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Tuesday, Nov 19, 2019

Will women decide India’s 2019 elections?

Once Indian women enter the electoral fray, they tend to perform fairly well. Since 1962, women have occupied a higher percentage of seats in the Lok Sabha than one would predict based solely on their share of candidates. Nevertheless, female representation in the Lok Sabha is meagre and only surpassed 10% for the first time in 2009. Today, women make up a paltry 11.6% of directly elected members of Parliament.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2018 09:19 IST
Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson
Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson
While female representatives remain few and far between, ordinary female voters are playing an increasingly outsize role in India’s democracy.
While female representatives remain few and far between, ordinary female voters are playing an increasingly outsize role in India’s democracy.(PTI File Photo)

Powerful women are no strangers to Indian politics. Indira Gandhi first became prime minister in 1966 and held the position for a total of 15 (non-consecutive) years, a tenure second only to her father’s 16 years in power. Today, several prominent women, from Mayawati to Mamata Banerjee, dot India’s state-level political landscape. Women from external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman occupy top positions in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet.

However, the role of women in contemporary Indian politics is far more complex than these high-profile examples suggest. Seven decades after India gained independence, women are still woefully underrepresented as political candidates in state and national elections. Although they comprise nearly half of the country’s population, women make up just over one-twelfth of parliamentary candidates and one-tenth of eventual winners. Yet, despite their gross underrepresentation as politicians, women have made great strides as voters. Today, in most states, female turnout is surpassing that of men — no small feat in a conservative, patriarchal society. This electoral awakening of women has important ramifications for how India’s 2019 general election battle will be waged and won.

Women as candidates

In 2014, just 8.1% of candidates for the Lok Sabha were women. Though abysmally low, this figure was the highest ever. Between 1962 (the first year for which gender-specific data is available) and 1996, women did not once account for more than 5% of the candidate pool. Following a sharp increase in 1998, women have enjoyed modest incremental growth as a share of total candidates.


This gradual rise in female candidacy has been most pronounced in SC/ST-reserved constituencies. Between 1980 and 2014, 7% of parliamentary candidates for these seats were women. During the same period, women comprised only 4.8% of candidates seeking general seats.

There could be multiple reasons why the growth in female candidacy has been concentrated in reserved constituencies. One possibility raised by political scientist Francesca Jensenius is that parties tend to view male politicians in reserved constituencies as more dispensable than other male officeholders. In a sense, parties often reproduce the hierarchical pathologies of the caste system within their own organisations. Facing heightened pressure to field more female candidates, parties seem to have chosen the path of least resistance — improving women’s representation by replacing their least powerful men.


Another possibility is that women lack access to the resources necessary to finance increasingly expensive electoral campaigns. An analysis of affidavits submitted by candidates contesting India’s 2004 and 2009 parliamentary elections indicates that the median wealth of male candidates is three times that of their female counterparts. If the costs of campaigning are lower in reserved areas, poorer candidates would stand a greater chance of winning.

Surprisingly, women are more likely to contest elections in places where the gender ratio of the electorate is less favourable toward women — that is, where there is a proportionally greater male population. To explain this counter-intuitive finding, economists Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi hypothesise that in states where women enjoy greater equality, such as Kerala, they may not feel compelled to throw their hats into the ring as candidates and assume the financial burdens of campaigning. Meanwhile, women in states with greater gender inequality — like Uttar Pradesh — view running for office as one of the only ways to make their voices heard.

Women as representatives

Once Indian women enter the electoral fray, they tend to perform fairly well. Since 1962, women have occupied a higher percentage of seats in the Lok Sabha than one would predict based solely on their share of candidates (See Figure 1). Nevertheless, female representation in the Lok Sabha is meagre and only surpassed 10% for the first time in 2009. Today, women make up a paltry 11.6% of directly elected members of Parliament.

Where do women have the greatest odds of victory? The data suggests that, just as women are more likely to contest SC/ST-reserved seats, they are also more likely to win these seats once they run. Since 1980, 16.2% of female candidates in reserved races have emerged victorious, compared to only 11.5% of women running for general seats.

Interestingly, Kapoor and Ravi find that although female candidates are more prevalent in constituencies with adverse sex ratios, women are less likely to actually win in these areas. This suggests that while a male-dominant electorate might spur women to contest elections, this same factor may work against them on election day.

Women as voters

While female representatives remain few and far between, ordinary female voters are playing an increasingly outsize role in India’s democracy. Amid the unprecedented overall voter turnout of the 2014 elections, fewer observers noticed that the gender gap in turnout had dramatically declined (See Figure 3). Female turnout lagged male turnout by 7 to 12 percentage points in every election between 1967 and 2004, except for the 1984 election following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. By 2014, the gender gap had plummeted to 1.8 percentage points, a record low.

