By Saawani Raje
17 May 2019
On 9 August 1942, Aruna Asaf Ali walked into a highly charged gathering of thousands of Indians at the Gowalia Tank Maidan in Mumbai and unfurled the tricolour flag launching the ‘Quit India’ movement against British rule. A prominent political leader in the Indian nationalist movement, she later went on to become the first mayor of Delhi in 1958.
Female leadership of this kind was not without precedent in India. As early as 1925, Sarojini Naidu became the president of the Indian National Congress, the main nationalist party in India before and after independence. Since then, the number of women in leadership positions in Indian politics has only increased. Indira Gandhi became the first female Prime Minister of India in 1966 and the second democratically elected female leader in the world. Sonia Gandhi, President of the Congress Party from 1998 to 2017 was one of the most powerful women in India and led her party to power twice at the Centre in two general elections. Other prominent female figures include Jayalalitha Jayaram– the first female Opposition leader in India, Mayawati, the leader of the third-largest party in India in terms of vote share, and Mamata Banerjee, the only female Chief Minister in India today.
Significantly, both the Defence Minister and the External Affairs Minister in India today—Nirmala Sitharaman and Sushma Swaraj— are women, holding portfolios that have been traditionally male-dominated. While cause for celebration, these examples are the exceptions to the rule when it comes to female participation in politics and decision-making.
This piece explores the juxtaposition of women’s participation in politics in India—as voters and as political leaders. It argues that using examples of powerful women leaders to point to the success of female empowerment in India ignores more structural and systemic limitations women in politics face in India today.
Women as voters
Women have played a key role as voters since the first election in India. With the introduction of Universal Adult Franchise, women were given equal voting rights to men since India became independent in 1947. However, in a stunning manifestation of the entrenched patriarchy, many women, especially in North India, wanted to be registered on the electoral role as “wife of” or “daughter of” instead of under their own names. The electoral officials did not allow this and Ornit Shani estimates that out of a total of nearly 80 million potential women voters in independent India, nearly 2.8 million failed to disclose their names and therefore could not be included in electoral rolls.
Women’s participation as voters in the decades after Indian independence remained low—female voter turnout lagged behind male turnout by 11.3% in 1967. This gap began to narrow in the 1990s, falling to 8.4% in 2004 and further reducing to 4.4% between 2004 and 2009. The past election in 2014 saw the closing of this gender gap to its narrowest on record—only 1.8%. In fact, in half of all Indian states and union territories, the female turnout surpassed the male turnout. This trend was repeated in the recent state elections held between 2012 and 2018 where women voters surpassed the male turnout in twenty-three Indian states.
This has made female voters a significant voter block for the leading political parties in the run up to the elections—and women and women’s issues have started to come to the fore in election rhetoric. At a recent rally in Rajasthan, Congress President Rahul Gandhi said that his party would seek to appoint women as Chief Ministers in half the states it rules by 2024. Another example is the controversy surrounding Gandhi’s statement that the Prime Minister had “asked a woman to defend him”, referring to Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s speech in a parliamentary debate about the contentious Rafale deal. The BJP responded with alacrity. Prime Minister Modi immediately rebuked the Congress leader for his “insult to the women in the country,” while BJP President Amit Shah demanded that Gandhi apologise for the remark. This seems to reflect an increase in the power of women voters. Women are now a significant enough voting block for political parties to turn comments like these into a battleground for their rhetoric in the run-up to the election. In contrast however, women continue to be underrepresented in policymaking roles within politics.
Women as political leaders
Women have occupied positions of power in Indian politics. Women made up almost five percent of elected representatives in the first Lok Sabha (lower house) in 1952 as compared to two percent in the US House of Representatives and three in the UK Parliament during the same period. However, over the next seven decades, women’s growth in policymaking roles has stagnated. Women make up only 11.2% of the members of the Lok Sabha after the 2014 elections and only 9% in state legislatures. India ranks fifth in women’s political representation in parliament in South Asia, behind Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal.
There are many reasons for this underrepresentation. A significant factor is patriarchal attitudes towards female leadership in politics, where women politicians are often seen as fulfilling certain gender-specific roles. An exemplar of this is Indira Gandhi’s rise to the Congress party leadership—a move orchestrated by senior Congress leaders who saw Gandhi as a puppet willing to do their bidding. According to the Economic Survey 2018, other major obstacles faced by aspiring female representatives include domestic responsibilities, female illiteracy, financial disparity, lack of confidence and an increase in threats of violence.
An initiative to combat this disparity was implemented in 1993 as part of the 73rd amendment of the Indian constitution, whereby 33% of all seats in local self-government institutions were reserved for women. Since the enactment of this legislation, the representation of women in local administrations has increased to 44.2%. A study commissioned by the Poverty Action Lab showed that this increase in female representation heightened police responsiveness to crimes against women, improved children’s nutrition and education, improved male perceptions of female leaders, increased the aspirations of girls, and helped women get elected in subsequent elections.
In spite of this, deep-rooted structural problems remain. In 1996, the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced which proposed to reserve 33% of the seats in the Lok Sabha for women. The bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha (upper house) in 2010 but lapsed in 2014 with the dissolution of Parliament. Passing this bill was also an election pledge of the current government but, five years later, there remains little sign of it becoming law. This bill has been left languishing for 22 years, and the representation of women therefore remains severely limited. The women voters turning out in large numbers actually have very few women to represent their issues and views in law-making bodies.
The political imbalance
Female representation in Indian politics thus remains conflicted and suffers from deep structural and systemic difficulties. The many examples of female leadership in Indian politics do tell a story of female empowerment—but celebrating this without looking deeper into existing disparities risks only half the story being told. To really address the gender disparity in Indian politics, the focus instead needs to turn to the representation of women as decision-makers and policymakers—the keepers of real political power in the world’s largest democracy.
Saawani is a PhD candidate at the King’s India Institute and a recipient of the King’s India Scholarship. Her PhD research is primarily a historical examination into civil-military decision-making during crises in independent India. After graduating from the University of Cambridge, she obtained an MA in South Asia and Global Security. She was previously a Research Associate at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, on the Oxford University Press Handbook on Indian Foreign Relations. While at King’s, she has been the Programme Manager for the FCO Diplomatic Academy South Asia Conference and has been teaching undergraduates at the Department of War Studies. Her wider research interests include diplomatic history, foreign policy, diplomacy and the study of contemporary conflicts. You can follow her on Twitter @saawaniraje.