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A seat of her own

Around the world,women are much less likely to participate in politics than men.

Nirmala Ravishankar & Jason Lakin |
April 16, 2009 11:47:02 pm

Around the world,women are much less likely to participate in politics than men. This gap has become a major political issue in many countries in the last two decades,India among them.  In 1992,the 73rd Amendment established reservations for women in panchayat elections around the country.  Soon thereafter,the idea of female reservation at the national level was mooted.  Since 1996,there have been several concrete attempts to introduce a one-third seat quota for women in national and state elections.  Were India to introduce gender quotas,it would follow dozens of other countries as diverse as Afghanistan,Rwanda and Mexico.

While quota laws are one way to increase women’s participation,it is worth analysing to what extent women are increasing their participation in the absence of such legislation.   The data suggest that Indian women have very slowly gained a foothold in national and state politics between 1980 and 2004 (the last election for which we have data),but that they remain woefully under-represented among voters,candidates and parliamentarians. 

Men in India are more likely to vote than women,and the gap has barely shrunk over the last two decades.  In 1980,62.2 per cent of men voted in national parliamentary elections,while only 51.2 per cent of women did.  By 2004,that gap had shrunk very modestly,with the percentage of men at 61.7 and women at 53.3 (a gap of 8.4 points).  These national trends do conceal state variation,however.  To a certain extent,this variation follows expectations: the poorer,more backward BIMARU states tend to have larger gaps in 2004 (13 points in UP,11.8 in Bihar),while the southern states of Tamil Nadu (7.5) and Kerala (4.4) have much smaller gender voting disparities.  Still,there are some surprises.  For example,there is almost no gap in historically patriarchal Punjab (2.5); the wealthy state of Gujarat (10.2) has a gap that is similar to the BIMARU states.  Some states have seen major reductions in their turnout gap between 1980 and 2004: the disparity fell by more than half in Andhra Pradesh (from 10.6 to 4.9),and nearly disappeared in Himachal (falling from 12 to less than 0.1).  Gujarat,on the other hand has remained chronically unequal,falling from 11.2 to 10.2 over the period.

We now turn to female participation among parliamentary candidates.  Between 1980 and 2004,the number of female parliamentary candidates more than doubled,from about 3.1 per cent of total candidates,to 6.5 per cent.  This is still an abysmally low figure,but the trend is toward greater equity.  Regional differences are quite stark,and somewhat surprising.  When it comes to candidates,BIMARU states are actually more pro-women. In 2004,Rajasthan (9.2 per cent) and Madhya Pradesh (10.2 per cent) beat the national average.  The usually progressive south of India performs less well: Tamil Nadu had only 4 per cent female candidates,though Kerala did beat the national average with 8.5 per cent.  No state did worse than Arunachal Pradesh,which did not nominate a single female candidate during the entire period from 1980 to 2004! 

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Candidacies only translate into political power when women actually win elections,of course,so we turn to analyse the trend among women legislators.  Once again,there has been a slight increase in women parliamentarians between 1980 and 2004,from 5.3 per cent of total legislators to 8.3 per cent.  The regions swap places once again,with Kerala (10) and Tamil Nadu (10.3) beating the national average,while UP hovers at 8.75; Bihar 7.5; and Rajasthan 8. 

State elections in India are at least as important as federal elections for many voters,so it is worth investigating what has happened in state assembly elections over this period.  At the state level,the gender gap in turnout is lower than at the national level (6.3 points since 2000),but still persistent.  In the 1980s,2.8 per cent of assembly candidates were women.  In the 1990s,that number had risen to 4.2 per cent,and since 2000,the figure has risen further to 6.3 per cent.  Averaging across all state assembly elections,there is no increase in the number of women legislators between the 1980s and the 1990s,with the figure hovering around 4.7-9 per cent.  Since 2000,however,the number of female legislators has increased to 7.1 per cent.

This review of the data on female political participation suggests that the political gap between men and women in India has been closing at a snail’s pace over the past two decades.  This kind of data tends to lead some groups to support “fast-track” policies,like reservations,in order to speed up the process of eliminating the gender gap.  While reservations for women would probably have this effect,if they could be enforced,it is unclear what impact they would have on the quality of candidates,an issue our data does not address.       

The writers are political scientists at Harvard University

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