Women’s participation in Indian national elections

GILLES VERNIERS, ISHIKA SHARAN, AISHWARYA SUNAAD

 

MUCH has already been written about women’s representation in Indian national politics.1 In this article, we add to existing contributions by examining recent data from India’s 2019 general elections and use that data to identify changes and continuities in various aspects of women’s participation in politics as national electoral candidates.

Women’s representation remains low: As Carole Spary recently observed, ‘[the 2019] election failed to make significant progress in increasing women’s presence among election candidates and newly elected Members of Parliament, largely as a result of major parties’ limited efforts to increase women’s nomination as candidates.2 With 14.4% of the seats currently occupied by women, India currently ranks 149 in the list of countries by proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments.3 India’s score is also lower than the average calculated by the World Bank for South Asia (18.9%). With 5.4% of women MPs, only Sri Lanka does worse.

The following chart, however, indicates that if the overall level of representation of women in the Lok Sabha is low, it is nonetheless increasing. The rate of increase of women MPs (+2.8%) is the highest registered since 1984 (2.9%). 44 women were elected that year, against 30 in the previous election. In 2019, women’s representation increased even though there were only 1.3% more women candidates compared to 2014. What accounts for the variation in representation is the strong overall performance of the BJP, which got 42 women elected out of 303 seats won, and a higher rate of nomination among Trinamool and BJD candidates, which led to seven and six women MPs to be elected on these two parties’ tickets. Only six women won on a Congress ticket.

 

Landslide elections favour women’s representation, as women candidates also benefit from the strong support obtained by their party. In 1984, the small increase of women representation came from the fact that most Congress women contestants won their seats (39 out of 44).


 

In 2019, 47 of the 78 women elected won on a national party ticket against 28 on state-based party tickets. Table1 shows how skewed women’s inclusion is in most parties, the Trinamool and the BJD being the exception among major state-based parties.

For most parties, the number of women candidates remains abysmally low. Many parties even failed to field a single woman candidate. National parties only do marginally better than state-based and local parties and few women run as independent candidates.

As noted by Jensenius, women’s nominations tend to be higher in the 84 constituencies reserved for SCs and 47 reserved for ST than in the remaining general seats, since 1996.4 The 2019 figures confirm that observation, as women comprised 10.8% of all candidates in seats reserved for SCs, 14.3% of all candidates in seats reserved for STs, against 8.3% in non-reserved seats. Women make up also a quarter of all MPs elected in seats reserved for STs, 14.3% of MPs elected in seats reserved for STs and 13.1% of all non-reserved seats.5

A comparison of these numbers by parties in the last two elections reveal some variations. While the BJP did increase women’s nominations in 2019, it did so mostly in non-reserved seats and in seats reserved for STs. For the Congress, it maintained its previous ratio of women nominations in non-reserved seats but fielded significantly more women in seats reserved for SCs. Compared to Jensenius’ data, which examined the distribution of nominations across reserved and non-reserved seats before and after 1996, women’s nominations have increased across all categories of seats, but more so in reserved seats.

Percentages, however, can be misleading. Even though the share of women contestants fielded by Congress in 2019 was identical to 2014, Congress in fact fielded fewer women, as it contested fewer seats (421 against 464).

Among other parties, there are also significant variations. In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik fielded 6 of its 7 women candidates in reserved seats (3 SC and 3 ST), out of 8 reserved seats. In West Bengal, the Trinamool fielded 5 of its 17 women candidates in reserved seats (out of 12). By confining women’s representation to reserved seats, unlike the Trinamool which distributed women’s candidacy across seats’ types, the BJD made the choice of increasing women’s representation without diluting male representation in general seats.

In 2019, 47% of all women MPs were elected from only four states: Uttar Pradesh (14%), West Bengal (14%), Maharashtra (10%) and Odisha (9%). Large, populated states like Bihar or Gujarat, barely contributed. South India, which accounts for 130 seats in the Lok Sabha, only sent 11 women to Parliament.

