As Delhi votes on May 12, it has a reputation to uphold. The capital city has ‘unfailingly’ sent a woman to the Lok Sabha in the last 20 years. In the 16 Lok Sabha elections held since independence, only thrice has Delhi elected more than one woman candidate; the last was in 1998, when BJP’s Sushma Swaraj and Congress’ Meira Kumar retained their seats.
This could change in 2019 if all the three women fielded by the AAP, BJP, Congress pull off a win. The odds, however, could be overwhelming. For every female contestant there are ten male contestants fighting in this general election. And for those fighting as independents, or on tickets from fringe outfits, it’s a tall order.
“It’s difficult for a woman to juggle between a career and family. I am an advocate. After 3 pm I have to rush home to look after my kids,” says Neeru Mongia, 40, a first-time contestant from East Delhi.
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Neeru feels more women would take the political plunge if there is support from all around, beginning at home. “Only 5-10 per cent of families are comfortable with women entering politics. My husband is firmly behind me. Without his support it wouldn’t have been easy for me to contest in a national election.”
It was only five years ago that 62 women lawmakers — the highest ever in the country’s history — were elected to the Lower House. The difference in voter turnout between men and women had also narrowed down to 1.5 per cent, a remarkable turnaround considering it was 16.7 per cent in 1962. For the first time in decades, it felt there was a strong political will to give a higher representation for women. The momentum failed to translate into quantifiable action as the Women’s Reservation Bill, which promises a 33 per cent quota for women in Parliament, is still in deep storage.
India is a distant 149 out of the 193 countries ranked in terms of percentage of women parliamentarians in the Lower House, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union. In a list that has Rwanda and Cuba in the top two spots, India lags behind its immediate neighbours Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal as all three countries have implemented reservation for women.
Richa Katiyar, a lawyer and ex-DRDO scientist, who is contesting on the Right to Recall Party ticket from Chandni Chowk, says that to “shatter the glass ceiling”, quota for women is necessary but with the caveat that it should be withdrawn after a certain time period.
“Reservation for women should be accorded for a limited period. Similarly quota in jobs and education and Article 370 should have been withdrawn after achieving their stated purpose,” she says.
Regional forces like the Trinamool Congress and Biju Janata Dal have allocated 41 per cent and 33 per cent of their Lok Sabha tickets to women, respectively, in 2019. The bigger picture however is not entirely positive as other parties have not made similar efforts to field more women. Latest figures from the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD) show that there has been a modest increase of 1.2 per cent in women contestants this election when compared to 2014. A noticeable trend observed in the past few years was that women are more likely to be fielded from reserved seats (SC/ST). It has not changed in 2019 either as analysis by the TCPD revealed there are more women contesting in ST/SC seats than in general.
Priyanka Bharihoke, a 33-year-old independent candidate from New Delhi, says political parties alone cannot be blamed for the lack of representation for women. “Women are educated enough. It is up to to them to decide whether to contest in elections or otherwise,” she says.
A Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) paper on women’s participation in electoral politics notes that political parties factor in the ‘winnability’ of a candidate while allotting tickets and this traditionally works against women. Though the paper claims the women’s success rate in 2014 elections, which was three per cent higher than men’s, “demolishes any apprehensions by political parties for not allotting enough seats to women in elections on winning ability”, it fails to gauge that historically the success percentage has steadily been on a decline since 1962.
The decline has been dramatic considering there were fewer women candidates in the 60s and the decades that followed, but their success rate has always been in double figures till early 90s. It fell to a historic low of 6.9 per cent in the 1996 election, and remained in double digits in the following four election, before dropping below 10 per cent again in 2014.
Neeru Mongia says she is aware that winning in this election remains a distant dream but at the same time feels educated women must step forward and have their voice heard.