For a country with a female population that is larger than that of the United States and a thriving democracy that prides itself on being robust and responsive, India has done rather poorly when it comes to female representation in national politics. The 16th Lok Sabha has only 64 women among its 542 members, a mere 11.8 per cent. Afghanistan (27.7 per cent), Pakistan (20.6 per cent) and Saudi Arabia (19.9 per cent) do better.
In the battleground of Indian politics, one demographic is ideally placed to change this disheartening statistic — working women. Having more professional women in office is a matter of both representation and capability. It is an opportunity to shape the future in a meaningful and impactful way.
Here is why you should run.
As representatives, we need women to eliminate the systemic biases and structural barriers that keep our girls out of the tech industry, our victims of gender-based violence in fear and our women’s sports teams under-funded.
To dismantle structural barriers, the responsibility falls on working women who have successfully overcome constraints to open the gates for other women. To design laws that encourage better education for girls. To secure financial independence and formal employment for women. To push up our abysmal female labour force participation rates. To ensure that female hygiene products are not taxed as luxury goods. Who better to design such policy than women themselves?
In addressing systemic biases, exposure to women in office weakens stereotypes about gender roles. Watching women in leadership positions reduces the negative perceptions men have about their effectiveness as leaders. It also induces men to dream better dreams for their daughters, and that is no mean feat.
But we not only need more women in politics, we need more creative and competitive women in politics. PRS research highlights that the share of lawyers in Parliament at the moment is a mere 7 per cent, relative to the 36 per cent in the very first legislature after Independence. Today, the largest single occupation represented in Parliament is agriculture (27 per cent), followed by political and social service (24 per cent). As India makes laws that determine what our technology, public safety, economy, and foreign policy will look like in the coming years, we need more of these professional skills in our legislative bodies. We need more lawyers, medical practitioners (currently 4 per cent), teachers (4 per cent), civil, police, and military service personnel (2 per cent), and journalists (less than 1 per cent) to use their knowledge and expertise to shape legislation, anticipating the challenges of tomorrow.
Over the past few decades, women have made their mark as effective managers, bankers, professors, corporate leaders, lawyers, doctors and civil servants. These are women who know how to solve problems, get things done and manage multiple responsibilities. Electing able women professionals will help us simultaneously achieve better representation and expertise.
The government has instituted quotas for women political candidates at the local level — 33 per cent of seats are reserved for them. These quotas have been successful. Yet, there is resistance to implementing them at the national level. Critics allege that these quotas are neither meritocratic nor useful because women in politics are simply representatives of the men who would have been in politics — wives and daughters of male proxies. Never mind the fact that these quotas at the local level have improved the quality of local policymaking, as women have tended to invest significantly more (Harvard research by Lori Beaman, Esther Duflo, Rohini Pande and Petia Topalova) than their male counterparts on the provision of public goods — health, education, and roads.
Even as the debate around reservation of seats continues, having professional women voluntarily run for office can overcome criticism about women being male proxies and that quotas negatively affect meritocracy.
Entering politics voluntarily, without a political background, is not easy. The financial, social and cultural barriers to entry are higher for women. There is more criticism and less support. Voters subject women candidates to higher standards than male candidates. But, perhaps most importantly, women themselves are too often inclined to think that they need permission and that they are not yet ready.
Making the decision to run for office requires planning. It requires overcoming financial barriers, and it needs supportive partners and families. But think of the legacy that you would like to leave for your children. Your standing for an election could give your children the opportunity to grow up in a more inclusive country, a country that makes better decisions for all.
So, run. Run as though your future depended on it. The future of your children. And the future of India. Bring your best expertise to the highest domain of our democracy. The question to ask is not what you can do, but what will be lost if you don’t do it.