Table 1

Party-wise distribution of women MPs and candidates in the 2019 general election

Source: TCPD - Indian Candidates and Legislators Dataset, derived from ECI reports. This table excludes state-based parties that did not field a single woman candidate, such as AGP, AIMIM, AUDF, DMDK, INLD, JKNPP, Kerala Congress, Kerala Congress (M), MNNPF, PMK, RLD, RPI and SDF.

 

Table 2

Percentage of women contestants in parliamentary constituencies by seat category in the 2014

and 2019 general elections

Source: Adapted from Jensenius (2017).6

 

These variations are consistent with state-assembly level data, which shows that southern states generally have a bad record in terms of women’s inclusion in electoral politics. Recent state elections have even seen women representation drop significantly in Tamil Nadu (from 9% to 5%) and remain extremely low in Kerala, at 8%. Northern states tend to have slightly higher women’s representation in state assemblies, particularly across the Hindi Belt (Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh) and in West Bengal. Women are practically absent from candidates’ lists across the North East, in Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh. In general elections, the small number of seats allotted to smaller states alters that perception.

In this section, we look at various socio-demographic characteristics of women contesting on major parties’ tickets and MPs, and compare them, when possible, to their male counterparts. Previous contributions tell us that female MPs tend to be more educated and wealthier, more upper caste, less likely to be farmers or from business.8 Women MPs and candidates are also more dynastic.9 The argument goes that parties attempt to mitigate the perceived weakness of female candidates by selecting them more harshly on conventional markers of winnability. Contrary to the argument often made by opponents to the Women’s Reservation Bill, politics does not necessarily attract more elite women; it is simply the basis on which parties tend to recruit them.

On the education variable, data for the 2019 contestants shows that women were still by and large slightly more educated than men. Among major parties, 75.4% of all women contestants had a higher education degree and above, against 64% of all men. This is a higher proportion of women contestants with graduate degrees and above than in 2014 (71%), while the percentage of male contestants with degrees is identical. Among winners however, the percentage of male MPs with degrees is higher than women’s (75.6% against 70%).

Again in 2019, women are more likely to be members of upper castes than men (33.3% against 29.2%), fewer are members of the OBCs (19.2% against 23.4%) and Intermediary Castes (14% against 16%); more women are represented among Scheduled Tribes (15.4% against 9%) and less among Scheduled Castes (12.8% against 16%). There are only two Muslim women represented in the Lok Sabha, whereas there are 19 men.10

 

Table 3

State-wise distribution of women candidates and MPs in the 2019 General Election

 

Source: TCPD - Indian Candidates and Legislators Dataset, derived from ECI reports.

 

In terms of wealth, we note that in 2019, men and women MPs were equally wealthy, with median net assets of 17.3 crore. In 2014, there was a gap of 4.2 crores on average between male and female MPs, according to affidavit data (ADR). The cost of entry in politics is now so high that it erases differences of wealth between men and women MPs.

 

The main variation between men and women MPs lies with their dynastic profile. As documented in a previous article in this journal, we found that ‘Thirty percent of all dynastic main party candidates are women, against 8% of all non-dynastic candidates’.11 Overall, we found that ‘26.3% of MPs belong to political families, against 15.8% of their candidates’, and that half of Congress and BJP’s women candidates belonged to political families.

This is consistent with previous findings that measured the prevalence of dynasticism among MPs.12 Quoting Chandra, Bohlken, and Chauchard’s dataset (2014), Amrita Basu observes that ‘an overwhelming proportion of this small number of women parliamentarians – 58% in 2004, 69% in 2009, and 43% in 2014 – have had family members precede them in politics, making them the group that is most dependent on dynastic ties for representation’.13 For 2019, the percentage is 50% (39 out of 78).

The difference with past recent elections is the fact that the BJP seems now more inclined to recruit dynastic candidates than in the past. 47% of its women candidates belong to political families, against 13% of men. For Congress, the ratio of women candidates belonging to political families increased to 51%, compared to 2014, against 24% of all its male candidates.

The higher nomination of women by the Trinamool and the BJD also affects the percentage of women dynastic candidates. Four of the nine Trinamool women MPs belong to political families (against 35% of their female candidates), while four of the seven BJD women MPs belong to political families (against 57% of their female candidates).

In their 2011 article on dynasticism in Indian politics, Kanchan Chandra and Wamiq Umaira argue that parties with strong organizational structures, like the BJP, do not need to rely on the dynastic ties of their candidates.14 We find in 2019 that the increased competitiveness of electoral politics has brought parties that do have such strong organizational structures, such as the BJP or the Trinamool, to increasingly rely on dynastic candidates, particularly among women. This is in tune with an overall transformation of the ways the BJP recruits its candidates since 2014: more pragmatic, more inclined to host defectors or dynasts. Across states, the BJP has in part emulated the caste-based, elitist recruitment approach of regional parties.15 

 

 

The fact that parties tend to apply their candidates’ selection criteria more stringently on women compared to men, also accounts for the higher percentage of women dynastic candidates. Besides, nominating women relatives of male politicians is also a means to ingratiate men in the party by enabling them to expand their own family’s political influence. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP often offers tickets to relatives of high-profile defectors who join the party, such as Sanghamitra Maurya, BJP MP from Badaun and daughter of former BJP minister Swami Prasad Maurya.

Finally, we also find, as Chandra et al. did, that smaller parties tend to mostly field dynastic women candidates, often directly related to party leaders. The RJD for instance, fielded spouses of three imprisoned former high-profile RJD representatives who could not contest.

Lastly, do women MPs’ careers differ from men’s? In this section, we look at individual MPs’ career trajectories, drawn from the Trivedi Centre for Political Data’s individual incumbency dataset. This dataset provides information on the number of times candidates in Indian elections have contested and been elected.

In terms of career length, women do not seem to be particularly disadvantaged. From 1977 to 2019, Indian MPs have served on average nearly two terms. The difference between male and female MPs is negligible, even though men are slightly more likely to serve two complete terms than women. The same observation applies for the number of times candidates contest.

Incumbent male MPs are also generally more likely to be renominated than incumbent female MPs. Barring in the late 1990s, the strike rate of women re-running incumbents is systematically lower than men (35% on average from 1980 to 2019, against 40% for men).

As a result of these variations, women are more likely to be new entrants in politics. Barring two elections in the 1980s, the ratio of first time MPs among women has always been higher than men.

Few women finally belong to the ‘stable political class’, defined as the group of elected representatives who have been elected three times or more. Of the 543 Lok Sabha MPs elected in 2019, 120 belong to that category. Only twelve are women. Maneka Gandhi, elected eight times, is India’s longest serving female MP, followed by Sonia Gandhi. Among the women candidates, only 18 contestants (out of 752) had served more than two terms, against 167 for the men. Women’s professional politicians’ strike rate (ratio of seats won to seats contested) is also slightly lower than men’s (66% against 71%).

These figures have varied over time. In 2014, there were only eight women part of the stable political class: Sonia Gandhi (Congress) and Gawali Bhavana Pundlikrao (Shiv Sena) were the only two non-BJP women MPs who belonged to this category. The highest number was sixteen in 1999. For a country of India’s size, that is a minuscule number of long-standing professional female politicians.16

We argue in this article that women’s representation should not be only measured in terms of tickets and seats. Other sociological and political variables, such as caste, religion, political family affiliations, affidavit data and data on their career trajectories, are now available and can be used to assess their socio-demographic profile and their career trajectories in greater detail. This information can help assess the impact women politicians can have on national politics, and the limits imposed by various political constraints.

Women’s representation in India’s Lok Sabha is not only very low, but also dispersed across states and parties, making their presence marginal within states and parties as well. While they face the same career constraints as men – short political longevity, high competitive pressure, high individual anti-incumbency – the fact that their base number is so low has a compounding effect on their political marginalization. In a country of 1.4 billion, there are only at the moment 12 women members of the Lok Sabha who can be said to be career or professional politicians.

Recent elections, however, have shown that a few political parties have made more space for women candidates, recruiting new candidates also outside political dynastic networks. As Mirchandani and Verniers have argued elsewhere, recent examples of gender inclusion probably stem more from strategic electoral calculations than from a moral standpoint, which is encouraging.17 Once parties recognize the fact that there is no risk associated with fielding more women candidates, and that including more women candidates can in fact pay off given the growing participation of women as voters, they may become less averse to nominating them. But for the time being, variations in women’s representation are more a function of major parties’ performance (landslide victories boost women’s representation) than of parties’ concerns for gender equity.

