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75 Years of Independence: Recording the political representation of women in India

As India completes 75 years as a sovereign nation this year, the government launched a wide-ranging campaign of ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ to celebrate its democratic achievements. Prime Minister Narendra Modi defined the campaign as an “elixir of energy of independence; elixir of inspirations of the warriors of freedom struggle; elixir of new ideas and pledges; and elixir of Aatmanirbharta.” This initiative also marks the beginning of another vision - Amrit Kaal, or the period of twenty-five years from today until 2047 when India will complete its centenary.

Since the celebration of ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ is a celebration of how far we have come, it is time to reflect on both India’s successes and shortcomings. Women’s participation in national electoral politics is one example of the latter. In this article, I look at India’s record of women’s representation in the Parliament as an institution that houses the elected representatives of the people of the country, particularly the Lok Sabha - also called the House of the People - and what such a record informs us about the stake of the period of Amrit Kaal.

Presence of women through electoral offices

India currently has eighty-one women as Members of the Parliament, two women as Cabinet Ministers, nine women as Union Ministers of State, three women as Governors, and one as Lieutenant Governor. Across states, there is only one woman Chief Minister - Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal. Recently, a woman was elected President of the Republic of India - Droupadi Murmu. Since 1950, the country has seen only two women Presidents, no woman Vice-President, and only one woman as a Prime Minister (elected twice in that position). 41 women have occupied Governor or Lieutenant Governors positions, against 796 men, since 1947.

Why is this important? It gives us the wide yet limited spectrum of the visibility and leadership of women in key political positions of power. Scholars have argued that a way to ensure that all inhabitants of a nation interact with its affairs is through electoral democracy, which is housed in the Parliament. However, the Parliament has not seen enough women, who constitute nearly half of the country’s population, to achieve its principle. More particularly, women’s representation in the House of (all) People matters as it is the seat of popular sovereignty. The literature on this issue further shows that women’s interests are not adequately addressed unless they make a significant part of the elected assemblies of a country.

India’s first Lok Sabha assembly comprised only 24 women (1952 - 57). While women in the subsequent elections increased, the growth remained unsteady. The sixth assembly had only 21 women (1977 - 80) - the worst record of women in the Lok Sabha. This pattern was broken only after the ninth assembly when the increase in the number of women stopped pulling the brakes (Figure 1).

Figure 1

It is worth observing the difference of merely 57 women MPs between the first and the current assembly - standing at a gap of 70 years (1952 - 2022). Moreover, about 62% of all elected women MPs belong to two political parties - the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress (Figure 2). National parties generally account for about 73% of all elected women MPs, state-based parties account for about 25%, and local parties around 2.21 % (excluding independents and three members of uncategorized parties). In addition, the country has seen women getting elected as independent candidates only ten times, as against men winning as independent candidates 219 times since 1952.

Paying close attention to the composition of women MPs in the current Lok Sabha further reveals notable instances where only one woman represents certain states, such as Kerala, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and seven others (Figure 3).

More strikingly, the numbers have been abysmal for some smaller regions for a long time, with states such as Manipur and Nagaland having women as their national representatives only once in their state’s entire history (Figure 4). (In this discussion of regional representation, it is equally important to consider the unequal share of seats for different States and Union Territories for membership in the Lok Sabha)

Re-adjusting the focus of Amrit Kaal

The data discussed above clearly shows that the experience of an adequate representation of women in the House of the People has been seriously missing in India's trajectory for a long time. More significantly, it is pertinent to realise that such an experience of both representational and substantive diversity at the political level is not disconnected from everyday life's social and cultural realities. Publicly available interviews of women contestants reveal that they continue to find the need to seek permission from their male counterparts, including toddlers, to join politics. They are expected to prioritise their family and household chores and treat all other affairs - local, regional, national - as matters that men are capable of addressing better. While it is true that this conversation is not about women competing with men, patriarchy's resilience only exacerbates men's dominance in the public space. Remember Audre Lorde's saying, "..the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."

It is the systematic assignation of gendered roles in positions of power that needs to be shaken. To borrow the feminist slogan of 'the personal is political,' it is our everyday efforts to voice the issue of women in multifaceted positions of power that matter. As society and politics closely interact with each other, women's roles in places where power resides need to be transformed from passive characters to active actors. The current composition of the Indian Council of Ministers is a case in point, with only 11 members out of a total of 78 members, including the Prime Minister, being women - who comprise not even one-fourth of the body. Such a reflection - on both individual and collective fronts - is the objective behind the article: to remind us about where we are headed and to re-adjust our direction moving forward.

To be sure, it might take courage to admit that the social legitimacy of discriminating norms often trumps the legal legitimacy of equality of access and public opportunity. However, India's claims to be the world's largest democracy will always sound partly hollow as long as half of its population does not get seen or heard in places of power.

In this context, I invite the service of policymakers, legislators, students, academics, and all the readers who realise the deep political and gendered meanings embedded in our everyday lives. Implementing critical legislative interventions - within institutions of governance and political parties - that guarantee adequate national and regional representation of women demands greater attention. The social consciousness of a collective, including a unit as domestic as a family, must reflect on the question of women's representation in public spaces of presence, visibility, and participation - otherwise, the ambition behind steering an awakening of Amrit Kaal will remain incomplete.

*Note: The data included in this article was last accessed on July 30, 2022.

Dipanita Malik

Dipanita is a Junior Research Fellow at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, and a Teaching Fellow for the Department of Political Science, Ashoka University. Her research interests are multidisciplinary, with a focus on postcolonialism, gender studies, cultural populism, decision sciences, electoral studies, Indian politics and political thought, and aesthetics. She holds a graduate degree in Political Science (Honours), with a minor in Media Studies and a concentration in International Relations from Ashoka University.

This article gives the author's views and does not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics.

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