The low number of women candidates nominated by political parties in the 2014 election suggests that not much has changed since 2009. Many parties have articulated support for increasing women’s participation in electoral politics at the national level, but often this has not materialised in greater opportunities for aspiring women candidates. Gender quotas have existed in local councils since the mid 1990s, but no gender quota exists at the national level. During the last two parliaments, the coalitions led by the Congress Party attempted to pass a constitutional amendment to reserve a third of seats for women in the national parliament and state assemblies (otherwise known as the Women’s Reservation Bill). The intention is to provide a legal quota where only women candidates can contest in selected constituencies, guaranteeing the election of a larger number of women to the national parliament and state assemblies. The bill was introduced (2008) and passed (2010) in the Rajya Sabha but not the Lok Sabha. Had the Congress Party-led government achieved this manifesto promise, and in time for the 2014 election, around 181 women could have been elected to the Lok Sabha (if implemented in its currently proposed form). This compares with 58 women elected to a House of 543 MPs in 2009, or approximately 11 per cent.
Election campaign hoarding for the BJP’s New Delhi candidate
© Carole Spary
As the two largest parties in parliament, the incumbent Congress Party and the main opposition party, the BJP, have had a crucial bearing on the proportion of women MPs elected to parliament in the recent past. This is likely to be the case also for the 16th Lok Sabha, though perhaps more for the BJP than the Congress Party given the anticipated anti-incumbency effect that is likely to affect the latter. Both parties have articulated support for women’s reservation. In 2014, both parties have re-nominated nearly all of their sitting women MPs. Party calculations of ‘winnability’ aside, this is perhaps a sign that these two parties are at least trying to maintain their existing pool of strong women MPs. However, in 2014 both parties have not significantly increased their proportion of women candidates compared to nominations in 2009. In 2014, the Congress Party has nominated a slightly higher proportion of women, and its highest at least since the early 1980s, but this is still only 13% of its candidates compared to 10% in 2009. The main opposition party, the BJP, has nominated slightly less (9% compared to 10% in 2009). If an anti-incumbency effect results in a poor performance for the Congress Party and a positive outcome for the BJP, this may reduce the proportion of women elected to the 16th Lok Sabha compared to 2009.
As is well known, a handful of women politicians in India are very senior and operate at the highest levels of electoral politics. Some are the highest office bearers of their political party, some are Chief Ministers of sub-national states. These senior women politicians are exceptional, however, in the male-dominated field of electoral politics. A closer look at the nomination of women candidates in 2014, based on candidate lists on party websites, reveals some further dynamics and raises questions about the enduring obstacles to women’s participation in electoral politics.
To begin with, opportunities for women candidates are highly uneven across states and more concentrated than aggregate party figures suggest. Both the Congress Party and the BJP have nominated no women candidates in many of the States and Union Territories where they are contesting. Women candidates for the BJP, for example, feature in less than half of 33 States and Union Territories where the party is contesting. In states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, a number of parties have nominated very few women candidates (the BJP and Congress in Karnataka has 4% and 7% women candidates respectively). Women candidates are also concentrated in a handful of particular states. A striking statistic is that more than half (20) of the BJP’s women candidates in 2014 are contesting from only three states: Uttar Pradesh (11), Gujarat (4) and Madhya Pradesh (5). Women candidates for the Congress are still concentrated in a few states, including in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, but not to the same extent. (While this might be unsurprising because Uttar Pradesh returns to parliament the highest number of MPs of any state, the proportion of women candidates is still above the party’s national average). The significance of this concentration is that while Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh are currently strong states for the BJP, the likelihood of the party’s success in Uttar Pradesh is uncertain. If the BJP does well in the election overall but fares poorly in Uttar Pradesh, the number of women candidates elected to the Lok Sabha is likely to be affected. Even if the BJP does well in all three states, and consequently returns the majority of its women candidates to the Lok Sabha, issues of unevenness and dependence on a small number of states will remain.
Pertinent questions for women’s inclusion in electoral politics
This unevenness in nominations raises questions about the internal working of political parties and concerns of inclusive democratic politics. The first question concerns whether the party’s election committees consider the paucity of women candidates nominated as a problem to be addressed, despite public support for women’s political participation. A second question is whether the national party leadership can influence state units to nominate more women candidates, or whether other internal party factors ultimately dominate. A third question is whether, in the contemporary context of coalition politics, aspiring women candidates benefit from, or are disadvantaged by, seat-sharing arrangements between national parties and smaller regional parties. While senior women politicians who lead regional and state-based parties have been very influential at the national level particularly when coalitions are fragile, as was seen in 1999, aspiring women candidates often do not occupy senior party posts. As a result, they may be disadvantaged when a limited number of seats have to be shared among a number of senior party leaders from different parties. A fourth question asks what kind of party organisational environment exists at the subnational level and whether this effectively enables (or inhibits) women to participate in party politics.
Greater participation of women in electoral politics is only one aspect of a broader concern for democratic inclusion. There is also no guarantee that women MPs will ‘act for women’ once elected to parliament, so issues of accountability will remain, as with all MPs. But India’s low proportion of women MPs is a striking contrast to the increasing presence of women in local councils and municipal corporations, made possible by gender quotas. These quotas may be good for the ‘pipeline’ of potential parliamentary candidates, but in the absence of a legally mandated reservation, the opportunities appear to be few and far between.
Carole Spary is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of York, and author of ‘Women candidates and party nomination trends in India – evidence from the 2009 general election’, Commonwealth &
Comparative Politics, 52:1, 109-138. She tweets at @carolespary.