include:
I. Lack of legal provisions with regard to reservation of seats for women in legislatures;
ii. Unwillingness among political parties to provide more party tickets to women for contesting in elections;
iii. Patriarchal political system working at the intersection of caste, class and gender leading to further marginalization;
iv. General lack of awareness about electoral politics amongst women; and
v. Lack of support from within the families and political parties in terms of resources which makes it even harder for them to contest and win elections.
Although there are several other factors that lead to women’s under-representation in the legislatures, it can be mainly attributed to gender-discriminatory policies followed by both national and regional parties in allotting seats to women.
Participation of Women as Candidates in the electoral system
Now moving on to the second strata which consists of women as candidates of political parties in elections, similar barriers imposed by political parties are observed which limit women’s chances of active interaction and winning elections. According to an analysis by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), women candidates made up a mere 7% (402) of total 5380 candidates who contested in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This was a significant drop from the 556 women candidates that contested in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections; with the highest ever being 599, in the 1991-92 Lok Sabha elections. It was reported that the Indian National Congress (INC) fielded women candidates on just 60 out of 464 seats (12.9 percent) while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) provided party tickets to only 38 women candidates out of 428 (8.9 percent) seats that it contested during the 2014 general elections. Running up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, INC fielded 47 women out of 344 seats and BJP fielded 45 women out of 374 seats. Only Trinamool Congress (TMC) fielded more proportion of women candidates than the two major national parties, with 17 women candidates contesting out of its 42 seats (40.5 percent). This shows that political parties continue to pursue their gender-discriminatory, exclusionary policies when it comes to allotment of seats to women candidates even today; thereby limiting their electoral participation.
Now, the reason behind the poor seat allotment of seats to women by political parties has been largely attributed to women’s “lack of winning ability.” However, while analysing women’s electoral success rate as compared to the victory of their men counterparts, it was observed that women have a better chance at winning elections as compared to their male counterparts. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, women had a success rate of 10.89 percent compared to the success rate of 6.41 percent in men. Even during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, women had a success rate of 9.13 percent as compared to just 6.36 percent of men. Therefore, political parties can no more justify the underrepresentation of women in elections by questioning their ‘winning ability’. Moreover, it is repeatedly observed that even those women candidates who manage to win the elections from their constituency against all odds are sidelined and rendered powerless and voiceless in state and national assemblies, often more than not by their own political parties; thereby severely demotivating women from entering party politics. Those women who are successful in making their presence felt in the inner-party circles are often relegated to the second rung of leadership; and therefore they largely fail to break the so-called “glass ceiling.” Amidst all the tokenism, women parliamentarians are mostly asked to handle gender issues so that their respective political parties can keep reaping electoral dividends. The first central government of independent India had just 1 woman among the 20 cabinet ministers. The present Lok Sabha has a total of 11 women ministers out of 78 minsters, and out of them just 2 women are holding important cabinet portfolios.
Participation of women in election campaigns
Engagement of women in election campaigns for canvassing votes for political parties involves multiple interactions and time-intensive activities. Political parties, nowadays, rely on extensive campaigning using print, electronic and social media. However, along with this they also continue to rely heavily on traditional methods of campaigns, such as holding large election rallies, distributing party leaflets, roadshows, door-to-door campaigning by party workers, to name a few. The number of women participating in work related to election campaigning significantly increased from 13 percent in 1999 to 22 percent in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Another study conducted by Lokniti in 2019 by developing an ‘Index of Political Participation’ also suggested that there is an increase in the participation of women in election-related activities. With that being said, the study also emphasized on the hardships and barriers faced by women while taking part in these political processes. Political parties are trying to mobilize women and increase their participation in campaigning activities by using media-driven campaign strategies. Female politicians have a better chance at mobilizing women electors into campaigning activities on the ground. Along with this, women self-help groups have been found effective in encouraging women’s electoral participation. It was also found that language is another important factor influencing women’s participation levels in campaigns. Women whose mother tongue was not Hindi had a higher participation rate compared to women speaking Hindi in 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Similarly, employed women participated more as compared to unemployed women.
Participation of women as voters in the electoral system
Voting is an important tenet of a representative democracy through which people get to elect their representatives who sit at their behest in the parliament.The right to equality in voting is a basic human right enjoyed by citizens in a democracy. In an extensive study conducted on “Women Voters in Indian Democracy,” the Vidhan Sabha elections held between 1962 and 2012 in 16 large states that represented close to 93 percent of the Indian electorate was analysed through regression analysis by using data at the constituency level. It was found that the sex ratio of voters which is defined as, “the number of women voters to every 1000 male voters,” increased from 715 in 1960s to 883 in the 2000s. It made an important observation that this increase in the sex ratio of voters actually means that more women are actually casting their vote in elections as compared to men and is not because of more women getting themselves registered to vote relative to men. It was also observed that this declining figure of gender bias in voting held true across India, including the traditionally poor states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. As a result of the sharp decline in the gender bias in voting process, women’s participation in the electoral process as voters steadily increased from 46.6 percent in 1962 to 68 percent in the 2019 general elections. The difference in voter turnout between men and women was as wide as 16.7 percent in 1962; however, it narrowed down to a meagre 0.07 percent in 2019. This is a promising trend particularly because this development is not a result of a top-down policy action but largely due to the voluntary participation of women in the electoral process, and as argued by Kapoor and Ravi in their study it is a phenomenon of ‘self-empowerment’. According to the data produced by the Election Commission of India (ECI), the gender ratio in the electoral rolls increased to a historic 930 in 2019 as compared to 908 in 2014.
