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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

More women in politics will strengthen democracy

S Y Quraishi writes: There is already greater voter turnout of women than in past decades. There must now be push for more women to be elected to legislative bodies and hold decision-making positions in political parties

Written by S Y Quraishi |
Updated: March 8, 2022 9:34:10 am
One must not turn a blind eye to the more systemic and ground-level realities of women, which are fraught with various contradictions, contestations, and quiet calamities.

Despite the many horrors we have witnessed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, there have been some positive developments, the most pertinent being the growing role of women in strengthening the political and civic life of democracy in South Asia. At the global level, much has already been written about the superior performance of women leaders, such as Jacinda Ardern (New Zealand), Tsai-Ing Wen (Taiwan), Sanna Marin (Finland) and KK Shailaja (Kerala), in handling the pandemic. Likewise, the highly effective contributions of local-level panchayat sarpanches and health officials such as Roorkee’s Daljit Kaur, Singhwahini’s Ritu Jaiswal and the mayor of Chandannath municipality in Nepal, Kantika Sejuwal, among many others, have been justly exalted. One must not, however, turn a blind eye to the more systemic and ground-level realities of women, which are fraught with various contradictions, contestations, and quiet calamities. Therefore, for a proper appraisal of the relations between gender and democracy, we ought to examine the links between violence, representation, and the political participation of women.

Historically, one of the peculiar paradoxes of South Asian democracy has been the continued presence of strong women leaders at the executive centre coupled with a generally appalling condition of women in society at large. South Asia has had the largest number of women heads of state — including Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Indira Gandhi, Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina, and Benazir Bhutto — of any region in the world till recently. However, this seemingly empowering image is disproved when we take a broader view of the electoral representation and social condition of women in the region. While women have played very visible and important roles at the higher echelons of power and at the grassroots level in social movements, they have been under-represented in political parties as officials and as members of key decision-making bodies.

In electoral representation, India, for instance, has fallen several places in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global ranking of women’s parliamentary presence, from 117 after the 2014 election to 143 as of January 2020. India is currently behind Pakistan (106), Bangladesh (98) and Nepal (43) and ahead of Sri Lanka (182). Prior to the 2019 election, scholars such as Carole Spary and S M Rai have estimated that it would take another 40 years to have 33 per cent women in the Lok Sabha, based on historical election trends and assuming that no gender quota is introduced, such as the heavily undermined and ignored the Women’s, Reservation Bill.

However, there are two main points to be noted here. In India, women currently make up 14.6 per cent of MPs (78 MPs) in the Lok Sabha, which is a historic high. Although the percentage is modest, it is remarkable because women barely made up 9 per cent of the overall candidates in 2019. BJP women candidates won at a strike-rate of 73 per cent as opposed to their male counterparts at 66 per cent. Additionally, 27 of 41 women MPs were able to retain their seats as well. Similarly, of the 50 women candidates fielded by the Trinamool Congress in last year’s West Bengal Assembly elections, 40 won. This proves that the winnability (the basis on which political parties claim to give tickets) of women is much higher than of men.

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In terms of electoral quotas, there were two outstanding exceptions in the 2019 general elections. West Bengal under Mamata Banerjee and Odisha under Naveen Patnaik opted for voluntary parliamentary quotas, fielding 40 per cent and 33 per cent women candidates, respectively.

Interestingly, in countries such as India and Bangladesh, the presence of women may be more powerfully felt as voters than as candidates. In 1962, the male voter turnout in India was 16 percentage points higher than for women. Six decades later, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, women’s participation exceeded that of men for the first time. This suggests an increasing assertion of citizenship rights among women. The growing turnout of women voters could influence political parties’ programmatic priorities and improve their responsiveness to women voters’ interests, preferences, and concerns, including sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

The TMC ran and highlighted many women-centric schemes that potentially played a central role in their victory. Schemes such as Swasthya Sathi, which issued health cards in the name of female heads of the family, and Kanyashree Prakalpa and Rupashree Prakalpa, which provided financial support for girls’ education and marriage respectively, proved immensely popular.

Likewise, the central government must be commended for its achievements in two areas in particular: Its DBT schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Vaya Vandana Yojana and the Pradhan Mantri Surakshit Matritva Abhiyan, due to which maternal mortality rate has reduced from 167 (2011-13) to 113 (2016-18). The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2017 is another landmark achievement that extended the paid maternal leave to 26 weeks from the existing 12 weeks.

The extent to which parties represent women and take up their interests is closely tied to the health and vitality of democratic processes. However, the strength of civil society initiatives is not entirely dependent on the strength of political institutions — a case in point would be the Aurat marches in Pakistan. Another is the Shaheen Bagh protest that proved remarkably active in mobilising women.

The BJP must use its parliamentary majority to finally pass the Women’s Reservation Bill, as was promised in their 2014 election manifesto. Until that happens, the initiative taken by the governments of Banerjee and Patnaik to increase women’s parliamentary presence must serve as an inspiration to other Indian states. At this crucial juncture, to cherish our democratic values, we will need to sympathise with the voice of the 15th century Bengali poet, Ramoni, a low-caste washerwoman, who sang, “I’ll not stay any longer in this land of injustice/ I’ll go to a place where there are no hellhounds”.

This column first appeared in the print edition on March 8, 2022 under the title ‘A democracy for her’. The writer is former chief election commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder – The Making of the Great Indian Election.

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