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The subaltern status of women in India’s electoral process

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Undergraduate student from the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University.

The participation of women in India’s electoral politics is a stark example of the problematic functioning of the systematic male dominance in the public sphere and the unsaid public-private divide in terms of domain identification. While the Constitution of India enshrines equal rights for men and women of India, the value system of a gendered citizenship keeps women away from taking up space in the formal politics of the country. The “second” gender still have de jure rather than de facto access to their fundamental rights. In fact, when compared to other South East Asian countries India’s female political participation is drastically low. 

While the female voter turnout and election campaigners have seen an increase in the recent years, it does not ensure qualitative participation. The amount of agency a woman use while casting her vote or exercising her free decision making power is an unsettling question. The lacuna created due to the intersecting phenomena of caste, class, demography and the patriarchal societal structure needs to be critically addressed. A woman’s electoral behaviour in most cases is enormously influenced by the opinion of her spouse or family members. This lack of political awareness coupled with minimum involvement in politics has led to the surge in decline of women’s active participation.

If we travel back to the days of freedom struggle, the scenario would seem quite different. There were a huge number of women who took part in the Bengal Swadeshi movement and prominent female figures can also be seen associated with Mahatma Gandhi. But in the post colonial era, with the ushering of the Universal adult suffrage, women’s role and participation in the functioning of the country became mere words without action, laminated in the pages of the Constitution.

The types of participation from women can be classified on the lines of social and economic parameters. Women, belonging to the higher strata of the society can be seen dominating the female blocks in the Parliament. Out of only 14% (78) women representing in the 17th Lok Sabha, the representation of women from the Dalit community is dismal. Few names like Chandrani Murmu from Odisha and Ramya Haridas from Kerala made to the headlines for the very reason. The politics of exclusion of women from participating in the electoral process is practised not only in the national level but also in the regional levels. This is very evident from the ground realities of Gram panchayats. In 1993, a constitutional amendment was passed as per provisions contained in Article 243 D of the Constitution which reserved 1/3rd of the Seats of Panchayati Raj Institutions and 1/3rd offices of the Chairperson at all level of Panchayati Raj Institutions for women, covered by Part IX of the Constitution.

However, in reality while the election for the reserved seats was fought by the women candidates, the real administrative power is exercised by their husbands and sons. A similar policy of affirmative action at the national level was conceived by the Rajya Sabha in 2008. It is known as the Women’s Reservation (108th Amendment) Bill, 2008, which aimed to reserve 33% seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies. It also provided that one third of the total number of seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes shall be reserved for women of those groups. But it failed to pass in the Lok Sabha and eventually lapsed, since it was met with opposing views, thus further widening the gender gap that could have been narrowed.

Regionally, women voters from rural areas are more in number than those in urban areas. While there are instances of bribing for garnering votes from economically disadvantaged sections of the society, in remote areas the election season comes as a sign of hope for the poor women who cast their vote with the expectation of their issues to be vehemently addressed by the upcoming government. Also, in the few states having a matriarchal social structure, a burgeoning number of female participants can be found involved in the electoral process. 

Further, the subaltern status of women within the political parties also portrays the gender based discrimination faced by them within the Indian electoral process. The disproportionate nominations of men and women by the political parties stem from the assumption that the winning ability of a male candidate surpasses that of a female candidate. However, election data since 1998 shows that the success rates of men and women candidates do not differ in a major way and in many cases women candidates are more successful than their male counter- parts. The intra-party organisational power structure tends to keep women from influencing party decisions and establish their grip over the power structure. Even when they are elected to prestigious positions, their decisions are often influenced by the male counterparts.

Women’s confinement within the four walls of domestic labour, insufficient support from family, lack of acceptance and prejudices in the public sphere dominated by men, contribute towards their low proportion or almost absence from the electoral process. Since, the amount of space a woman carves for herself within the political sphere has a direct impact on gender based policy formation, their under-representation in the electoral process plummet their chance of negotiating and bargaining for legitimate political resources.

While women like Indira Gandhi, Sushma Swaraj, Mamata Bannerji, Mayawati, have been able to penetrate through the male dominance and make a mark in this arena, there is still a multitude of women who are struggling to get loose from the grip of the patriarchal preponderance. Unless they are able to break the glass ceiling, a strong voice advocating for women’s rights issue will fail to occupy the spotlight. Addressing problematised affairs disadvantaging women and implementing stringent laws concerning rapes, acid attacks, GBV, can only achieve reality through a collective female voice in the governing bodies. 

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Undergraduate student from the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University.
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