Chromosomal change in democracy

Out of India’s total voters, 49 per cent are women. They may not have proportional representation in legislative bodies, but they are increasingly voting more than men

Published: Thursday 06 March 2014


This is a trend that our politicians can’t afford to ignore: the share of women in overall voters is increasing sharply, and women are also voting more than before. In the four states that went to polls in November-December 2013 — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi — participation of women voters has been much more than in earlier elections. Analysts attribute the huge overall turnout to the increasing number of women voters (see Table: Women come out to vote — December 2013).

Going by the electoral data of the Election Commission of India, Rajasthan has reported an increase of 20 per cent in women voters in the last quarter of the century. Percentage of women voters in the state was higher than that of men in 197 seats out of the 200 that went to polls. In Delhi, in the last two decades, it has gone up by 20 per cent. In Chhattisgarh, 77 per cent of the women voters voted against 76 per cent of men. Chhattisgarh’s 13 seats reserved for scheduled tribes also reported more women voters than men.

Source: Based on Election Commission of India data, 2013

This has been a trend since the last two elections. Realising this, political parties are now finetuning their campaigns and policies to gain more votes from women. Finance minister P Chidambaram has proposed to set up an exclusive public sector bank for women in 2013-14. The UPA government has also proposed a special fund for women. Under the gender budgeting provision, adopted since 2007, it allocated Rs 97,134 crore for women-related programmes. Usually conservative and careful in selection of words, Chidambaram used “woman” 22 times in his short budget speech in February 2013. The budget is being seen as a step by the UPA government to appease the country’s women, still outraged over the gang rape and murder of a girl student in Delhi in December 2012.

All about the better half

This is more to do with a new reality: emergence of women as a much sought-after vote bank. The difference in men-women turnout has diminished by one-fourth in the past five decades (see Graph: Diminishing gender gap). No political party, national or regional, can ignore this constituency that accounts for 49 per cent of the total voters. “The two national parties (Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party) are creating stunts to treat women as a political constituency,” says Archana Prasad, associate professor at the Jamia Milia Islamia University in Delhi.


During the last general elections in 2009, six states witnessed more women voter turnout than men. Congress, which leads the UPA, garnered substantial women’s votes due to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (MGNREGA) that offers equal wages to men and women. Women account for half of the jobs created under this programme. The trend has also been evident in assembly elections. On the day Chidambaram presented the budget in February 2013, the Nagaland assembly election results were declared. Over 91 per cent of women had voted against 89.92 per cent of the men. Five of the seven states that went to the polls in 2011 had witnessed women casting votes in higher numbers than men. In Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state and not known for women’s empowerment, 60.29 per cent women exercised their franchise compared to 58.82 per cent men.

“This change can be attributed to an unprecedented increase in political participation by women, panchayat reservation and womencentric development programmes that have boosted women’s participation (in politics),” says Zoya Hasan, who teaches political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi (see Box: Quantum leap). The change has also triggered designing of more schemes, mostly conditional cash transfer programmes, to gain women’s votes.

The turnaround

The increasing political consciousness among women is broadly due to two factors: years of structural changes in India’s governance and the self-help movement. The Panchayati Raj acts, both for rural and urban local bodies, reserve 50 per cent of seats for women. Three decades ago, the Committee for Status of Women Report noted the absence of women among elected representatives. In 1983, Karnataka became the first state to reserve seats for women in panchayat elections. The 73rd constitutional amendment that created the panchayats as the third tier of elected government in the country, adopted this model. Currently, there are about a million elected women panchayat leaders in India. Reservations for women in panchayats has not only raised awareness among them, it has also nurtured them to become leaders. Soroor Ahmed, a senior journalist in Patna, says, “Up to 50 per cent reservation for women in Bihar and further reservation of extremely backward castes has led the most dominant of the communities, mostly Yadavs, to field women candidates in panchayat polls.”

The rising political participation of women also finds its roots in the ever-increasing self-help groups (SHGs) in the country. According to the National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development (NABARD), there are eight million SHGs in the country with about 97 million members. SHGs have emerged as dynamic village-level institutions led by women and are involved in almost all development activities. Studies in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh show the self-help movement has led to larger electoral participation by women. It is no surprise that states now overtly declare schemes and incentives to SHGs to get their political support. To put the growth of the SHG movement in perspective, in 2004 these groups availed a total loan of Rs 3,500 crore that has grown to Rs 32,800 crore by end of 2013. Its political implication is hard to miss as the Congress Party has been using this to show its commitment to women’s empowerment. In January 2013, Navin Patnaik, chief minister of poll-bound Odisha, declared a grant of Rs 10,000 to each of the state’s 100,000 SHGs with a million members. In Bihar, the state government has announced cheap loans for SHG members.

