Review: Performing Representation: Women Members in the Indian Parliament by Shirin M Rai and Carole Spary

While arguing for the need for a larger number of women MPs in the Indian parliament, Shirin M Rai and Carole Spary examine the role and the performance of women MPs
A protest in New Delhi demanding the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill in Lok Sabha on April 15, 2010.(SONU MEHTA/HT)
A protest in New Delhi demanding the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill in Lok Sabha on April 15, 2010.(SONU MEHTA/HT)
Updated on May 17, 2019 05:51 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByShaikh Mujibur Rehman
398pp, ₹995; Oxford University Press
398pp, ₹995; Oxford University Press

The decision by Odisha’s chief minister, Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), and the West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) to introduce 33 percent reservation for women candidates in their respective political parties would go down as a major positive development in the 2019 parliamentary election. By doing this, Patnaik and Banerjee have strengthened the case for reservation for women in parliament, an issue that was throttled by the political elite of different parties. They have, further, shown that there are ways to accomplish something if the political will exists. While arguing for the need for a larger number of women MPs in the Indian parliament, the authors mainly examine the role and performance of various women MPs of different parties.

The book tells us how women negotiate with political power in the face of massive odds, and the challenges they confront in their public role, how that shapes their lives, and its implications for women’s empowerment. While the book is an empirical case study, the authors’ engagement with major scholars of feminist studies, such as Anne Philips, Nancy Fraser, Hannah Pitkin, among others, brings rich theoretical perspectives to the discussion. While engaging with varied ideological traditions of feminist theory, they contribute the South Asian experience of women’s representation, and its unique aspect of performance with regard to rituals and ceremonies.

Fortunately, women MPs have been part of India’s Parliament since its inception and several have been dominant figures, including a woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. The list features prominent personalities like Vijaya Raje Scindia, Sonia Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj, Najma Heptulla, Sumitra Mahajan, Mamata Banerjee, Maneka Gandhi, Geeta Mukherjee, and Meira Kumar to name a few. These MPs have served several terms, and have held key positions.

Shirin M Rai (Courtesy the publisher)
Shirin M Rai (Courtesy the publisher)

Each has their own story to share. That in itself is remarkable in a land where violence against women remains high, and where Hindu widows and divorced Muslim women still face adversity when it comes to property, and the right to live with dignity.

This book presents a comprehensive analysis of women’s representation in Indian parliament, which the authors describe as a deeply gendered institution. Rai and Spary apply what they call “an innovative performance framework” that focuses “on rules and norms as on the speech and corporality, stage and script of politics and political life.” The research synthesizes different levels of debate -- the global, national, and local -- and shows how the ideas are interconnected. The book argues that institutions can be only understood in the wider context of society, and the parliament, both in its functional and symbolic roles, needs to be contextualized for a balanced understanding of its power dynamics and contributions.

Carole Spary (Courtesy the publisher)
Carole Spary (Courtesy the publisher)

There are 333 women MPs in the Indian parliament. That is not even two-thirds of a single Lok Sabha. As of 2017, just over 11 percent of MPs in India’s lower house of parliament are women. The world average is 23.6 percent and the regional average (Asia) is 19.7percent. This puts India’s rank at 145 out of 193 nations in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s League table for women’s representation in parliament. There has been a slow and small rise of women MPs but this needs to be further facilitated. This is where the women’s reservation bill could work.

The book’s main objective is to focus on the sort of role women members play in parliament, in its recruitment battle, in the negotiations they indulge in and the narratives they employ, and how their roles are mediated by factors like gender, caste, class, religion and ethnic identity. The authors attempt to probe key contexts such as colonialism, the one-party dominant system, and the rise of state-based politics. The authors have analysed speeches, and used autobiographical and biographical material on the women MPs to expand on their own insights derived from fieldwork.

Shirin Rai, a political scientist who teaches at the University of Warwick, UK, conducted extensive interviews with 23 women MPs over 10 years of the 10th and 14th Lok Sabhas (1994, 2004). Co-author Carole Spary interviewed male and female MPs between 2009 and 2016. In all, 51 members of Parliament were interviewed for the book. The research explored gender and representation issues at three levels: the route women MPs take through the Indian party system; the profiles of women who make it through the selection and election process, and finally, their negotiating strategies in their public and private roles.

Read more: Women’s representation: Parties must walk the talk

Of the nine chapters, chapters three and five stand out for their insights and conclusions. Chapter three analyses the role of political parties, while chapter five presents issues pertaining to how women MPs use the party mechanism to prepare and participate in debates. Chapter eight, concerned with the narrative of politics and leadership, explains how the precarious positions of women MPs in Parliament and within party politics contribute to their efficacy. Chapter seven reflects on the gendered patterns of corruption. The authors achieve this by analysing the funding and distribution of Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS). Their findings show that women MPs are not necessarily less corrupt or more sensitive to the needs of their constituents. Furthermore, owing to various caste factors, and other interest groups arising out of constituency-level politics, women MPs find it hard to negotiate gender politics. All in all, this book is a crucial research intervention in the area of politics and gender in South Asia.

The author teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi,and has recently edited, Rise of Saffron Power (Routledge 2018)

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