It is self-evident that engaging in formal politics is engaging in claiming power or access to power, or to political spaces that are centres of power. And the power can be used in ways that are enabling to others and to lobbies or issues that the elected politicians represent. Given this axiom, it seems relevant to ask how far women’s demand for reserving seats in legislative councils will enable them to have the power to negotiate issues, concerns and rights that the women’s movement or the feminist movement wishes to affirm.
The argument here is that reserving seats for women in legislative councils does not necessarily mean that women’s voice and women’s quest for justice will be represented, leading to the proposition that reservation does not necessarily lead to representation.
If it is a question of women holding politically powerful offices, certainly we have a good profile in India. Apart from the leader of one of the major political parties and the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, we have the Speaker of the Lok Sabha — all women. And at a point in 2011 we had four women chief ministers. Neerja Chowdhury in an essay says: “Together these women ruled just under one-third of India — going by the Lok Sabha seats the four states accounted for — influencing the destinies of around 400 million Indians.”
But do these elected women represent women? And what does representing women mean?
In our view there are difficulties here. Chowdhury in the same essay perspicaciously unpacks the problematique of women in political parties.
First, most of such women enter politics as appendages of politically important men. Their role is to secure the men’s fiefdoms. They do not come representing women or a caste, community, trade union, farmers, etc.
Second, women’s demands, concerns, voice or manifestos are usually related to the areas of their physical engagement — reproductive rights, more crèches, proximate health services, proximate water, etc. So it is simple, put women to head the women’s ministry or health ministry. Therefore, women in formal politics, Chowdhury found, do not want to be stereotyped into this form of representation. They want the mainstream, as it is called. Hence, the reluctance of elected women to be solely identified with women’s voice.
Local self-government, ie the panchayati raj and the reservation of seats for women in this space, is often referred to as an illustration of success. It is a success in that it has made a difference to gender relations. Several very sophisticated surveys have been undertaken to test these views. A working paper by K Deininger et al. (2012) concludes that political reservation for women in India has an empowerment effect on them in terms of fewer hours of work at home. It also increases the extent to which women assert their reproductive choices and control their own resources. A significant increase in girls’ educational attainment was found, hinting at the fact that women sarpanches tend to spend more on education. E Duflo and R Chattopadhyay’s randomised controlled trial study in West Bengal and Rajasthan has indicated that when women lead local government, the priorities seem health, education and social services. However, another randomised study by I Rajaraman and M Gupta (2012) in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Odisha rejects the proposition that women as heads make choices that benefit their own gender.
Other studies suggest women-led panchayats make more altruistic choices for the public good, but they fail to show that women leaders raise gender issues. For example, there seems to be no evidence of an inverse relationship between women’s leadership and the incidence of violence against them.
Another study by Alexander Girard (2014) in Himachal Pradesh links the 33% reservation for women in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the mandated quota, to canal management governance.
Reservation in jobs and education enhances a woman’s power and capability to negotiate gender relations. But that is different from reservation in elected assemblies. Therefore, the question remains as to how to ensure that women who enter assemblies or Parliament will ‘represent’ women. In our opinion, it has to be with the help of both reservation and the mobilisation of women voters, so that they can bargain with representatives of their block votes. This block voting is possible for categories, especially women workers. Such a process does not depend on the reservation of seats for women unless they are in fact the representatives of that category.
Now young women, including those from the Dalit and minority communities, are connecting and setting an agenda for equality and justice beyond bodily needs and fears. But unlike other identities, the identity of being a woman is difficult to translate into what is called a vote-bank. However, it is our view that if the women’s movement can forge a platform on the issues of economic policy, democratising economic agreements as well as party management, and the related issues of state federalism, they may make a bigger impact on the nation and in turn begin to gain representation in places of power.
Devaki Jain is an economist and Deepshikha Batheja is a doctoral student of economics. The views expressed by the authors are personal.