Women, Peace, and Security Series

Women in Indian Politics

02 Feb, 2018    ·   5428

Report of the discussion on ‘Women in Indian Politics’ held on 24 January 2017

Opening Remarks by the Chair
Lalitha Kumaramangalam
Member, Governing Council, IPCS, & former Chairperson, National Commission for Women (NCW)

India has a three-step political system: the grassroots, governed by the panchayats; the state-level elections to the assemblies, and national-level elections to parliament. A little over 25 years ago, a law guaranteeing 33 per cent reservation for women was enacted at the panchayat level, which in many ways brought about a revolution in Indian politics. As a result of this law, currently, India has about 13,00,000 women in politics at the grassroots, giving way to increased participation of younger women. Literacy is often considered to be a big factor in enhancing this participation. However, contrary to popular belief, many illiterate women have proved to be remarkably good panchayat presidents (pradhans) while some fairly literate women have done a dismal job in assuming leadership roles. Therefore, along with literacy, access to opportunity and the personalities of these elected representatives are what make a difference.

It has been quite difficult for the same women leaders who have performed exceptionally well at the grassroots to come to the forefront - without the blessing of their 'bosses' - at the state and national levels. The lack of reservation at the state and national levels and strong party alliances that are enmeshed with deep-rooted patriarchy are some of the reasons for this. Reservation at the state and national levels has never come through because men across the board have opposed it out of fear for their own position in the party and constituencies. Another dimension of the disproportionate representation of women in Indian politics has been the lack of access to finance and funds. In this regard, self-help groups in the country have been a silver lining as they have made women more financially independent and given them a choice to invest their money strategically.

Despite the obstacles, with increasing access to education, Internet, phones and growing urbanisation, the woman's vote has come to be valued. However, the absence of men from dialogues on women's empowerment has been a major impediment in achieving concrete progress. Unless men are also persuaded to join the dialogue, achieving political equity between men and women will remain a distant dream.

Women in Indian Politics
Dr Ranjana Kumari
Director, Centre for Social Research (CSR), New Delhi

Democratic governance is based on the underlying principle of inclusivity and representation for all. This makes democracy the best form of governance. The system of democratic governance in India is relatively new and is very well spelt out in the Indian Constitution, which is representative of every diverse voice within the system.

However, despite this democratic set-up and the rights the Constitution guarantees every citizen, its spirit has not been realised in its true sense. The democratic institutions that were put in place after independence have not delivered the way they were designed to. For example, many institutions - the National Human Rights Commission, National Commission for Women and the National Commission for Minorities, for example - have failed to effectively implement the rights enshrined in the Constitution. The biggest proof of institutional failure is the continuing marginalisation of the ‘excluded’, such as Dalits, Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and women. Women's representation in parliament was only 3 per cent at the eve of independence, and 70 years later, this figure has risen to just 12 per cent. How democratic then is Indian democracy?

Systemic, structural constraints have made it almost impossible for women to occupy equal space for dialogue in the political system despite their having the political agency and will to participate. Patriarchy lies at the very centre of these institutions, and patriarchal structures cut across caste lines.

Political parties have in fact become major drivers of patriarchal norms. It must be remembered that almost every major political party in India was founded and is governed by men. Political parties like to ensure that women do not have their own political agency. The fact that the longest pending bill in the history of Indian democracy is the Women’s Reservation Bill is testament to the fact that systemic and structural constraints have proved to be the biggest impediments to greater involvement of women in Indian politics. Further, beginning with villages at the micro level, men have always used women as proxies to control and retain power.

It is critical to emphasise the ways in which women are contributing to nation-building in every sphere of life, including making their vote count in elections. In the last general election as well as the recently held Gujarat election, the absolute percentage of women who voted was far higher than men. Increase in the percentage of women voting in the elections is a direct manifestation of their growing political aspirations. There is evidence to suggest that a higher representation of women in Indian politics can significantly change the nature of power and provide unique solutions to domestic political and policy problems, and this is a discussion that must be fostered and sustained.

Rapporteured by Shivani Singh, Researcher, IPCS