As the nation rejoices the election of India’s first tribal president, it is an appropriate moment for us to reflect on the role of women’s reservation in our democracy. The president-elect, Droupadi Murmu’s political journey began with a local body election when she won as a councillor in 1997. A couple of years earlier, the Orissa Zilla Parishad Act 1991, and the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts opened the doors to enter local governments by reserving one-third seats for women. The journey of Droupadi Murmu from the lowest rungs of governance to the India’s highest office is a testament of the power of women’s reservation in legislature.
The national average of women elected in local bodies was a mere 3-4 percent prior to the enactment of gender quotas in local body elections. After the law, many women ran for office, and it became a phenomenal 33% in just one cycle of elections. Some of these women took the plunge on their own while others were fielded as substitutes for the men in the household who couldn’t contest elections anymore. Whenever women’s reservation is discussed, critics of the policy often lament about how these women are mere tokens who are controlled by the men, colloquially known as ‘panchayat patis’. While it is not false, it is a myopic view that fails to see the larger picture.
Traditionally, women have been limited to the prescribed gender-roles and confined to the household, especially in rural India. Politics and governance are not considered subjects for women to even talk about, whereas men spend most of their leisure hours conversing about politics. In such a scenario where women have no access to politics, when they are elected for the first time, they feel under-confident. The men end up taking the reins. Studies have shown that such elected women leaders come on their own and become independent of their husbands’ influence in governance after the initial years. Critiquing all women leaders as rubber-stamps ignores this very fact.
In the case of our president-elect, the college-graduate and socially active Murmu joined politics on her own and proved her mettle right after her first election. She was given the important yet neglected task of improving the condition of sanitation in the panchayat. She stood up to the challenge and performed the job to the satisfaction of the village folks. Three years later, in 2000, she contested and won the state assembly election. Even though she was a first-time MLA, she was inducted as a minister in the BJD-BJP coalition government. She held the portfolios of Transport and Commerce followed by Animal Husbandry and Fisheries and left her imprint in those departments.
Starting 2009, she faced many personal tragedies – the death of two sons, husband, and mother – all within a span of six years. The unsurmountable grief left her broken but she found her feet in public service. In 2015, she was nominated as the first woman governor of Jharkhand. During this time, Murmu showed immense courage and stood against the two anti-tribal Bills passed by the government of her own political party. If not for her refusal to give her assent, these Bills would have allowed easy transfer of tribal lands to industries. Today, she is India’s first tribal and second woman president.
Murmu’s journey sheds light on the world of possibilities if women leaders are given the platform. While her story is extraordinary and rare to come by in today’s India, there are many studies that prove about the efficiency of women leaders despite the criticism of women’s reservation. Studies in Indian villages have found that local governments led by women performed much better than those led by men in terms of access to healthcare, infrastructure, public delivery of services, and education attainment of girls. Another study also found that, “Village councils headed by women can catalyse change…. By creating empowered female role models, it led villagers to state more equal aspirations for their teenage sons and daughters, and to reduce their daughters’ domestic chores and increase their schooling”.
Having a tribal woman as the President of world’s largest democracy is a landmark moment. Her story will serve as a role model for many young women and girls. One shouldn’t disregard the challenges she had to endure both in life and in politics due to her intersectional identity – a woman from a marginalised community who grew up in poverty. Her mere presence in the President’s chair will shape aspirations of future generations of women.
Gender quotas have played an undeniable role in Murmu’s journey from a panchayat to the presidency. When Women’s Reservation Bill becomes a reality, we will have a bigger mass of women leaders in both the state legislatures and parliament. Not only will our democracy be enriched then but we, perhaps, won’t have to wait ages for the next woman prime minister or president.
The author is the founder of Femme First Foundation, a nonpartisan non-profit organisation amplifying women’s political leadership.