25 yrs after reservation Bill, equitable women’s representation remains elusive

Only 7.7% members in the Lok Sabha and 4% members of state assemblies were women in 1996, when the first women’s reservation Bill was introduced. Women’s share is now 14.4% in Lok Sabha and around 8% in state assemblies
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Representational Image. (HTarchive)
Updated on Sep 14, 2021 09:23 AM IST
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By Abhishek Jha

This September 12 marked the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the first Bill to reserve seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies. The 1996 Bill and three other similar Bills – introduced in the parliament in 1998, 1999, and 2008 – have failed to become law.

Only 7.7% members in the Lok Sabha and 4% members of state assemblies were women in 1996, when the first women’s reservation Bill was introduced. Women’s share is now 14.4% in Lok Sabha and around 8% in state assemblies. While there are regional variations in the share of women in state assemblies and party-wise differences in share of candidates who are women, their representation is still far from their share in population everywhere.

The 14.4% share also puts India’s Lok Sabha at the 145th place among 192 similar bodies in different countries as of September, according to data from Inter-Parliamentary Union, a global organization of parliaments. This, experts say, is unlikely to change in the absence of any affirmative action.

How has representation in Lok Sabha and state assemblies changed?

7.7% winners of the 1996 Lok Sabha election were women. A similar share of women (8.3%) were winners in the 1984-1985 election. Consistent, though small, improvements in this figure have taken place from the 1999 election, taking women’s share in the Lok Sabha to 14.4% after the last election in 2019. In absolute numbers, of the 543 Lok Sabha seats, women won 58 seats in 2009, 63 in 2014, and 78 in 2019.

The situation is similar in state assemblies, and women’s share has improved in this century. Before the year 2000, women’s share in state assemblies was hovered around or below the 5% mark. It has remained above that number since 2000 and between 8% and 9% since 2012. For the sake of simplicity, the gender composition of both Lok Sabha and state assemblies is assumed to be the same between their respective general elections.


Women are picked up as candidates only if they are seen to win

Without constituencies being reserved for women, does low representation mean women fare worse than men at winning elections in India? This is not the case. Historically, in both state and national elections, women’s strike rate – the proportion of candidates who won – has been higher than that of men.

Experts say this is because the entry barrier for women in elections is higher than men: only those women are made candidates who will likely win. The share of women candidates among total candidates in Lok Sabha elections, for instance, has increased only marginally: from 3.7% in 1962 to 4.3% in 1962 to 9% in 2019.


Do women fare better in some parties and states? Yes, Bengal and TMC top charts

To be sure, women’s representation in different states and parties is not the same. In state elections held in the last decade (2011-2021), the share of women winners among total winners was 13% in West Bengal, the highest among all states. In Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh also, their share was above 10%. Women’s share was relatively lower in southern states and in the Northeast. Mizoram and Nagaland did not elect any women in the last decade, with the latter never having elected a woman.

Comparison between different parties is relatively difficult. Some parties contest a much larger number of seats than others. A party that contests 200 seats will have to find and field a much larger number of women for equal representation than a party contesting 2 seats. The Election Commission of India’s criteria for defining state and national parties also makes the list of such parties dynamic.

To reduce this problem of comparison, this analysis is restricted to parties that have fielded at least 162 candidates until 2019 in Lok Sabha elections. This is so that only parties that have fielded candidates in about 10% of 543 Lok Sabha seats in three elections or in 2% of Lok Sabha seats over 15 Lok Sabha elections since 1962 on average are compared.

The All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) is the clear leader among such parties, having fielded over 22% women candidates and a median of 18% women candidates, much higher than the overall 13% women candidates fielded by the Aam Admi Party (AAP). Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, Communist Party of India (CPI), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress, and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – national parties other than TMC at the time of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections – have fielded 5% to 9% women candidates overall.

What explains these trends?

The bump in women’s representation in the Lok Sabha since 1998 is simply because of the entry of the BJP as a party with a national footprint, said Gilles Verniers, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. This is not because BJP fields a higher share of women. 12.6% of BJP’s candidates were women in 2019 Lok Sabha election, similar to the 12.8% figure for the Congress. However, since candidates of such big parties have a bigger chance of getting elected, two such parties contesting elections increases the chance of women getting elected.

Tara Krishnaswamy, one of the convenors of Shakti, a non-profit that advocates for women’s representation in electoral politics, also contends that the barrier for women entering politics has likely not reduced. This is because although now there is now a much bigger pool of possible candidates, over 90% of candidates continue to be men. She cites the million-plus women in local bodies – a change brought about by one third seats being reserved in local bodies by constitutional amendments made in 1993 – as an example of an expanded pool of women politicians. However, neither the number of women candidates in Lok Sabha elections nor their share in total candidates has changed much. Their number was 606 (4.3%) in 1996, remained below that until 2009, and was 726 (9%) in 2019. “Indian voters have embraced women in politics but political parties continue to discriminate against them,” she said.

Women having a higher share in winners of state elections in relatively less developed states such as Bihar than in more developed ones like Kerala could be a result of the dynastic nature of politics in such states, said Verniers. Because women candidates are selected more strictly, the presence of dynastic politics allows women from political families to get more easily selected than in a state where such politics is less prevalent. The share of women candidates among different parties could be for different reasons. A third of TMC candidates were women in 2019 likely because Mamata Banerjee’s chief rival – Narendra Modi and the BJP – presented a strong image. On the other hand, the 14% women (3 of 21) among Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) candidates in 2019 are all relatives of male politicians.

“It (women’s representation) will not change on its own. The only way to achieve equality is by affirmative action,” Verniers said.

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Sunday, October 24, 2021