New Delhi: A random 33% seat reservation for women in Parliament is not enough and India needs to go beyond numbers, according to Shamika Ravi, assistant professor of economics at the Indian School of Business and a fellow at Brookings Institution India Centre.

Ravi, whose research is in the area of developmental economics with focus on gender inequality and democracy, suggested internal reservation for women in all political parties. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Over time, more women have started voting, and the number of women candidates fielded by parties has also increased. Why hasn’t this translated into more women being elected?

More women are voting but they are nowhere close to men voters. So you really have to look at the relative difference between female and male voters. More are getting elected, but for more to be elected, we need more women leaders in parties. So, it’s not about getting elected, parties need to go out and recruit more women. Many more women are contesting as independents as a fraction of total number of candidates than men. On an average, women find it more difficult to get backing of a party than male leaders. When you have a backing of a machinery, a lot of your costs are taken care of and this improves your chances of getting elected.

When elected MPs are from the political families, is it a democratic representation of women?

In many developing countries, most occupations are dynastic. In politics, since they impact people’s lives, we have to see, are they necessarily worse candidates than those who are not coming from dynasties? If not, the woman from a dynasty is as good as the next guy, may be better. Entry into politics is difficult for women. Entry into politics is cheaper with backing of political parties and particularly of dynasties to be in the public space. It’s not necessarily a bad thing from a point of view of having more women in leadership positions.

Is just having numbers enough?

It has to go beyond numbers. Even if you have female reservation policy in Parliament, if the parties did not have internal reservation or if they didn’t have a pipeline of women leaders, where will they fill these seats from? So they are bound to go back to the Dimples and Priyankas. So, it cannot be about numbers, it has to be about actual representation. That means parties have to do a lot of internal restructuring to create a pipeline of leaders who can then contest and win elections.

What about the proposed reservation law?

Based on the research we have done, we think random reservation is not a good idea. There is a reason we have not seen women sarpanch (village council chief) perform differently from male sarpanch. You really have to base it on some criteria, and if the whole idea of giving reservation is of having compensatory justice, which means you are trying to make it less costly for women to enter politics, then it has to be in those constituencies where women have been neglected the most.

Kerala is one of the better states. Despite that it isn’t fielding many women candidates. Why?

In places like Kerala, because women are a large part in the population, unlike most backward states, where the sex ratio decline is alarming, women voters cannot be ignored by any candidates. So women preferences are being catered to by all candidates who contest elections. So, they cannot ignore them the way you would see people ignoring in the north. A good sex ratio means women will seek representation through voting because voting is easy. It’s not as expensive as standing for a public post.

Women voters can act as agents of change for women. Is there any evidence for that?

I will bring up the case of Bihar. The re-election of 2005 when in February of 2005 after 15 years of RJD, the state assembly elections were held for 243 constituencies and since no party came to power, and re-elections were announced within 7-8 months and what we see is that even though no new policies were enacted in this period, 37% of the constituencies, candidates’ re-election prospects reversed, which means that between eight months, greater number of women coming out and voting changed the outcome of these re-elections.

And when we systematically look at what is the growth rate in female voters, we see that greater the growth rate, meaning more women coming out in voting in the constituency, lower is the probability that the candidate got re-elected. This is nothing but a reflection that women are agents of change. Men go with status quo.

This says two things, that women can impact outcome significantly. This also shows women vote differently from men. They are no longer following husband’s or father’s diktat on who to vote for.

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