The paradox of women voters

COVER STORY


Women’s voting in India is marked by a poignant paradox. Although more and more women have turned up over the years to vote in national and state elections, their representation in Parliament and state assemblies has not kept pace. From a low 48 per cent in 1971, the election turnout of women rose to 60 per cent in 1984 (see graphic Getting There to Have Her Say, page 32).

That was the year when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and the upsurge of women voters was a kind of sympathy vote, an expressing of solidarity. After a more than 10 per cent dip in 1991, the turnout again rose dramatically.

In the last decade, especially since 2009, the unprecedented mobilisation of women voters, in both parliamentary and assembly elections has led to the narrowing of the gap between the electoral turnout rates of men and women. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the turnout of women was 65.3 per cent against 67.1 per cent for men.

So, while the turnout of women was 11.2 percentage points lower than that of men in 1967, the gender gap in voter turnout had reduced to 1.8 percentage points by 2014.

Yet, the national political arena remains largely a male, patriarchal bastion, manifest in the persistent poor representation of women in Parliament and the state assemblies.

The number of women Lok Sabha MPs has risen from 4.7 per cent in 1952 to 11.4 per cent in 2014; in the Rajya Sabha, the representation of women MPs was only slightly higher, at 15 per cent.

The percentage of women MPs in the Lok Sabha hovered between 6.3 per cent in 1962 and 3.5 per cent in 1977 (the lowest ever). In 1984, when an unprecedented number of women candidates from the Congress were elected (38 out of 42), the percentage of women MPs went up to 7.9 per cent.

In the next election, the numbers dipped again. But since the early 1990s, there has been a gradual increase.

In 2009, the share of women in Parliament was 10.5 per cent, which rose to 11.4 per cent in 2014. In all elections, the percentage of elected women MPs has been consistently higher than the percentage of women candidates.

Political parties often argue that they field fewer women candidates than men since women are ‘less electable’. Yet, data on the ratio of women MPs to women candidates establishes that the ‘electability’ of women MPs is much higher than of men.

This paradox is even more acute in the states. Of late, the turnout of women has been higher than of men in key assembly polls. Yet, in the same state assemblies, the percentage of women legislators has consistently been lower than in Parliament.

This glaring paradox is contrary to the voting trends and representation ratio of other communities of voters. For example, the increasing turnout of ‘backward caste’ voters in the post-Mandal Commission era has led to higher representation of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in both Parliament and state legislatures.

The only parallel to women’s representation being low despite their higher turnout is the minorities, especially Muslims, where higher turnouts have not meant greater representation in Parliament or state legislatures (except in Jammu and Kashmir).

Facing pressure to field more women candidates, political parties end up doing so in constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Political scientist Francesca R Jensenius of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs says, “Political parties tend to view male politicians in reserved constituencies as more dispensable than other male officeholders.

Parties often reproduce the hierarchical pathologies of the caste system within their own organisations.” Between 1980 and 2014, 7 per cent of Lok Sabha candidates for the reserved seats were women.

In the general seats, it was only 4.8 per cent, estimates Jamie Hintson, a James C. Gaither fellow in Carnegie Endowment.

Since political parties field more women candidates in the reserved constituencies, a higher proportion of women winning the Lok Sabha elections belong to these seats.

“Since 1980, an average 16.2 per cent of women candidates in the reserved Lok Sabha constituencies have emerged victorious as against 11.5 per cent of women candidates from the general seats,” argues Hintson.

Between 1952 and 1991, the gap in women’s candidacy rates between reserved and unreserved seats do not appear significant. Polarising issues, such as Ayodhya and caste-based reservation for jobs, which created fierce competition among political parties after 1991, spilled over into a gender war.

By 1996, the struggle for the Women’s Reservation Bill had begun. As a result, the gap between reserved and unreserved constituencies for women candidates has become much more pronounced.

This paradox of lower representation despite an increasing turnout by women is not witnessed in panchayat polls as a third to half the seats are reserved for women.

Since 1996, votaries of the Women’s Reservation Bill have been arguing for 33 per cent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha. Yet, despite both the BJP and the Congress arguing in favour of the bill, it remains in limbo.

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