Women in Indian Politics: Myth vs Reality

India is a rare example where women did not have to struggle for their right to vote and contest for public office. Their right to be an equal part of politics and governance in India came at once. While the right to vote has materialised to a large extent, the right to contest has not.

Women make up only 14% of the Parliament as of 2019, the highest since independence, though they make up around 50% of India’s population. This number goes further down to 9% in various state assemblies.

Source: Flickr/UN Women Asia and the Pacific

In the general election of 2019, 78 women were elected as MPs, that is one woman representative per 8.5–9 million women, greater than the population of Israel, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore and a 100 other countries. While India prides itself over having had a female Prime Minister, President, Chief Ministers and leaders of political parties, there is still not enough representation in state legislative houses. For a nation that had consciously decided to be a representative democracy, many political observers say, it is a failure that half the population hasn’t been given a fair chance to represent themselves.

Each of us have heard a variety of explanations, often sounding reasonable, for why politics in India is not for women. In this article, Polstrat takes stock at some of the major perceptions/myths held about women in politics to check if they stand the test of reality.

#1: “Women are not interested in Politics”

One of the first responses, when asked why women aren’t in Indian politics, is that they just aren’t interested in politics. That women view it as trouble to engage in politics given its violent and criminal nature. That is why their numbers are low in Indian politics.

Reality: A quick look at the voters' turnouts, party membership and campaign participation of women reveal that women are indeed greatly interested in Indian politics.

Source: Quartz

As of 2018, BJP had 3 crore women members in their party, the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) claims to have 1 crore women members in their party, and All India Mahila Congress (AIMC) claims to have millions of members. Clearly, crores of women are joining political parties. Crores of women have been elected representatives at various levels in Indian politics as we will see in #2.

Moreover, data from the National Election Studies conducted by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) shows that the number of women with high participation levels in election campaigns increased substantially from 13 per cent in the 1999 general elections to 22 per cent in the Lok Sabha Elections of 2009. Women have been actively participating in election campaigns, not limited to holding rallies, meetings, distributing party leaflets, door-to-door canvassing by party workers and supporters and roadshows by party leaders.

Source: NewsIn Asia

One of the most important spaces of political participation is voting during elections. In that too, women have shown tremendous growth in the last decade. The voter turnout of women has increased by 27 per cent since 1962, and in comparison, men’s voter turnout rate has only increased by 7 per cent.

The difference in voter turnout among men and women that was as wide as 16.7% in 1962 has narrowed to 0.3% in 2019. Turnout is increasing across both rich and poor states, with female turnout surpassing men’s in Manipur, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Mizoram and Tamil Nadu. In fact, even for the most recently held New Delhi assembly elections, the gender turnout gap was reduced to a historic low of 0.07%.

Indian Voter Turnout: Male Vs Female

Source: Election Commission of India

Verdict — Women are just as interested as men in politics.

#2: “Women in Indian politics are proxy candidates”

Many opine that women are just proxy candidates for their husband/brother/father. They are not independent women who want to be in politics.

Source: Scroll.in

Reality — Yes, there are women who come from political dynasties, but it is interesting that when it’s a male dynast, they are accused of nepotism, but are never looked as a proxy or dummy candidate. However, for a women dynast, it is assumed that she is a dummy or proxy who cannot think for herself. This is based on pre-existing gender biases.

Source: ThePrint

Today, 14 states have 50–58% women representation at the Panchayat level. Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of women sarpanches at over 19,500 making up 34% at Panchayat level. This is the minimum they have had since 1992. So over the last two decades, the state of Uttar Pradesh alone has seen lakhs of women and at a national level with 29 states, it runs into crores of women who have held office. It is improbable that all of them belong to or related to a political dynasty.

Verdict — Yes, there are women in politics who come from political families just as there are among men. To call them proxies or dummy candidates without an ability to be independent politicians is a myth. Crores of women have got elected as representatives in the past 28 years and with no data to prove that they are all proxies, it is safe to conclude that this myth is a result of gender bias until substantial proof is provided.

#3: “But women aren’t competent enough to govern the constituency well. They are corrupt and criminal”

In politics, even if a woman wins, it is assumed that she will not be able to develop her constituency and citizens as well as a male representative. This perception draws from pre-existing gender biases in the society that women cannot do well in leadership positions. Moreover, people think that women leaders are corrupt and criminal drawing conclusions based on the performance of a few leaders.

Reality: A working paper by UN University titled ‘Women Legislators and economic performance’ disproves this assumption. The paper studied all the 4000+ constituencies in India for the period between 1992 to 2012. Some of the findings of this study are -

  • Women-led constituencies contributed 1.8% more to the GDP on India than male-led constituencies
  • A constituency is likely to see 15% higher economic growth under a woman legislator.
  • Female legislators are three times less likely to have criminal charges pending against them than male legislators.
  • Women representatives are more likely to oversee the completion of road projects. Share of incomplete road projects is 22% points lower for women.
  • The annual rate at which women MLAs accumulate assets while in office is 10% points lower than it is for men.
Source: Deccan Herald

Verdict: On average female legislators have led to the greater socio-economic development of their constituency. There is no significant difference in the size or cost of development projects undertaken by men or women, however, women are more efficient and less corrupt, thus, completing projects. This is not to say that women representatives are not corrupt or criminal, but that is a reality for a majority of male politicians as well, therefore, there is bias at play when the comparison between genders is done on the basis of corruption/criminal charges without looking at actual data.

#4: “But women cannot win elections, that is why they don’t get tickets to contest”

RReality: The strike rate for women in elections has been higher than men in every election since our independence. The below graph compares the strike rates for the last two decades.

Source: Election Commission of India

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, only 8% of the candidates were women but 14% of the winners were women. This means that women are winning at a higher rate than they are being fielded in elections. In the same election, 10.93% of women contestants won their election while only about 6.35% of men contestants were able to win. Additionally, average winning margins for women candidates generally tend to be much higher than those of male candidates.

Verdict — Women are winning big and at higher percentages than men, even though parties are not fielding them.

Clearly, women are interested in politics, they are winning elections and governing constituencies better than men. Yet, women representation in the Indian parliament is one of the lowest in the world. At present India is at 144th rank out of 200, below our three most talked about neighbours, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Representation of a community by the community is essential not just in terms of numbers but also for a better perspective on policy and governance. As citizens, we need to do much more to make our nation truly representative, and this article in an attempt at clearing some of the misconceptions surrounding women in Indian politics.

By Vivek Gangarapu and Shreya Maskara

From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.

Read more about Polstrat here. Follow us on Medium to keep up to date with Indian politics.

Polstrat is a political consultancy aiming to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.