Unfinished Business: Gender Inequality in India’s Parliament

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Unfinished Business: Gender Inequality in India’s Parliament

Deepali Gaur Singh

Despite some progress in electing women, too few women legislators are getting elected, and India's Parliament remains dominated by men.

Indian political parties are
still not walking their talk. Judging by the statistics on the number of women candidates
who contested this general election, the Indian Parliament will, yet again, continue
as a male-dominated space.  And yet, the current Lok Sabha elections have
been a watershed in independent India as 58
women parliamentarians
will occupy seats in the Lower House – while an
increase of slightly over one per cent since the last elections – and the "ten
percent" mark appears to have finally been breached.

In the 1984 general election 44
women became parliamentarians
.  Two decades later, the 2004 general election
returned about the same number of women parliamentarians to the 14th
Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament), constituting a little over eight percent
of the total law makers elected.  The 13th Lok Sabha included the maximum of 49
women members, representing slightly over nine percent of the total strength of
543 members.  Going further back into time, the figures become even starker,
considering that 80 women were elected to power during the pre-independence
elections of 1937 conducted under the Government of India Act, of course with
reservation for women in place.

The truth is that in post-Independence India, when
it comes to parliamentary representation, women have never been able to get
close to the ten percent mark.  Despite Articles 325 and 326, guaranteeing gender
equality, the unequal representation of women in national political parties has
become a norm rather than an aberration.  Women’s role and prominence in the election process
and politics has been reduced to "mothers/daughters/wives of" – and sometimes
"sisters of" – contesting candidates during election campaigns trails. 

Women as candidates

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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It’s ironic that in over six
decades since independence and 15 Lok Sabha elections, several of India’s most
important political parties, despite being represented by firebrand, outspoken
and often controversial women leaders, continue to field almost insignificant
numbers of women candidates during polls.  Consequently, women constitute a
miniscule minority of the Lok Sabha.  Unlike many of its global democratic
counterparts, India can boast of a woman prime minister just three decades into
independence and yet women’s presence amidst the political leadership remains
small.  In most cases women, more specifically wives,
have been used as mere pawns to fill up spaces made vacant by the husband’s
disqualification in the electoral process or from their political berths due to
various reasons, like pending or ongoing criminal cases.  So, once elected, the
wife is expected to be the willing puppet with the strings firmly attached to
the spouse’s fingertips.

What makes this kind of
representation even worse is that it flagrantly positions the wife as a mere
façade rather than a serious candidate – doing little for the cause of women
who are serious contenders. Fortunately, many such replacement
candidates-cum-wives actually lost the elections, pointing to a mandate on both
the criminal past of the male candidate and their take on their wives’ new
found status of political puppets.

Some women’s groups have
attempted to play an active role in the political process, like in the elections
of 1991. The Akhil Bharatiya Mahila Dal (All India Women’s Party), for
instance, promoted itself as India’s "first and only women’s party," even fielding
400 candidates, but soon disappeared without as much as a smudge on the
political landscape. The world’s largest democracy, as a consequence, functions
with roughly half its population continuing to remain under-represented in
mainstream politics.

This worrying downward spiral
is reflected in the number of women given contesting tickets across political
parties, which has dropped from 247 in the 13th General Elections to 177 in the
14th General Elections, a trend reflected in the representation even from major
political parties known for their vociferous claims of a commitment to an
agenda of women’s empowerment, who nonetheless fall short of actually nominating
women candidates to contest elections. Of the 1,715 candidates in the fray for the
first phase of polling in 124 Lok Sabha constituencies (held in mid-April)
there were just 122
women candidates
. The argument remains at the level of the hen and egg
debate. Even though there is no real evidence suggesting that women candidates
do any worse than their male counterparts during elections, women are often not
seen as "winnable" contenders, thus losing the battle even before making it to
the battle ground. But the argument is particularly weak in the case of the Indian
polity, where people traditionally have reflected a tendency to vote for parties
rather than individuals.

But the real reason for women
candidates’ marginalization is the use of "muscle power," both financial and
physical, that might contribute to keeping women out of actual politics. Contesting
an election, today, entails huge financial spending by candidates, an amount that
many women might find hard to raise themselves. And given the largely prevalent
traditional, patriarchal mindset they might find it harder to find backers
either.  Besides, with politics considered a brutal, dirty business, women are
rarely encouraged to be a part of the process.  Very often women visible in the
political process are those who already belong to family with an existing
political background. The fact is that their already prevalent lack of
visibility in the public sphere tends to get reflected in their visibility in
the political sphere.

