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Gujarat, Himachal polls and gender equity: A look at women in assemblies

Updated on Dec 10, 2022 06:57 AM IST

The Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections have failed to deliver on the gender equity front. Fewer women were elected overall and major parties did not increase women representation among their candidates in any significant way.

Congress workers celebrates the party's victory in Himachal Pradesh assembly elections, in Chandigarh, on Thursday. (PTI)
ByGilles Verniers

The Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections have failed to deliver on the gender equity front. Fewer women were elected overall and major parties did not increase women representation among their candidates in any significant way.

In Gujarat, the three major contesting parties fielded only 37 women out of a total of 542 candidates. The BJP nominated 17 women candidates (9%), against 14 for Congress (8%) and only 6 for AAP (3%). Only 15 of them won, all but one on BJP tickets. Of these 37 candidates, 31 were first time candidates, which means that there were only six women contesting on a major party ticket with prior state election experience. The veteran female politician in the Gujarat assembly is Thakor Geniben Nagaji from Vav, North Gujarat. She is the lone woman elected on a Congress ticket.

In 2017, fourteen women were elected and five years later, only four of them were allowed to re-run. This points to the problem that the small number of women representatives are not even given a chance to pursue a career or to build political experience beyond their first election.

In 2017, fourteen women were elected and five years later, only four of them were allowed to re-run.

These number place Gujarat only slightly above the national average of women’s representation in Vidhan Sabha, which is currently at 7%. Women’s representation in Gujarat in 2022 is only twice what it used to be 70 years ago.

The situation is even more dire in Himachal, where only one woman – Reena Kashyap – has been elected in an assembly of sixty-eight, on a BJP ticket. She is a first-time contestant in the reserved constituency of Pachhad, in Sirmour district. In 2017, there were only four women elected. Three of them re-ran as incumbents. Asha Kumari, a six-term Congress MLA, lost in Dalhousie. Sarveen Choudhary, a four-time BJP MLA, lost in Shahpur. And Reeta Devi, a first-time BJP MLA, lost in Indora.

In total, only twenty-four women contested on a total of 412 candidates, six of them on BJP tickets and only three on a Congress ticket. AAP, which was not a serious contender in this election, nominated only five women candidates. Overall, Himachal is situated well below the national average. It is a state where not only women representation is extremely low, but has also declined over the past ten years.

These results illustrate yet again that on top of the usual barriers to entry imposed on women aspiring candidates, parties are even less likely to nominate women candidates when the competitiveness of an election increases. The perception that making space for women’s representation somewhat constitutes a political risk remains strong among parties, despite the availability of plenty of evidence pointing in fact to the contrary.

The poor state of women’s representation in AAP is a good illustration of that. It’s status of outsider and the high stakes attached to the elections it fights outside Delhi makes it even less likely to nominate even women candidates, compared to Delhi where the level of women representation in the Vidhan Sabha is already very low (there are only 8 women among the 62 AAP legislators). Between Congress, BJP and AAP, the last has by far the worst gender equity record. In Himachal, the electoral pendulum makes every seat count, which makes parties even less inclined to make ways for female contestants.

There are recent examples of parties breaking the mould by taking the initiative of representing women more adequately. The Trinamool in West Bengal and the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha are two examples. The Congress attempted parity among its candidates in the Uttar Pradesh state elections last year but failed to convert a symbolic gesture into any electoral gains. It seemed to have shelved the idea of gender equity for now.

But it is not just the status of outsider or challenger that pushes parties to marginalize women. Even the BJP, from its position of dominance, hardly makes any effort to improve women’s representation among its candidates. That may seem puzzling given the party’s inclination to perform symbolic gestures and its focus on women-centric policies. Besides, the BJP also likes to focus on their leader’s appeal, reminding voters that candidates don’t really matter. They could easily afford to use the relegation of their own candidates as bit-part players to use nominations as a tool to showcase its commitment to gender equality.

Instead, all the claims of transformations of Indian politics continue to mean little to women nurturing political ambitions. Relying on individual parties’ goodwill is insufficient given the depth of prejudice against women’s inclusion into politics. Only mandated representation, through quotas, can bring substantial change in that regard. The Global Database of Gender Quotas hosted by International Idea reveals that 137 countries around the world use some form of quotas in favour of women, achieving an average level of representation of 27.6%. It isn’t by any means an unusual idea.

Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University, and Senior Visiting Fellow, Centre for Policy Research. Views are personal.

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