This election season is witnessing a slew of unconventional happenings, not all of which leave us optimistic. Among those that we can all welcome without hesitation, however, is the trend of political parties throwing their weight behind the cause of a better gender balance in Parliament. First off the block was the Odisha-based Biju Janata Dal, which announced that it would field women in 33% of the seats it will contest. In West Bengal, the All India Trinamool Congress went one up, saying it intends to nominate women for 41% of the Lok Sabha constituencies it plans to fight. Not to be left behind, the Congress has pushed the envelope a bit further. Its president Rahul Gandhi declared the party’s commitment to the Women’s Reservation Bill, which proposes that one-third of all Indian lawmakers be female but hasn’t been enacted since it was first tabled in Parliament back in 1996. In addition, Gandhi promised a 33% quota for women in government jobs if the Congress is voted to power. While the idea of affirmative action in favour of women dates back to the 1920s, so little has been done so far that many voters just roll their eyes when they hear these avowals.
According to the Election Commission’s voter enrolment figures for 2019, women constitute 48.1% of the electorate. Also, the female turnout at ballot booths—66% in the general election of 2014—is now close to that of men. Yet, of eight South Asian countries, India ranks a poor fifth on women’s representation in Parliament, with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal doing better. The irony of this is striking, given that India had a woman head of state in Indira Gandhi long before most other countries came around to accepting one. Even today, several of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s key cabinet portfolios are held by women ministers. Yet, only one of every 10 Members of Parliament and every 15 legislators is a woman. Why is this so? The blame is usually placed on the country’s broader gender imbalances, and they do play a role. Also, women who do get elected are often from families of politicians. Research conducted by Amrita Basu in Kanchan Chandra’s book Democratic Dynasties: State, Party And Family In Contemporary Indian Politics finds that around 43% of women elected to the Lok Sabha have a political background, with family members preceding them in politics.
However, the scenario is steadily changing. Between 1957 and 2014, the count of women Lok Sabha contestants has increased from 45 to 668, a 15-fold leap (males saw only a five-fold increase over that span). More and more women want to take the political plunge and frame public policies. Some of this is thanks to the panchayati raj system, which has encouraged female political participation at the village level. Here, a third of all seats are reserved for women, but they actually occupy nearly half these positions of local representation across the country. In many states, they make up more than half the local bodies. If inclusion and diversity are to go beyond platitudes in the political arena, then far more women need to be elected for legislative roles at higher levels of governance. The voices we hear in Parliament should be the voices we want to.