Deccan Herald
Jagdeep S Chhokar

The slow growth rate of the number of women contesting in elections is concerning. The trend makes it necessary to deconstruct the word ‘participation’ for the purpose of understanding what it actually means.

Women constituted 48.41 per cent of India’s population in 2022, according to the latest available estimates from the World Bank. This would usually indicate that women will have a significant impact on elections in India. Add to this the information that for the first time in India’s electoral history, in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the turnout of women voters (67.18 per cent) was more than that of men (67.02 per cent).

The same trend seems to have continued till the present with the 2024 Lok Sabha election seeing a 7.5 per cent increase in the number of registered women voters (from 438 million to 471 million), as compared to a 5 per cent increase for men. The numbers indicate that women do play an important role in Indian parliamentary elections. However, it is important to distinguish between role and impact. Let us now look at the impact.

While there has been a steady and consistent increase in the number of women contesting the Lok Sabha elections, the rate of increase has been very low. It has been more than 1 per cent only once out of five elections. 

The strike rate (the percentage of women elected out of those who contested) has varied from around 9 to 12 per cent. Not only is the percentage of women contesting elections dismally low, the percentage of those elected as compared to those who contested is far from satisfactory.

So, how are we faring in the 2024 Lok Sabha election, as we can tell from the data available till now? The numbers and percentage of women who are contesting in the 2024 election conform to the trends of the last four Lok Sabha elections. So, it can be said with a certain degree of confidence that the 2024 Lok Sabha election is no different than the earlier elections, as far as the participation of women is concerned.

The slow growth rate of the number of women contesting in elections is concerning. The trend makes it necessary to deconstruct the word ‘participation’ for the purpose of understanding what it actually means. Voting in the election and contesting the election are two distinct facets for women’s participation in politics. 

It is absolutely true that more and more women voting in the elections is a very desirable development, it is akin to what is often called necessary but not sufficient. For women’s participation in elections to have real impact, it is necessary that more and more women contest elections as well.

Our desire to increase the number of women who vote in elections, which the Election Commission of India (ECI) often claims to be working on under its Systematic Voters’ Education and Empowerment Programme (SVEEP), is akin to “missing the forest and counting the trees”. 

What we, as a society, have not accepted (it is not possible to say that we, as a society, do not understand this) is that the satisfactory or equal participation of women in elections cannot be achieved in a vacuum, by itself.

Women’s participation in elections is part of a larger social issue, which is the status of women in society. Indian society and, in particular, India’s power elites which include all political parties, only pay lip service to the so-called women’s causes. But in reality, they do not wish to share power with anyone else, and women are obviously a part of this category of ‘anyone else’.

The fallacy

The most telling example of this phenomenon, specifically in elections, is what, in common parlance, is called the women’s reservation law. It is worth recalling some history in this regard.

The issue was formally recognised in 1987 when a 14-member committee, headed by a union minister, Margaret Alva, was set up by the government of the day to recommend measures to improve the status of women. This committee made 353 recommendations, of which one was regarding the reservation of seats in electoral bodies. The government introduced a Constitution Amendment Bill to provide one-third reservation for women in Panchayats and urban local bodies. The Bill was passed in Lok Sabha but failed to get passed in Rajya Sabha in September 1989.

The issue was taken up again in 1992 when the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments were passed, mandating 33.3% reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions. In 1993, one-third positions of sarpanch in Gram Panchayats were reserved for women through a Constitutional Amendment.

A Bill to reserve seats in the Parliament and State Assemblies, formally termed as the Constitution (81st Amendment) Bill, 1996, but commonly referred to as the women's reservation bill, was first introduced in the 11th Lok Sabha on September 12, 1996. It was then referred to the Joint Committee of the two Houses of Parliament, but the Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the 11th Lok Sabha. 

On September 19, 2023, the government introduced a Bill known as the 128th Constitutional Amendment Bill, 2023, during a Special Session in Lok Sabha. The Bill was passed by Lok Sabha on September 20, 2023, with 454 votes in favour and two against. It was subsequently passed unanimously by the Rajya Sabha.

Many pointed out that it took 36 years for this to be done. But even after 36 years, it came with a strange twist which made it not an immediate reality, but a promise for the future. The notification said that it would be implemented after (a) the next census is held, and following which (b) a delimitation exercise is completed. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt, because it might amount to what a Hindi saying captures best, “Na nou mann tel hoga, na Radha nachegi”, which implies that the preconditions laid down are impossible to satisfy, therefore the expected event is not likely to happen.

The preconditions of a census and delimitation are extremely difficult, if not impossible, in the current and foreseeable future’s political environment. The last census was held in 2011. The one constitutionally due in 2021 was not held.

What this history of women’s reservation shows is that we, as a society, are willing only to pay lip service to the empowerment of women and are not really willing to do anything specific or concrete about it. Unless that changes, celebrating the minor increases in voter turnout of women does not amount to much.

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