Our Constitution makers embraced universal franchise ever since the inception of the republic. India is probably the first country to give the women equal right to vote and for political participation simultaneously with men. And yet, even now men dominate politics. Women members of Lok Sabha ranged from a low of 4.2% in fifth Lok Sabha (1971-77) to a high of 14.3% 17th Lok Sabha (2019 - ). Even in Rajya Sabha women membership reached a peak of only 12.8% (2014 – 16). Even fewer women are elected in state legislatures.
Unlike in mature democracies, women’s participation is not rising significantly in India. Given the dominance of government and politics in our social and economic life, marginalisation of women in politics is even more detrimental to gender equity in India. The rise in gender violence and sexual harassment in society, and decreasing women’s participation in labour force indicate the need for greater role for women in political decision making to ensure protection of women’s rights and equitable growth.
There is an even more compelling reason to seek greater role for women in politics. Power in our society is largely seen as a means of control, not an opportunity to serve. As a result, typically the cabinet portfolios dealing with land (revenue), police (home), and taxation (commercial taxes, excise, finance), are regarded as ‘powerful’. The really vital subjects of education, skill development, healthcare, urban management, housing etc are the keys to prosperity and better quality of life; and yet they are perceived to be less important. Enhancing women’s role in politics is one important way to redress this imbalance, as women are more likely to view public office as a means of service and improving quality of life, instead of as a means of control and dominance over others.
The remarkable success of women in academics and professions shows that once opportunities are given, women do exceedingly well. When I joined medical school, girls had a 30% quota for admission. Today in many states 60% or more girls are selected by merit, and we probably need quotas for boys! Many women performed brilliantly in civil services, businesses and politics.
While the number of women elected to legislatures has not been impressive, their success rate (% of contesting candidates getting elected) has always been higher than the male aspirants. Among all male candidates including independents, about 10% are elected to office. However, over 15% of women candidates are elected! The real contest in Indian elections is mostly among candidates of recognised parties. Among these candidates, only a quarter (26%) of male contestants are elected, whereas about a third (33%) of the women aspirants are elected. This clearly shows that our voters are not discriminating against women candidates.
Successive Bills introduced in Parliament are seriously flawed because they mechanically provided for entry of women to fill one-third vacancies in legislatures. Such mechanical reservation of seats and rotation suffers from serious defects. Along with reserved seats for SCs and STs, about half the seats would be reserved with women’s quota. Since permanent reservation of half the seats disallowing participation of all sections is unsustainable, rotation of reserved seats would be needed. As a result, the dominant male politicians would prop up proxy candidates to keep the reserved seats warm for them until they are eligible to contest in those seats. The real power will remain with male politicians, and elected women would often be ornamental with a rotation system. The culture of ‘Panch Patis’ in local governments is very common, and often the husband of the elected woman local government leader exercises real power. Even in cases where the elected woman legislator establishes herself as a leader, with rotation system, she would most often lose the opportunity to contest for re-election. When 50% seats are reserved, it is unlikely that parties and male politicians will yield place to women candidates in unreserved seats. Leadership has to be nurtured over years and decades. Reservation with rotation will not give leaders the opportunity to prove themselves and rise in public esteem.
Re-election to public office is a powerful incentive in politics. With 50% seats being reserved, practically every seat will be rotated in elections. Such rotation removes the re-election incentive for the legislator, and politics and governance will be in even deeper crisis than today. Permanent and exclusive reservation of half the seats is undemocratic as it excludes other sections from contesting, and violates basic principles of democratic representation. Unlike SCs and STs, women constitute about 50% of voters everywhere.
In 1998, a citizens’ group comprising of Madhu Kishwar, Dhirubhai Seth, Yogendra Yadav and I drafted an alternative Bill for women’s representation. It simply mandates that all recognised parties should, by law, nominate women candidates in one-third of the seats. Where they nominate women depends on the party’s internal dynamics and local pool of leaders available. In order to make sure that parties do not field women candidates in seats where they have no strength, there are safeguards to ensure that in every pool of seats, one-third women candidates are nominated. Once enough women candidates from recognised parties are on ballot, past experience shows that more than a third of elected legislators will be women.
Such a model can be enacted by a simple law of Parliament and does not need a constitutional amendment. It allows rise of women as authentic leaders in a competitive political environment. Parties will have the incentive to encourage and nurture women to rise to prominence. A simple, elegant, practical solution allowing natural rise women to power is staining us in the face.
The author is the founder of Lok Satta movement and Foundation for Democratic Reforms. Email: email@example.com / Twitter @jp_loksatta
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