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India's parliament: How diverse and gender-balanced is it?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
June 24, 2024

Newly elected lawmakers gathered for the first time after the general election delivered a setback to PM Modi's ruling party, which lost its outright majority in parliament.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) addresses the media before the opening of the first parliamentary session at the Parliament in New Delhi on June 24, 2024
PM Modi has kept key posts unchanged in this government and the Cabinet remains dominated by the BJPImage: -/AFP/Getty Images

The first session of India's newly elected parliament began on Monday, with lawmakers from both ruling and opposition parties taking their oaths.

The session will run until July 3.

It will give a preview of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's plans for his third term.

Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dominated the legislature during his first two terms in office as it enjoyed outright majority in the lower house of parliament.

It allowed the ruling party to push laws through parliament with only cursory debate.

But this year's general election delivered the BJP a setback, with the party failing to secure a majority on its own and having to rely on its coalition partners to be in power.

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Not many women in Cabinet

Modi, 73, is only the second Indian prime minister to win a third straight term.

He has kept key posts unchanged in this government and the Cabinet remains dominated by the BJP.

Opposition politicians and political observers have criticized the inadequate representation of women and Muslims, India's largest religious minority, in the council of ministers. 

Derek O'Brien, a lawmaker from the opposition Trinamool Congress (TMC) party, pointed out that only seven of the 71 ministers appointed by Modi in his third term are women.

"Of these, only two have been given key Cabinet positions," he told DW, citing Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and Women and Child Development Minister Annapurna Devi.

Fewer opportunities

Zoya Hasan, a political scientist and professor emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, said that two notable features of the newly elected parliament are "fewer women and fewer Muslims than the previous one."

She noted that political parties provided fewer opportunities for women to contest in the elections despite passing a law last year guaranteeing more seats for female politicians.

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The legislation, however, was expected to come into effect only after India's next census, and after delimitation — which is the process of redrawing boundaries of constituencies and would be conducted in 2026. 

According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an election watchdog, less than 10% of the candidates who contested the elections were women.

Rights groups say women who want to enter politics in India still face deep-rooted structural constraints. These barriers can be attributed to societal attitudes, discrimination, and lack of access to resources, among other problems.

Many from political families

Cynthia Stephen, a social policy researcher, told DW that most women who get party tickets to contest polls tend to come from influential political families.

"But there are plenty of politically active individual women in the parties, as grassroots and higher-level political activists, who are denied party tickets on the grounds of 'winnability,' which is a vaguely defined term," she said.

"We have not managed to increase the number of female lawmakers beyond 15% since the 1950s. We have a long way to go,” Stephen added. "Overall, the elections do not adequately represent the population and its political will as money and muscle power strongly impact the choice of candidates."

O'Brien, the TMC politician,  said that 11 of the 12 women candidates nominated by his party in the eastern state of West Bengal won the recent elections.

"West Bengal is getting there" toward gender parity, he stressed. "The rest of India has a good example to follow."

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Low share of Muslim lawmakers

The newly elected parliament also has the lowest share of Muslim lawmakers in six decades, with less than 5% of its members coming from India's largest religious minority, which accounts for about 15% of the nation's over 1.4 billion people. 

None of the ruling BJP's 240 MPs is Muslim. And Modi hasn't named a single minister from the community. 

Aditi Narayan Paswan, an assistant professor of Delhi University, believes the minority discourse in India should not be reduced to a Hindu-Muslim binary.

"We have Kiren Rijiju who has been appointed as the first Buddhist to lead the Minority Affairs Ministry," he said.

"What is noteworthy is to see the representation of Jitan Ram Manjhi from the Musahar community and being a part of the Modi 3.0 cabinet,” Paswan told DW.

The Musahars are a socially marginalized community placed at the bottom rung of India's hierarchical caste system

Hasan said an adequate political representation of Muslims and other disadvantaged groups is necessary for democracy and diversity to thrive. 

"Political exclusion is a consequence of competitive communal politics in India. But democracy requires fair representation of all groups."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11