After the Election Commission (EC) of India’s analysis of the 2019 Lok Sabha election’s voter turnout revealed that 67.18 per cent of the women electorate turned out to cast their votes as against 67.01 per cent of the male electorate, Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra hailed it as a historic moment.
Historic it was, indeed. In the 1962 Lok Sabha election, for every 1,000 men who cast their votes, there were only 675 women who voted. The 1967 election recorded a quick rise in women’s participation in voting— there were 766 women voters for every 1,000 men who voted. It then stagnated and took another 47 years for the ratio to rise to 929 women voters per 1,000 men voters, recorded in 2019. This figure puts the women voters’ turnout above men’s, as the electoral rolls had only 926 women per 1,000 men.
In a country where the sex ratio of 940 females per 1,000 males (as per the 2011 census) stands significantly lower than the global average of 984 females per 1,000 males —owing largely to discriminatory social practices— more women than men participating in electoral democracy is a indeed a feat.
Nevertheless, only 9.01 per cent of the candidates, and 14.36 per cent of the elected MPs, were women. This, too, was the result of a significant improvement that happened largely over the past decade, as women’s participation in both voting and candidature remained mostly stagnant from the time of the Constituent Assembly of 1946 to the first years of the new century.
This stagnation is rather strange, considering that the Congress, the principal political party in colonial India, had its first women president in Annie Besant in 1917—a year before the United Kingdom allowed limited women suffrage—and the newly-formed Madras and Bombay legislative assemblies granted voting rights to women in 1921, followed by United Provinces in 1923, when a number of European countries, including France, Italy, Greece, Belgium and Bulgaria, were yet to allow women to vote.
A Prolonged Battle
Almost 50 years ago, in 1974, a report titled ‘Towards Equality’, prepared by a Committee on the Status of Women constituted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government—at the urging of the United Nations—pointed out that Gandhi’s premiership since 1966 was being cited as an example of women’s hold on India’s political sphere.
The committee—nine of its 10 members were women—disagreed with the notion, highlighted with data how women’s participation in positions of political authority remained dismal, and recommended 30 per cent reservation of seats in the legislative bodies for women. Such reservation “will alter the very character of our legislature and will compel the political parties to change their strategies and tactics and induce them to give women their due,” said the report of the committee headed by Phulrenu Guha, Congress Rajya Sabha member from West Bengal who had served as the minister of state for social welfare during 1967-70.
Till the 1970s, India had very few women politicians who rose to prominence–chief ministers Sucheta Kripalani in Uttar Pradesh in the 1960s, Nandini Satpathy in Odisha, and Shashikala Kakodkar in Goa in the 1970s being among them. Guha was one of only 13 women to have got a ministerial berth in the Union government in the first two decades–and 11 of them were junior ministers. The 496-page report, the first of its kind, serves as an important historical document in mapping how the status of women changed in India in different spheres, including politics.
Among the direct impacts of the report was the launch of the Integrated Child Development Scheme, which also focused on mothers, in 1975, followed by three significant developments in 1976—the establishment of a Women’s Welfare and Development Bureau (there was no ministry concerning women till 2005) within the ministry of social welfare, the launch of a National Plan of Action, and the passage of the Equal Remuneration Act, legalising equal pay for women. Besides, the approach of the five-year plans changed from a welfarist one to one aimed at development. But when it came to sharing political power, things did not move much.
The report mentioned that during its members’ discussions with different political parties, almost all parties, including their women politicians, opposed the idea of reservation. They contended that it would be regressive and that women could not be compared with backward sections of the society, such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Parties were willing to allow reservations in local bodies, though.
The response of women politicians prompted the members of the committee to suppose that the handful of women who had managed to reach some positions of political authority were reluctant to press for women-centric issues. Were they wary of inviting backlash from their male colleagues by pressing for women’s issues?
The report pointed out that when the Rajya Sabha was debating a private member Bill seeking equal pay for women for equal work, less than one-third of the women members of the House attended the discussion. “A number of women who have entered the power structure have reached it mainly through certain ascriptive channels. This, coupled with their small numbers in the legislatures as well as decision-making bodies within the parties; explains their inhibition and failure to voice the problems of women in these institutions,” the report said.
The report noted there was a decline in discussion on women’s issues since independence, with a sense of complacency prevailing among politicians of both sexes—that the problems of women had been solved with the legal and administrative moves already taken. The committee’s analysis of debates and discussions in the legislative bodies showed these institutions paid ‘very meager attention’ to women’s problems.
If women parliamentarians or members of legislative assemblies did not manage to push for policy changes to ensure greater participation of women in the decision-making process, the relatively lower turnout of women voters may have worsened matters. Did a higher turnout of women voters in the later years manage to yield any influence?
Changes in Electoral Participation
The 299-member constituent assembly that drafted the Indian constitution had only 15 women members, accounting for five per cent, and all of them were nominated from the princely states. The first general election did not reflect any change in the ratio–only 4.5 per cent of Lok Sabha members were women (22 of 489).
Way back in 1957, the Congress, the party having an overwhelming dominance in the post-Independence Indian political sphere under Jawaharlal Nehru, decided to allot 15 per cent of their LokSabha tickets to women. But it never materialised. In 1962, only 6.76 per cent of their nominees were women (33 of 488). In the 1967 Lok Sabha election, the first to see a woman, Indira Gandhi, running for the prime minister’s post, only 7 per cent (36 of 516) of Congress candidates were women.
Gandhi did initially include a number of women in her team, both ministerial and organisational–from the veteran Phulrenu Guha to the young Margaret Alva and Ambika Soni. But in 1971, when Gandhi was seeking a fresh mandate for herself, only 4.76 per cent (21 of 441) of the party’s nominees were women. One of the first decisions of her new government was, though, to legalise abortion.
Overall, taking all parties and independents into account, the share remained static at 3 per cent, or 3 women candidates for every 100 men candidates, from the 1957 to 1989 Lok Sabha election, hovered between 4 and 7 per cent from 1991 to 2009, increased to 9 per cent in 2014 and then to 10 per cent in 2019. The trends of women voter turnout remained largely unchanged between 1967 and 2004 but changed quite rapidly since then. From six states and union territories recording higher female turnout than men in 2009, the 2014 election saw 16 states and Union Territories recording the same trend and in 2019 the trend was recorded in 23 of India’s 36 states and Union Territories.
External Image or Internal Realisation
The 1990s saw a lot of affirmative steps. The National Commission for Women was set up in 1990, the P V Narasimha Rao ministry in 1991 started with seven women ministers–the highest among previous ministries–and ratified the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1993. The 1992 amendments to the Constitution, formalising 33% reservation for women in local bodies, panchayats, and municipalities, came into effect in 1993. However, the Bill proposing 33% reservation to women in the LokSabha and assemblies was not passed and sent to a select committee.
According to scholar Saraswati Haider, India’s women-centric policies have come up “only under pressure from international fora and the keep its image untarnished therein,” and had little to do with the domestic conditions. She contended in her 1996 critique of the just-released draft of the National Policy for the Empowerment of Women that the 1988 Shramshakti Report and the National Perspective Plan for Women (1988-2000) came as a response to the workings at the 1985 Nairobi International Conference for Women of Forward-Looking Strategies, and the 1996 drafting of the national policy for women’s empowerment came as a response to the 1995 International Women’s Conference in Beijing.
Madhu Kishwar’s 1996 essay titled ‘Women and Politics: Beyond Quota’, offers a complimentary picture. By this time, almost all parties agreed in principle to women’s reservation, and many even promised it in their electoral manifestos; but none implemented it internally while giving nominations. In the 1996 Lok Sabha election, only 9.24 per cent (49/530) of Congress (I) candidates were women, and the share stood at 5.14 per cent for the BJP (23/447), 6.5per cent for the CPI (M) (5/77), 9.3per cent for the CPI (4/43) and fiveper cent for the Janata Dal (11/220).
Notably, it is the 33 per cent reservation in local bodies that is often credited for increasing turnout of women voters observed in the following decades.
The 1990s also saw the rise of strong women leaders in different regions—J Jayalalitha of the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, Mamata Banerjee (first within the Congress and then in her own party, the Trinamool Congress) in West Bengal, Sushma Swaraj of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Sheila Dikshit of the Congress in Delhi, among others. In the following decade, Sonia Gandhi rose to the Congress’ helm of affairs, while the BJP’s Vasundhara Raje Scindia rose to power in Rajasthan and Uma Bharati emerged as the party’s face in Madhya Pradesh.
One of the first schemes that Jayalalitha launched after coming to power in 1991 was the ‘cradle baby scheme’, which allowed people to anonymously hand over their babies to the State—in a bid to reduce female foeticide. During her 14-year rule as chief minister, apart from broad welfare schemes like the famed Amma Canteen, free rice, packaged drinking water at a cheap price, family mediclaim, and fair price pharmacies, she specifically targeted women as a constituency–with schemes for both women and children–including gifts for the newborn to encourage institutional delivery, marriage gift for women who have completed a degree or diploma, free school uniform, free laptops for students at government-run higher secondary schools and colleges, and scooters for women at a subsidised rate, among others.
Sheila Dikshit, who represented India at the United Nations Commission on Status of Women between 1984 and 1989, and became Delhi chief minister in 1998, launched the women-empowerment-centric Stree Shakti and Stree Kosh schemes in 2002, a year before the next election. Vasundhara Raje Scindhia, too, introduced a number of women-centric schemes soon after coming to power in 2003–from prioritising the economic issues concerning war widows and separated women to girls’ education, maternal nutrition and health insurance.
In contrast, Mayawati, during her chief ministerial tenure, focused on Dalit empowerment on the whole–including land distribution, posting of government officials, and increasing Dalit voice in the socio-political sphere at the grassroots level–without going into women-specific schemes.
On the other hand, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, despite being a man, set his focus on women and children-centric schemes—from the anti-alcoholism campaign to the 2006 bicycle scheme for female students–purportedly to break the caste dynamics in the state’s voting pattern. In 2008, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, too, launched a bicycle scheme for girl students.
The ball had started rolling, as politicians realised the importance of women as a constituency. As already seen in the past few years, no party’s election manifesto is complete without making women-specific promises.