Written by Ankita Shree.

Image credit: Women at a community meeting by World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr, Licence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The Indian parliamentary elections of 2019 mark one of the biggest democratic elections in the world, with the country being one of the most populated countries in the world with 900 million registered voters.

The total population of India amounts to 1.2 billion. According to the 2011 Indian census, the male population is approximately 623 million and the female population approximately 587 million. Thus, women constitute roughly 50 per cent of India’s population, although they only account for 48 per cent of the registered voters.

Any gender-just society would agree that if women constitute 50 per cent of the population then they must have an equal say in the decision-making process of the country

Even though India adopts a population-based electoral college for elections to its lower house (Lok Sabha), the gender component is often missing. The last elections to the Lok Sabha saw just 65 women parliamentarians in a lower house with 545 members, which is itself just 12 per cent of the full parliament. The percentage is even lower, at 9 per cent, in state assemblies.

Many reasons lie behind this inadequate representation of women. Foremost among them is the patriarchal structure that runs across the nation, whereby politics is considered a male-driven public realm and women are expected to confine themselves to the personal realm of the household. Further, women have always been regarded as second-class citizens in India, and this discrimination against them runs very deep. Indian women have no representation when it comes to decision-making in the household, hence when this picture is expanded to a larger scale of making decisions in the political realm, women are considered inferior and kept out of it.

Realising this discrimination, in May 2008 the United Progressive Alliance government led by the Indian National Congress (INC) tabled the Women’s Reservation Bill Amendment No. 108, proposing a 33 per cent reservation for women in the parliament and state legislative bodies to enable greater representation of women. The bill also proposed reserving one-third of seats within the reserved constituency for women from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the same communities.

However, the bill did not receive a favourable response from the various political corners of India. Although none of the political parties denied their support for the bill in public, they did not extend to it the support it needed either.

The anti-reservation lobby argued that the concept of reservation for women goes against the idea of merit and would therefore force tickets to be given to women over the politically more meritorious male candidate. Most of the political parties feared the bill would force them to give tickets to women who had a low probability of winning the election. Furthermore, it was believed that only women with a political background would have a chance of being a preferred candidate because of their access to political parties.

Many concluded that this scenario would lead to a lack of political exposure for women who would merely act as puppets for their husbands, as is the case with the panchayat (local rural body) elections, where women have been given a 50 per cent reservation. The traditional patriarchs who currently hold political power also suspect that there will be a surge of elite and well-resourced urban women making it onto elected bodies, but with no real political agenda to bring about change for women.

As a result of all this, the bill is still far from becoming a reality. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of the ruling National Democratic Alliance promised to make the bill a reality in its last election manifesto. However, even with a clear majority in the lower house over the last five years, the government still failed to get the bill passed because of its lack of political will and the divided opinions around it.

The 2019 elections have seen some positive steps coming from some of the regional parties, such as the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha state and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the state of West Bengal, which have given 33 and 40 per cent of their tickets to women candidates, respectively. Nonetheless, the picture remains dismal, with both the major national parties – the Congress and the BJP – giving only 13.7 and 12 per cent of their tickets to female candidates.

Any gender-just society would agree that if women constitute 50 per cent of the population then they must have an equal say in the decision-making process of the country. However, unless there is a firm political will, any representation of women in politics or the legislative bodies in India will remain no more than a dream.

With changing times and increasing turnout among female voters, it can be argued that there is an indication that women want to be a part of politics, even if only in the most passive way possible. Both a lack of education and lack of awareness have kept women away from politics for a very long time, but the latest state election results in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh clearly indicate that female voters can turn the course of an election if needed.

With more female candidates than ever in the current elections, not only will women in India feel more represented, but they will also feel empowered as decision-makers. It is high time women realised that politics brings with it an opportunity for social change, and if women want that change to occur for them, they will have to be more political. As Carol Hanisch rightly said, the ‘personal is political’ for women, and it holds just as true for the women of India.

Ankita Shree is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Shaheed Bhagat Singh Evening College, University of Delhi, India.

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.

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