Decoding women’s representation in the 2021 state elections
Reports, anecdotal accounts, and now the results suggest that women played a crucial role in shaping the electoral outcomes in the four states and one Union Territory that went to the polls this year.
In West Bengal, they may have cemented the All India Trinamool Congress’s (TMC) victory by massively voting for Mamata Banerjee’s candidates. These elections also took place in five states where the gender gap in participation and voting had closed way before these elections. In West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, it closed in 2011. In Puducherry, women have been outvoting men since 1985 and in Kerala and Assam, there was never a gap between men and women in the first place.
How did these five states and their main parties fare in terms of women representation in this election and in the past? The quick answer to that question is not so well.
Overall, women constituted only 10.4% of all candidates, and only 8.5% of all members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). West Bengal is the only state where the ratio of women MLA is superior to that of women candidates, thanks to the TMC’s decision to field 48 women out of its 288 candidates (16.7%). This is more than any other parties across the five states, but much less than the 41% of women candidates it fielded in the 2019 general elections.
See Chart 1: Share of women candidates and MLAs
If we exclude local parties and independent candidates, the ratio of women candidates among major parties increases to 13.5%. The credit is mostly due to state-based parties, who gave 14.4% of their tickets to women candidates, against 11% for the national parties. But even among them, there are important variations.
In Tamil Nadu, there is a marked difference between the two Dravidian parties. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) fielded 11 women (5.9%) against 17 for the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) (8.9%). Only 12 women were elected in an assembly of 234 — six from the DMK, three from the AIADMK, two from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and 1 one from the Congress. Small parties such as the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam or the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam have done comparatively better, with 9.7% and 11.7% of women candidates, respectively.
In West Bengal, 33 of the 40 women elected ran on a TMC ticket, and seven on a BJP ticket. 19 women legislators have been elected.
In Assam, only six women were elected in an assembly of 126. Three women were elected on a BJP ticket, against two on a Congress ticket and one on an Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) ticket.
In Kerala, 10 of the 11 women MLAs are communists — eight from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) and two from the Communist Party of India (CPI). The only other woman elected, KK Rema, was elected on a local party ticket, which was a part of the United Democratic Front (UDF). In Puducherry, the lone woman MLA, ChandiraPriyanga, was elected on an All India NR Congress ticket.
The BJP’s women nominations were highest in Tamil Nadu (15%) and in Kerala (13.9%). Two of the three BJP women candidates were elected in Tamil Nadu while none of the 16 BJP women it fielded in Kerala (out of 115 candidates) were elected. In Bengal, 38 women ran on a BJP ticket (13.1%) and only 7 did in Assam (7.5%).
See Chart 2: State-wise party-wise representation of women
19 of the 40 women elected in West Bengal have been elected for the first time while four and 14 of them are serving a second and a third term respectively. In the four other states, the majority of women elected are first-time MLAs. 30 of the 70 women elected across these five states ran for the first time.
30 of the 48 women who ran as incumbent MLAs were re-elected, which is a high strike rate (63%), practically at the same level as their male counterparts (65%). Of the 21 TMC incumbent women MLAs, only four were not re-elected.
An examination of trends over time shows that West Bengal is the only state where women representation has consistently increased since the late 1990s. Women representation in Tamil Nadu and Assam has gone down. Kerala registers one of the lowest rate of women representation in its state assembly in India. This year’s improvement, from 5.7% to 7.9%, is nominal. There are only three more women in the assembly than in 2016.
See Chart 3: Share of women MLAs in states since 1991
What lessons can be drawn from these descriptive statistics? We see first that parties and governments that cater to women’s interests, notably through general social and welfare policies, tend to be rewarded with the support of women voters.
But the progressiveness that can be seen in governance does not necessarily translate into inclusion in the domain of politics. Far from it. Communists have historically marginalised women within their ranks, even though this year, the CPI (M) in Kerala broke with that tradition, by nominating 13% of women candidates. The DMK remains a male-dominated universe in which few women are given career opportunities. The AIADMK used to do better when it was led by Jayalalithaa. But her demise and the subsequent eviction of VK Sasikala by the party establishment has led to a male take-over of the party.
In Assam, women were better represented under the Congress governments of Tarun Gogoi. The Asom Gana Parishad and other state-based parties never created much space for women representation within its ranks, nor has the BJP today.
The question of women representation is yet another indicator of the divorce that exists between electoral politics, a domain that remains dominated by men, and governance, where considerations of gender equity are possible. One should not deduct however that the latter would not gain from an improvement of the former. Under Mamata Banerjee, the Trinamool is leading the way in terms of women inclusion in politics. Genuine women inclusion translates into more women taking part in political activities, campaigning and mobilisation, and to more women attending rallies and campaign events. The contrast in the gender composition of the BJP and TMC’s attendance was particularly striking. One can only hope that other parties will follow the lead.
Avishek Jha is an Affiliate Researcher at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data and a PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of Melbourne. Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, and Visiting Senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Pulari Bhaskar, Priavi Joshi, interns at TCPD, contributed to the data. Views are personal.