Now, the main reasons behind increasing participation of women in the voting process could be the liberalization of the Indian economy in the early 1990s which eventually led to the proliferation of electronic media, which then would have led to an increased awareness among women about their political and electoral rights. The role of the Election Commission of India (ECI) in conducting free, fair and violence-free elections may have further encouraged women to step out of their houses and cast their vote. As per the ECI website, at least one All-Women managed polling station was established in each assembly constituency during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Other targeted interventions include:
i. Women-centric messages;
ii. Monitoring gender-gaps in voter registration and door-to-door campaigns by ASHA and Anganwadi workers for generating awareness among women and teaching them the importance of voting;
iii. Creating special facilities for women like separate queues, toilet arrangements and creches for ease of voting at the polling stations.
Political commentators infer that all these proactive interventions by both governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) may have encouraged more women to cast their vote. Along with this, the reservation of at least 33 percent of the seats in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) gave women a sense of sharing power equally with men, and eventually encouraged them to participate in the electoral process. There was a general perception that women consider politics as dirty and hence shy away from participating in it, but the positive development brought by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments helped in getting away from this narrative.
Determinants of Women’s Electoral Participation
Several factors ranging from universal, country and gender specific reasons influence women’s participation levels in the electoral process. In case of India, studies suggest that the reason behind low participation could be attributed to how women have been socially-conditioned differently, especially when it comes to marriage, motherhood, employment, ownership of property and access to resources. Another factor that affects their participation level is a general interest in politics. According to a report by Lokniti, there is a steady rise in the level of interest in politics among women, especially educated women and those who have access to news media through any social platform. Rural women are also showing a greater interest in local politics. The study also found a direct relationship among women between a negative perception of politics and the level of interest. The same study revealed that those women belonging to upper socioeconomic classes were more active in electoral politics as compared to those placed at the bottom of the socioeconomic class hierarchy. Women who get to exercise their discretion while casting their vote have a higher level of electoral participation as compared to those who are governed by familial bonds and peer groups. The former group had a 6 percent higher chance of voting in the 2009 general elections as compared to the latter group. Rajeshwari Deshpande, in her study “Analyzing voting behavior among women,” argued that women have to rely on familial opinion when making political choices because they are kept away from social and institutional resources that would help them form an independent political opinion. Voting patterns also differ according to location and spatial factors. Women living in rural areas vote more than women living in urban and metropolitan areas; with rural women leading ahead by 8 percentage points in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Women voter turnout in urban areas could be restricted due to time and monetary limitations in reaching the polling booths. Thus, one can infer that spatial factors along with factors such as degree of autonomy for decision-making play an important role when it comes to voting determinants; whereas, in terms of their participation in political campaigns, determinants like interest in politics, social networking and language play a greater role.
Barriers to Women’s Electoral Participation
Lack of women in key decision-making roles leads to non-recognition of women’s agenda in public policies and programmes. It has been observed that Indian men and women, when elected to the parliament, have different priorities of public work undertaken by them. Women representatives prefer addressing social issues with long-term implications and benefits like education, health, domestic violence, etc., whereas their male counterparts are often in favor of addressing infrastructural issues that need immediate attention. The exclusion of the interests of women by men representatives is detrimental to their progress in the long run. Critically low levels of access for women into the inner-circles of political parties affect their ability to mobilize enough financial and human resources for the benefit of their constituents; and therefore, women are eventually perceived as weak representatives by their constituents. Sometimes, due to their low representation, women are forced to seek alliances on the lines of caste, religion and regional identities, rather than pursuing common gendered interests. Therefore, “Indian women as people’s representatives in public life often become co-opted into male-centric structures of development agendas,” quoted Praveen Rai. Even at the grassroots level of PRIs, women representatives face several obstacles that prevent their entry into politics. Furthermore, efficacy of elected representatives in grassroot institutions depends on their ability to consult state and national government officials as several important programmes are tied up with these two tiers of governments. However, it is observed that these government officials are often gender-insensitive which impedes the effective functioning of women representatives. Women are more often than not weighed down by the patriarchal norms of society; thereby restricting their ability in electoral participation. Absence of affirmative action for women in the form of 33 percent reservation of seats in central and state legislatures has a negative impact on women’s participation in the electoral system. However, this policy needs to be implemented cautiously to ensure that these benefits are not exploited by those women who either belong to the upper strata of the society (socioeconomic hierarchy) or having political influence due to familial ties. Women from marginalized groups and lower economic backgrounds deserve to have an equal access to resources for contesting elections; thereby fostering political equality regardless of socioeconomic factors.
The increased participation of women in the electoral process is an indicator of the “feminization of Indian politics” and bodes well for Indian democracy. However, this process of increased feminization of politics is getting restricted by male-dominated political parties and institutions. Although there is a remarkable increase in the participation of women in the voting process and election campaigns, they continue to remain underrepresented in the legislatures, both at the central and state levels. Not having enough women in important cabinet positions leads to a systemic exclusion of women. The initial delays in passing the Women’s Reservation Bill centered around the issues of intersectionality; however, it seems obvious that at the heart of the delays is the unwillingness amongst political parties to share power and the fear of losing electoral support. The male-dominated political institutions continue to be severely plagued with structural issues such as corruption and criminalization of politics that is detrimental to the functioning of Indian democracy. However, according to a study, women have the potential to alter the political structures by making it more transparent, accountable, and participative. Other benefits of enhancing the ‘feminization of politics’ include less corruption and political opportunism. Therefore, it becomes increasingly evident that enhanced participation levels of women in the electoral process, especially in the legislatures and as candidates, would not only augur well for Indian democracy but will also lead to the upliftment and empowerment of Indian women. Passing the Women’s Reservation Bill must be considered as the first step towards the refinement of the Indian electoral system to achieve the abovesaid goals.
Cover Image: AP Photo
About the author: Taniya Issar is a final year student pursuing Master's in Public Policy from the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy