The problem

AS of late 2021, India counted the largest absolute number of women elected to political office of all countries in the world. India also has one of the worldÕs highest proportions of political offices currently held by women. The histories of Indian women as political leaders complement these rather remarkable statistics. India was led by a female prime minister far earlier than nearly all western democracies; a woman has led its ruling party; and many others – from Jayalalithaa to Mayawati to Mamata Banerjee – have led states larger than countries, sometimes for decades. This female leadership has turned traditional patterns of political dominance on their heads.

As of 1993, the Indian ConstitutionÕs 42nd and 43rd ŌPanchayati RajÕ Amendments marked a radical commitment to building political equality from the ground up – through their mandate of reservations for women as well as members of traditionally excluded castes. This commitment inspired a number of this issueÕs contributors to spend much of their professional lives studying India as the vanguard of the movement to solve one of the most intractable, and consequential, problems of our time: the contradiction between principles of political equality and manifest political, economic and social inequality along gender lines. Indeed, scholars, NGOs, and the Indian government alike have amassed a growing body of evidence that womenÕs presence as political leaders has led to myriad positive social impacts.

While IndiaÕs constitution is upheld as a model for its early, innovative political commitments to equality, yet, as many readers will know, major caveats typically come attached to each component of Indian womenÕs political progress. In fact, pessimistic narratives often undermine any enthusiasm that the aforementioned observations might otherwise inspire. Female elected politicians are said to merely reflect the fundamentally dynastic nature of Indian politics, in which a female heir tends to prevail over a political newcomer; the large numbers of women elected to office are seen as a consequence of heavy-handed reservation policies, rather than as an expression of changing norms; moreover, these officials are said to be proxies for more dominant actors or to not lead to any significant changes on the ground.

What are the existing barriers to womenÕs meaningful political representation? What progress has been made, if any? Do reservations serve as an impactful way to restructure gendered power dynamics? Or do they create the conditions that reinforce patriarchal structures? To what extent does this under-representation owe to gendered differences in political ambition vs. systemic discrimination by parties or voters.

This issue of Seminar interrogates each of these questions. In doing so, it seeks to provide a more nuanced view on womenÕs progress, impact, and remaining barriers faced in political office in contemporary India. As scholars of representation with a combined experience of decades conducting research on and in India, we believe that each perspective in this issue provides a unique lens to investigate what is a vast, dynamic landscape of gender and the practice of (electoral) power in contemporary India.

This issue includes contributions engaging with three types of questions – although several contributions straddle across these. We first include contributions about descriptive patterns of womenÕs representation in India. Where and why are women present in political office across India? What is the sociological background of elected female politicians and the content of their motivations to run for office? Contributions also provide historical perspective. What, if anything, has actually changed since over the past decades, whether due to quotas, local movements, national pressure, or other factors? Have we indeed not progressed beyond cosmetic shifts in the face of local elected representatives that were constitutionally mandated? Several of our contributors tackle these questions head-on.

Second, contributions describe the styles and strategies of women who did beat the odds and reached elected office. Once in office, how do elected women actually govern? What are challenges met by women in office, during and after elections? Do influential female politicians resort to specific strategies to exert power? How did various personalities (from Indira Gandhi to Mamata Banerjee) instantiate the idea of female leadership? Are women different as representatives of the ŌpublicÕ – how do they reshape the purpose of public action?  Lastly, when in office, who are women able and willing to represent?

Finally, contributions delineate the potential effects of having a woman in an elected office. A rich literature has, over the past twenty years, painstakingly outlined the many ways in which female political leadership, in India or elsewhere, may lead to a diversity of economic, social, psychological, and political outcomes. Drawing on this comparative scholarship, contributions included in this issue ask a variety of questions about the short or long-term effects of female leadership. What, if anything, actually changes when political leaders are women? Are public budgets allocated in a drastically different way if they are negotiated and approved by women? Is the welfare of women, or the welfare of society as a whole, improved in any substantial way by the presence in office of a woman? Does the experience of female leadership change gender norms or beliefs about women? Is it in turn likely to affect the representation of women in the public eye - including in the media?

This issue appears at a crucial crossroads in the history of womenÕs access to political representation in India. While gender quotas for local representation have inspired much of our work, we are well aware that women remain under-represented in the countryÕs most decisive political institutions. This under-representation is consequential, at a time when social movements highlight numerous failures by the Indian state to protect and represent womenÕs interests, specifically in cases of pervasive violence against Indian women, in public and private spaces. We hope for this issue to feed the ever-recurring, as-yet unresolved debates about the need for gender reservations in the Lok Sabha and in state assemblies, and more broadly, about the stateÕs role in improving the welfare of women and society at large.