 

1. V. Dutoya, ‘Une demande faire au nom des femmes? Quotas et représentation politique des femmes en Inde et au Pakistan (1917-2010)’, Revue franćaise de science politique 66(1), 2016, pp. 49-70. F.R. Jensenius, ‘Competing Inequalities? On the Intersection of Gender and Ethnicity in Candidate Nominations in Indian Elections’, Government and Opposition 51(3), 2016, pp. 440-463. doi:10.1017/gov.2016.8. P. Rai, ‘Electoral Participation of Women in India: Key Determinants and Barriers’, Economic and Political Weekly 46(3), 2011, pp. 47-55. S.M. Rai & C. Spary (eds.), Performing Representation: Women Members in the Indian Parliament. (First edition). Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2019. C. Spary, ‘Female Political Leadership in India’, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 45(3), 2007, pp. 253-277. doi:10.1080/14662040701516821. C. Spary, ‘Women Candidates, Women Voters, and the Gender Politics of India’s 2019 Parliamentary Election’, Contemporary South Asia, 28(2), 2020, pp. 223-241. doi:10.1080/09584935.2020.1765987.

2. Spary, 2020, ibid.

3. See https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SG.GEN.PARL.ZS

4. F.R. Jensenius, 2016, ibid., p. 452.

5. G. Verniers, ‘Verdict 2019 in Charts and Maps: Lok Sabha Has More Female MPs Than Ever Before, More Dynasts Too’, Scroll.in, 1 June 2019. Retrieved from https://scroll.in/article/925313/verdict-2019-in-charts-and-maps-lok-sabha-has-more-female-mps-than-ever-before-more-dynasts-too

6. F.R. Jensenius, ‘Competing Inequalities?’ Government and Opposition 51(3), 2016, p. 454.

7. G. Verniers, V. Karthik KR, M. Kumar, and N. Agrawal, ‘Tamil Nadu’s New Assembly in 33 Charts: Lowest Women Representation in 25 Years, OBCs Dominate’, Scroll.in, 10 May 2021. Retrieved from https://scroll.in/article/994446/tamil-nadus-new-assembly-in-33-charts-lowest-women-representation-in-25-years-obcs-dominate G. Verniers, Basim-u-Nissa, M. Kumar & N. Agrawal, ‘Is Kerala Really Inclusive? 33 Charts About MLAs in New Assembly Show There’s Still Work to Be Done’, Scroll.in, 13 May 2021. Retrieved from https://scroll.in/article/994691/is-kerala-really-inclusive-33-charts-about-mlas-in-new-assembly-show-theres-still-work-to-be-done

8. V. Dutoya, 2016, op. cit.

9. K. Chandra, Democratic Dynasties: State, Party, and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2016.

10. These figures do not consider subsequent by-elections.

11. G. Verniers & S. Ammassari, ‘The Resilience of Dynasticism’, Seminar 720, 2019.

12. K. Chandra, 2016, op. cit.; K. Chandra & W. Umaira, ‘Democratic Dynasties’, Seminar (622), 2011.

13. A. Basu, ‘Women, Dynasties, and Democracy in India’, in K. Chandra (ed.), Democratic Dynasties. State, Party, and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2016, p. 137; pp. 136-172.

14. K. Chandra & W. Umaira, 2011, op. cit.

15. G. Verniers, ‘Opportunism and Discontent: Party Hoppers in UP Politics, The Mojo Story’, 2022, https://mojostory.com/pov/party-hoppers-in-up-politics/

16. There are of course career women politicians active in state politics, in the Rajya Sabha or serving as party presidents, but their representation in these spheres of power tend to be even lower than at the national level. Only in local bodies do we find a large number of women, owing to reservations.

17. M. Mirchandani & G. Verniers, ‘How Mamata’s Trinamool Broke the Glass Ceiling for Women in Politics, 22 March 2021. Retrieved from https://www.article-14.com/post/how-mamata-s-trinamool-broke-the-glass-ceiling-for-women-in-politics