The 2019 general elections have opened the doors of the Parliament of India to many women from humble backgrounds who are set to be the changemakers in mainstream politics. The presence of women in the Lok Sabha currently stands at 14%, the highest ever proportion since the first Lok Sabha elections and 10% in Rajya Sabha. The percentage though looks abysmally low, it is encouraging that more and more women are ready to take the plunge and have full-time careers in politics.
The main reason for the under-representation of women in Parliament is attributable to the societal mindset that refuses to acknowledge women as leaders, such as lack of trust on women representatives, financial dependence, fear of judgements from society, electoral violence, character malignation. One of the major reasons for the slow growth is attributable to the prior existing stereotypes that tend to exclude women from the decision-making process and consider them incapable of taking decisions. However, in recent years, there has been a surge in the number of women candidates who have embarked on a political career despite the presence of such obstacles. Women candidates as that of Ramya Haridas, Chandrani Murumu, Goddeti Madhavi, Mahua Moitra neither belong to any political dynasty, have power-wielding spouses nor have whooping assets in their name. These women are defying all odds irrespective of their economic and social background. They are committed to the cause of development of their constituencies despite facing severe criticisms, harassments to the extent of facing violence and character assassination at the hands of the opposing political parties. Women like Smriti Irani have been successful in unseating seasoned men in politics in their bastion despite being judged through a gendered lens and their previous careers.
Hansa Mehta, In 1947, Hansa was appointed as Indian delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She is known to have gotten the very first line of the UDHR changed to gender-neutral language to cover all humans. Source: United Nations
While the current lot of women marks the presence of most women in Parliament, does this reflect that the state of India has acted as a satisfactory enabler to ensure the equal presence of women in the law-making bodies, specifically in the Parliament? Internationally, the ICCPR is the guiding instrument for the democracies to ensure the participation of women in politics as representatives. Under Art. 25, the ICCPR mandates the right of every citizen to be elected at genuine periodic elections and have access to public service of the country in general terms of quality. The right to choose one’s profession and to be treated equally before the law, irrespective of one’s sex is reflected in the Art. 14, Constitution of India. Despite the presence of guarantees of equality before the law and equal protection of the law by the Indian Constitution and in other international instruments there has been a consistent under-representation of women in the Parliament, which is the supreme decision-making body even decades after the first elections.
There is an absence of specific pro-active affirmative action to increase the presence of women in the parliament, although there have never been any specific laws barring the women population from participating in elections. Positively, the government in recent decades has announced policies guaranteeing safer workplaces for women, acknowledged stringent action for crimes against women and adopted policies that make women financially independent. Incentivising the formation of Self-Help Groups among the women has been a great way to empower and encourage them to be involved in decision-making processes. Besides the Government, the political parties themselves have set voluntary party targets, especially the regional parties like the Biju Janta Dal (BJD), who have held the helm of states for five consecutive terms, fielded women as one-third of its contesting candidates. Increase in the number of women contesting as candidates is a positive indication of an increased presence of women in mainstream politics.
The gender quotas that were introduced in the 73rd and 74th amendment of the Indian Constitution to increase the women’s representation in the local government, are still to be introduced when it comes to the general elections. Studies specific to the local governments in India have shown that gender quotas may be the fundamental first step in changing the perception of the men voters and also increase the chances of women being elected even when such reservations are removed. A fair quantitative presence of women in the decision -making bodies ensures that adequate emphasis is given to human development outcomes and community driven needs. However, these quotas are not the absolute problem solver. The success of any affirmative action to ensure the increased presence of women in the Parliament depends on the nature and type of population, the existing social narratives of the particular country and so, a straight-jacket formula cannot be applied throughout the world.
With the current scenario before us, it can only be concluded that India is taking baby steps to enable women to be a part of mainstream Politics. While laws regulating the participation of women in contesting elections may act as a catalyst in changing the existing stereotypes, the onus remains on the state of India as well as on the society to acknowledge that equal presence of women in the parliament can enhance the quality of the decision making process. The state can only fulfil its obligations under the ICCPR and the Constitution of India in letter and spirit when it takes up wide-range practices that encourage education, role-modelling and awareness among the population of women aspiring to join the mainstream politics. The State has to facilitate the involvement of women in decision making process by generating data that reflect the positive outcomes when women are involved in such processes. The Election Commission can come out with data that reflect the positive aspects of the presence of women in Parliament. It has to enhance its efforts by mandating the political parties to make by-laws that ensure the increased participation of women in mainstream politics and having stringent penalties for violation of such provisions. It is time that the state and its functionaries work in their full capacity to ensure the equal presence of women in Parliament.
Bini Mishra, Advocate, Women for Politics
Bini is a lawyer, based in Cuttack, practising in Odisha High Court and other forums. She has completed her Masters in Transnational Crime and Justice from UNICRI, Italy and her under-graduation from NUSRL, Ranchi. She takes an avid interest in issues pertaining to public policy, politics and terrorism.
She can be reached on LinkedIn here.
This article gives the views of the author, and not necessarily represent the position of Women for Politics.