What Indian Politics does to women

Shashi Tharoor


I Mean What I Say

Lathika Subhash,
Lathika Subhash |Mathrubhumi Photo

Many of us in Kerala politics felt anguished to see our colleague Lathika Subhash, President of the State Mahila Congress, tonsuring the hair from her head as a mark of personal protest earlier this year, after being denied a Congress party ticket to contest the Kerala state elections. The merits of that specific situation aside, her gesture points to a larger crisis – the desperation engendered by the paucity of female representation at the highest levels of our politics.

For a country where women make up almost half of the voters, it is unfortunate that their representation in the political landscape is so inadequate. The socio-cultural construct of our society – patriarchal by custom and tradition, with a conviction in many parts of the country that the family’s honour resides in the shielding of its womenfolk -- hinders women, from their childhoods, from exploring their full potential. Those who venture into the political field often find themselves treated with disdain by their male peers, patronized, or resented for supposedly claiming benefits that are due to men. Relegated to sideshows like the women’s wings of their parties, overlooked for election tickets and rarely elevated to positions of authority in the decision-making structures of Indian political parties, women need to be brave, determined and thick-skinned just to survive in this unfriendly environment.

These self-made women political leaders have risen to great heights

Paradoxically, the history of Indian politics records the glorious mention of notable women leaders who have shattered these glass ceiling. While Smt. Indira Gandhi is remembered as a figure of power, renowned as a strong-willed and determined first lady Prime Minister, the fact that she, as well as her daughter-in-law, Smt Sonia Gandhi, are heirs to a storied dynasty makes them less of an exception to the usual rules. But there have been self-made women political leaders also, who have risen to great heights, notably Smt. Pratibha Patil, the first (and so far only) woman President of our country, Sushma Swaraj, our only female Foreign Minister, and especially in state-level politics, sixteen women CMs, including larger-than-life figures like Sucheta Kripalani, Nandini Satpathy, Taimura Anwar, and Rabri Devi, who served as female chief ministers of their states. Of even greater consequence in recent decades, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, Sheila Dikshit, Vasundhara Raje, Mehbooba Mufti and the formidable Mamata Banerjee have commanded a towering presence in the political space of their states. These remarkable women are considered the great national symbols of female empowerment, and their rise and success testify to the grit and leadership that woman politicians have to offer.

These women have commanded a towering presence in the political space of their states

Despite the odds stacked against them, women today are not only prepared to contest elections but also contribute immensely to the political discourse if given a fair chance. The reservation of Panchayat seats, and half of the headships in village councils, for women has helped them demonstrate how much the policy-making process can benefit from their insightful perspective on gender-specific issues as well as on matters requiring sensitivity and responsibility. Yet, gender equality in politics seems a distant dream.

A stark representation of this grim reality was brought to the forefront by the Global Gender Gap Index published by the World Economic Forum this year, which ranks India 140th among 156 countries. This abysmally low placement means that India is the third-worst performer in South Asia, only ahead of Pakistan and Afghanistan, behind Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bhutan. The biggest drop can be seen in the political empowerment sub-index, where India ranks 51, dropping from 18 last year.


The numbers tell a sorry tale. At present, there are 79 female legislators in the Lok Sabha (i.e. a 14% representation) and 26 in the Rajya Sabha (i.e. a 11% representation) – both representing a modest increase in the proportion of women, but a long way short of their strength in society. For many years now, the political establishment has debated a possible solution to the problem through reserving seats in legislative bodies. The Women’s Reservation Bill, which would reserve 33% of seats in the Lok Sabha, as well as in state legislatures, for women, offers a ray of hope. But though it passed the Rajya Sabha in 2013 with near-unanimous support, the BJP government in power since 2014 has never shown any inclination to bring the bill for consideration and passage in the Lok Sabha. I am happy that my Party has supported the Bill since first introducing it in Parliament. The legislation could play in pivotal role in enhancing future prospects for women in politics by increasing the number of opportunities for them. This would in turn encourage participation from women across all strata of the society, and send a positive message for similar steps to be undertaken at other institutional levels. If re-introduced, the Bill would enjoy the absolute support of my Party colleagues and myself.

But the constraints are not limited to skewed participation rates alone. For those who choose to contest elections, women candidates frequently find themselves the targets of derogatory remarks and gendered slurs for almost every aspect of their personality – their background, appearance, dialect, clothing, life choices. Social media, a 21st century creation, reinforces these 19th century attitudes. An Amnesty International report published last year highlights the astonishingly high incidence of Twitter abuse that women politicians in India face. The study revealed that one in every seven tweets directed towards women in politics was problematic or abusive, while one in every five was sexist or misogynistic. I have witnessed the gravity of this distressing reality, from close quarters, as a Twitter use and discussed it over the course of the IT Committee’s deliberations that I have had the privilege of chairing.

This is why, in addition to legislating reservations for women, we must simultaneously focus on providing training and mentoring programs for both men and women at the grassroots levels – for men, to make them more conscious of the moral and social imperative of women’s empowerment, and for women, to hone their skill-sets and help them realise their true potential. Initiatives such as these assume greater importance since many girls sadly lack access to even basic education opportunities beyond the primary level.

The way forward, therefore, is to be conscious of the challenges that threaten women’s electoral participation, and to work collectively to ensure that they are addressed by crafting constructive solutions. May no woman politician ever feel forced to shave her hair off her head in public again.

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