In fact, in half of all states and Union territories, female turnout actually surpassed male turnout. This does not mean that more women vote than men in absolute terms: men still outnumber women on electoral rolls and in the general population. Though the rise in female voter registration has been modest, turnout among female electors has surged.


Across the country, the female turnout advantage tends to be larger in state than in national elections.

For both types of polls, however, the same group of states enjoys the greatest edge in female turnout. Yet it is not clear what sets these states apart. Some of India’s poorest states, like Bihar and Odisha, exhibit a clear female advantage, while women vote less often than men in the more prosperous states of Gujarat, Karnataka, and Maharashtra. In addition, states with more female candidates in 2014 did not enjoy greater female turnout. States with more balanced sex ratios did have higher turnout — but for both men and women voters.


Implications for 2019

These findings have profound implications for women’s changing role in Indian politics ahead of the country’s 2019 general election. For starters, as women vote in greater numbers, their policy preferences are increasingly shaping political agendas.

For example, shortly after his re-election in 2015, the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, fulfilled a campaign promise to ban alcohol in the state. Many observers perceived that Kumar enacted the ban under pressure from women’s groups to curb alcohol consumption, which they associated with social ills such as gender-based violence and poverty. Now, both Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have jumped on the bandwagon, announcing their own plans to implement a phased prohibition of alcohol.

Admittedly, it is not obvious that prohibition actually addresses the most pressing concerns facing women in India, but a ban on alcohol does have the virtue of being both highly visible and administratively easier than tackling deep-seated issues such as sexual violence or police reform. Still, the recent explosion of the #MeToo movement in India has the potential — if public pressure is sustained — to advance issues regarding the endemic harassment of women onto the front burner of political discourse.

In addition, women have become a focal point of the BJP’s 2019 re-election campaign. While Modi’s 2014 pitch revolved around job creation and economic growth, his current platform centres on building the modern foundations of the Indian welfare state. The BJP believes that this focus on social welfare will endear it to India’s voting masses, especially women. While on the campaign trail in Karnataka earlier in 2018, Modi himself declared: “For us, whether it is the organisation or the government, or framing of programmes, it is women first.”

In the last four years, the Modi government has launched campaigns to improve sanitation (Swachh Bharat), provide universal health care (Ayushman Bharat), and furnish cooking gas cylinders for millions of poor households across the country (Ujjwala).

In the past, the BJP has trailed the Indian National Congress in terms of winning women’s votes; party leaders believe the government’s development schemes can help reverse this historical disadvantage.

The ruling party has also bet on legal changes to win over female voters — such as an executive ordinance in September 2018 that bans the practice of instant triple talaq in India’s Islamic community.

This electoral focus on women is not restricted to the BJP.

For instance, Congress party president Rahul Gandhi has criticised Modi for promising to improve women’s safety while allegedly pursuing a majoritarian agenda that incites violence. Gandhi has even gone so far as to pledge that his party will ensure that women will be chosen as chief ministers in at least half of Congress-ruled states by 2024 — an easy statement to make given that the Congress only directly rules three states in India today.

A second implication of changing gender dynamics in Indian politics is the clear gap that has opened between women’s participation as voters and their underrepresentation in the political class.

Under the 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution, passed in 1993, at least one-third of local village council president positions must be reserved for women. But such quotas are not operative at either the state or national levels.

Or at least not yet. The representational gap experienced by Indian women may compel parties to finally pass a Women’s Reservation Bill, which would reserve 33% of all seats in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies for women. The bill, first introduced in 1996, was passed in the Rajya Sabha but has remained stalled in the Lower House.

Between 2004 and 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party blamed the Congress for dragging its feet on the bill. Now, Rahul Gandhi has urged Modi to pass the bill, assuring full Congress support. While some insiders speculate that Modi plans to revive the reservation bill as a pre-election concession to women, the two major parties have so far done little except blame each other for delaying the bill’s passage.

Even if the bill does not pass, there is some cause for optimism about female representation in Indian politics. Reserved seats for women at the local level create a pipeline effect: women in reserved local positions can eventually use their political experience to launch state or national campaigns. Recent research by Stephen D O’Connell finds that quotas for women have accounted for approximately half of the increase in female MPs and MLAs since the 73rd Amendment was passed.

This pipeline effect should continue to increase the number of women elected to state and national office. But gender parity — under even the most optimistic of scenarios — remains a long way off. In the meantime, more encouraging is the unprecedented mobilisation of female voters in India, a trend that is shaping how parties campaign and — increasingly — govern.

Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson are with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This article is part of the “India Elects 2019” series, a collaboration between Carnegie and the Hindustan Times