Woman as a voter

In the world’s
largest democracy, women constitute a potential 340 million voters out of a
total electorate of approximately 710 million. And yet their strength in the
Lower House of Parliament constitutes a meagre 10.6 percent. Only recently, three
young women
topped the national competitive exams for the Indian
Administrative Services (IAS) that will place them in important bureaucratic
positions in the nation’s bureaucracy –  but their political masters are still going to
be predominantly men. And not to be missed here is the candidate who was placed
second – the only child of a farmer from Punjab
– one of the states notorious for sex selective abortions and a dismally low sex
ratio. Further statistics show that among the top 25 candidates, 40% are women,
clearly pointing to the fact that with the availability of equal opportunities comes
representation. What is also significant about the results of the 15th
Lok Sabha is that the states
of Punjab and Haryana
– both stigmatized by skewed sex ratios – have actually registered a two-fold increase
in the number of women Members of Parliament (MP) entering the LS this time. Six
women candidates have won from their respective constituencies.

Women have a
huge stake in any election. The passage of some women-specific laws shows the
difference women in critical ministerial positions can make on issues and challenges
facing women. Correspondingly, fewer women candidates also points to the fact
that women’s issues are not a priority even in election manifestoes, let alone
post-election. Women, so far, have not been taken as serious voters. It is
assumed that their vote is determined by the voting pattern of the family
patriarch or the spouse (and in some cases the personal charisma of the male
candidate!) but rarely are considered a serious political agenda. And this is
despite the fact that some recent studies have shown that women are at par with
men while excising voting rights. According to 2009 electoral polls, women
voters are in majority in six states of the country.

Women’s issues

India ranks 115th of 162 countries in terms
of gender development.  Lack of representation directly translates into a de-sensitized political leadership that is completely cut-off from the issues
facing half the population of the country.  It also results in disproportionately less legislation empowering women, delays in the passing of
laws pertaining to women and very often actual blockage of laws addressing
issues specific to women and girls, some deliberately and others out of a
complete lack of understanding of women’s issues.  It is against a culture of
violence against women, whether in regard to domestic violence, preference for
male children reflected in sex-selective abortions, or the selective allocation
of resources to girls, dowry-related violence amongst others that also
manifests itself in government policies towards women. Often decisions on
women’s issues are made by state level bureaucrats and Members of state
legislative assemblies (MLAs) who are predominantly male, with little concern, sympathy
or understanding for problems facing women.  Laws like equal property rights or a
tougher anti-Sati
for women have faced stiff opposition from various quarters before
being passed or blocked.  Can blatantly anti-women policies or regressive laws
pass through a Parliament which is adequately represented by women themselves?

Reservation of one-third seats in Parliament and state
assemblies for women, also referred to as the Women’s Reservation Bill, has been
resisted by mostly male Members of Parliament (MPs) since it was first
introduced in 1997. Those fervently opposing the bill believe that reservations
of 33 percent will only translate into bringing urban elite women into power.  While reservation
quotas like these rarely bring a homogenized representation, even if the
argument were justified, what it is suggesting is that Indian women should and would
rather continue to be represented by a heterogeneous political leadership
consisting of men than urban educated women.  What this argument, rather
mischievously, also does is pit women against men of the backward classes and
castes, bringing the argument of gender equality on a collision course with men
from marginalized groups.  Besides, the very treatment of the reservation bill is
proof of the fact that women’s interests can never be completely represented by
a group of men. Keeping women from policy-making positions and decisions only
propagates the gender subjugation agenda.  In 2008, the Bill was introduced in
the Upper House of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) after women MPs formed a human chain
around the law minister to enable him to do this. But the big question is
whether it will get passed in the Lower House and become the law of the land.

The Women’s Bill stands out as a perfect example of abundant rhetoric and scarce intent.
Quite ironically, the drop in women’s candidatures this year coincides with the
introduction of Women’s Reservation Bill which is on the agenda of the
forthcoming Lok Sabha.

In contrast, in 1993, India enacted the
93rd and 94th Constitutional Amendments
, reserving 33 percent of seats in
local bodies for women. The fears expressed over this amendment too had been
similar; that women would be mere puppets with family patriarchs – the
father-in-law or husband – pulling the strings of power. And while true in many
cases, today, both the emblematic and tangible value of having over a million
women running Panchayati Raj institutions makes a compelling case for the
women’s bill to address the poor legislative representation of women across the
country.  What the country needs is more women as lawmakers to help bring to the
political arena issues that are specific and critical to them to be able to
create an atmosphere of greater sensitization.  Despite a new Lok Sabha and painfully
small increase in women’s representaion since the last election Indian
democracy continues to be challenged by the unfinished agenda of women’s
political empowerment.