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Why are there few women in Indian politics?

Sushmitha Ramakrishnan
March 11, 2022

Despite studies showing widespread public acceptance of female politicians in India, women's political participation in the South Asian country remains low.

Women voters standing in line during elections in West Bengal state
It's not just societal bias against women that poses a problem to female politiciansImage: Prabhakarmani Tewari/DW

More than one in every two Indians say that "women and men make equally good political leaders" and over one in every ten believe women generally make better political leaders than men, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.  

The study, conducted among 30,000 adults nationwide, surveyed Indian attitudes toward gender roles.

India has had powerful female politicians, with some of them managing to ascend to top political posts nationally and regionally, including president and prime minister. 

Indira Gandhi, for instance, India's first and only female prime minister to date, was a dominant political figure in the country from 1966 to 1984.

But despite studies showing widespread public acceptance of female politicians, women's political participation remains low.

According to a 2020 report by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) and National Election Watch (NEW), less than a tenth of the over 50,000 candidates contesting federal and state elections are women.

'Politics seen as a male bastion'

India slipped 28 places to rank 140th among 156 countries in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report in 2021, becoming the third-worst performer in South Asia.

Most of the decline occurred in the area of political empowerment, where India regressed considerably, with a significant drop in the number of women ministers in recent years — from 23.1% in 2019 to 9.1% in 2021.

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"Politics is often seen as a male bastion, and women are discouraged from entering it on the pretext that it is not a 'feminine' profession," said Jayakumari Devika, a women's rights activist and social critic from Kerala state in southern India.

She added that women are, most of the time, designated roles that require "care and compassion."

Devika pointed out that people holding such views don't take into account the experiences of hundreds of women who are comfortable leading public political lives by leading self-help groups, civil society outfits and non-governmental organizations. 

It's not just societal bias against women that poses an obstacle to female politicians.

A Priyadarshini, 21, the youngest councilor elected to the city corporation of Chennai city in Tamil Nadu state, said that, in addition to the gender bias, young women face severe infrastructural barriers to entering politics.

"This includes a lack of clean toilets and safe accommodation during field work. For example, when we conduct a political survey, we have an equal number of female and male volunteers. But many female volunteers struggle to find clean toilets and bathrooms when they travel, and drop out of work," she said.

Priyadarshini stressed that many female candidates were often made to contest in elections as "namesakes" for their husbands.

Pointing to the 2021 local body polls in Tamil Nadu in which she ran herself, the young politician said: "This was the first local body election held in the state after a 50% quota was announced for women. So many male politicians simply made their wives contest in their place."

She underlined that reserving seats for women was meaningless if women were treated as "puppets" by their male family members.

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Encouraging female participation

A bill to reserve a third of all seats in the national and state legislatures for women has been stalled in the Indian parliament for almost three decades.

Padmini Swaminathan, former director of Madras Institute of Developmental Studies (MIDS), argues that affirmative action encouraging women's participation in law-making is essential to improve female representation in politics.

"A woman may get elected for the first time because she comes from a family with a political background. But later, she will have to go out on the field," she said, adding that after reservations were introduced in local bodies, many civil society organizations came forward to train rural women on local governance and administration.

Swaminathan stressed that women who want to contest in elections are often simply not given the chance.

"If they are not given a party ticket, how will they have the resources to contest as independent candidates?" she questioned, adding that even women who win elections are often not given decision-making powers or influential cabinet posts.

"Men in politics still do not want to take orders from women," she said.

Does more women in politics equal better policies for women?

Tara Krishnaswamy, a co-founder of Shakti, a non-partisan women's collective, said that there seems to be a contradiction in how Indians view women in public and domestic roles.

Promoting gender equality in India

She also noted that the Pew survey findings cannot be taken at face value. "The survey would be more meaningful if there was data on differences in responses among men and women, urban and rural respondents, different regions of the country and people from different economic classes," said Krishnaswamy.

Furthermore, she pointed out that the researchers had mined data from government sources that she found unreliable.

"Voters are fairly progressive in India. In fact, I think the survey may underestimate the number of people who think women make good politicians," said Krishnaswamy.

Devika underlined that one should not conclude that more women in politics always mean better policies for women.

"There are senior female politicians who encourage women to defer to their husband or promote patriarchal views in public to walk the tightrope and not lose their allies," she said, adding, "it is not the 'critical mass' of women that is important in politics, but the 'critical actions' they take."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru