The inclusion of all sections of the society in the public sphere is critically important for any democracy. For all its successes in giving representation to different social groups, India has a mixed track record when it comes to women’s participation and representation in politics. Women were given equal vote the day India became Independent, something that took the UK and the United States 100 and 144 years, respectively, to achieve. India has also produced a number of powerful and consequential women politicians — more than most democracies — who have held, and still hold power, at the highest levels in state and national politics. The 73rd constitutional amendment ensures, by reserving seats for women in the panchayat system, that at least a third of India’s 3.2 million elected representatives are women (the 33 per cent quota was raised to 50 per cent in 2009. Several states have since introduced gender parity in representation in municipal bodies).
But the presence of strong women politicians, and a million women elected representatives at the grass roots, has not ensured gender parity in state assemblies or Parliament. The right to vote, in itself, is insufficient to guarantee gender parity in voting. During the first two decades after Independence, women’s participation in elections lagged behind that of men’s by nearly 20 points. In the recent years, women’s participation has caught up with the average, to the point that in the last round of elections to state assemblies, women outvoted men in 17 states.
The Election Commission (EC) has to be credited for a part of that success since it has improved the conduct of elections in ways that encourage women’s participation. The improvement of electoral rolls, provision of separate queues for women voters, and making the polling process secure after 1996 have gone a long way in making voting easier and safer for women. Since 2006, the EC has been closely studying the gender composition of the electoral rolls. It prohibits the publication of voters’ photographs in the electoral rolls, barring a small stamp size photograph in the hard copy distributed to political parties.
In Uttar Pradesh, during the 2012 elections, the EC decided to allow two women to proceed in the polling booth for every male voter who cast his vote; this was done to quicken the voting process for women. This practice was a success and has since been generalised throughout the country. Voting conditions for women have also improved, notably by the compulsory presence of female polling staff members, who are responsible for identifying women voters and marking their finger with indelible ink. This addresses the reluctance of many women — including those wearing purdah or other headscarves — to be screened by men. Women police forces are also deployed with the view to encourage female voters.
That there is gender parity in voter turnout in most states is remarkable — particularly so in a country that suffers one of the world’s worst sex ratios. The fact that women outvote men in many states where their literacy rate is significantly lower than the average (65.46 per cent against 82.14 per cent in 2011) must also be noted. In 2010, the EC started conducting surveys regarding gaps between social categories, with respect to voter turnout, and highlighted areas where interventions were required. The surveys revealed that concern for personal security, dependence on the approval of family elders, and lack of adequate toilet facilities were some of the reasons that kept many women away from voting. The EC rolled out a comprehensive voter education drive that targeted women in particular. It sought to directly encourage women to vote. The results in Bihar and UP were immediate. In the 2010 and 2012 assembly elections, women outvoted men for the first time, by a small margin. In the 2014 general elections, women turnout rose from 55.82 per cent to 65.63 per cent, a jump of nearly ten percentage points. The overall gender voting gap shrank to an all-time low of 1.46 per cent. The trend has continued in subsequent state elections.
Information suggests that women outvoted men in the recent elections to the state assemblies. Punjab witnessed a women turnout of 78.14 per cent against 76.9 per cent for men. In Uttarakhand, 69.76 per cent of women electors voted, against 63.23 per cent men. In Goa, the ratio is 83.98 to 78.48 in favour of women. Uttar Pradesh is expected to follow that trend, based on the turnout figures for the first five phases.
In spite of such progress, women’s representation in elected assemblies remains abysmally low. In 1952, women comprised 6 per cent of India’s first Lok Sabha. Sixty two years later, the representation of women in the Lok Sabha in 2014 reached an all-time high of 12.15 per cent. The situation is worse at the state level, where the average representation ratio of women is only 7.3 per cent. Some states, Nagaland or Mizoram for example, have no women MLAs. Among the other worst performers are Jammu and Kashmir (2.27 per cent) Goa (2.5 per cent), Karnataka (2.65 per cent) and Arunachal Pradesh (3.28 per cent). India’s best performing state is Haryana (14.44 per cent), followed by West Bengal (13.95 per cent), Rajasthan (13.48 per cent) and Bihar (11.67 per cent).
Women face many obstacles when it comes to getting elected, including traditional and cultural barriers. But the greatest obstacle that women face are the political parties, who refuse to field a fair number of women candidates. Their reservations — that women make weaker, less “winnable candidates” — could be easily addressed by passing the Women’s Reservation Bill, which was introduced for the third time in 2008 and lapsed for the third time in 2014. Changing prejudices and stereotypes in India will remain a herculean task for generations to come. The only way to address it in the short run is through bold legislation, the kind of spectacular gestures the prime minister seems inclined to.