The political gender

Women as a targeted constituency have gained political weightage since the re-election of Nitish Kumar as the chief minister of Bihar in 2010. He had launched a series of populist schemes and declared 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayats to nurture this constituency. Schemes like cash incentives to girl students scoring high marks in examinations and cycles for higher school students created a captive vote bank for him. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP-ruled government has also floated similar incentives. Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan has launched several schemes for women and girl children, including cash benefits for education and marriage after eligible age. So strong is his focus on women-related schemes that he is popularly known as ‘mamu’ (maternal uncle) among women.


For the Congress, the budget of 2013-14 is not the first salvo to capture women voters. In fact, it is the latest in a long series of programmes and policies the party has evolved since it came to power in 2004. Between 2005 and 2011, the government announced major programmes for women, cutting across age, socio-economic and religious lines. These include the Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls; Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana to support poor pregnant women; Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Yojana for women farmers; the Scheme for Leadership Training of Minority Women; Ujjawala for combating trafficking; and Dhanalakshmi to tackle declining sex ratio. In 2010, it launched the National Mission for Empowerment of Women. Before the announcement of a women’s bank, it had restructured the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh (the national credit fund for women) into a non-banking finance company with an enhanced corpus of Rs 500 crore. This will financially help 200,000 economically backward women. More recently, under the National Food Security Act, women will be treated as the household heads. Under the MGNREGA, more women are working: so, in December 2013, the government declared extensive expansion of social safety programmes for workers who have worked for 50 days under the programme. Around 15 million women will get benefits like easy loans and government insurance schemes.

Analysts, however, disagree that political parties are making serious efforts to empower women. Anupama Roy of the Centre of Political Studies, JNU, says just economic empowerment will not help women emerge as a political constituency. “There needs to be changes in social policies,” she adds. Ayesha Kidwai, a social activist and professor at JNU, stresses on reservations in all political spheres to empower women. Rajeshwari Deshpande, who teaches political science at the University of Pune, says, “The new politics of gender does not encourage political participation of women. It keeps women’s issues confined to sporadic protests and creates an impression of the consolidation of a ‘woman’ constituency.” She says such politics emboldens the likes of religious leader Asaram Bapu and chief of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Mohan Bhagwat to disregard women and their interests.

Women in panchayat

In India, women got the right to vote in the year 1930, but they are still not seen as a coveted constituency. Even after coming to occupy some of the highest offices in India today, women members of parliament account for about 85 seats in a total strength of 787 MPs (in both houses of parliament). More to it, despite 20 years of reservation in local bodies, why are elected women leaders of panchayats not graduating to the state or national level?

Panchayats, in fact, are turning out to be the most preferred democratic institution for women. They are the first elected government in India to have reservations for women. The elected women panchayat members are usually younger than their male counterparts — a contrast to the trend in parliamentary elections. With the 50 per cent reservation, India has more than 1.4 million elected women panchayat leaders. The percentage of women representatives at the gram panchayat level was 38.40 per cent in 2010 compared to 31.37 per cent in 2000. Representation at the panchayat samiti level rose from 20.71 per cent in 2000 to 37.19 per cent in 2010, while at the zilla parishad level it stood at 35.80 per cent in 2010. In Bihar’s last panchayat elections, 300,000 women battled for 10,000 reserved seats. Bihar became the first state to reserve 50 per cent seats for women in 2006. In Jharkhand, that held panchayat elections for the first time in 2010 and reserved 50 per cent seats for women, women outshone men by bagging 58 per cent of the seats. A large chunk of the elected women belongs to scheduled tribes and castes (72 per cent) and to below poverty line (BPL) families (40 per cent); compared to them, the current Lok Sabha has 245 crorepati members.

In 1995, when the first phase of panchayat elections was held across the country, two-fifths of women candidates belonged to BPL families and around three-fifths to landless or small and marginal farming families. In parliament, no elected member is below the poverty line, nor is there a marginal or small farmer among those who have declared their occupation as farmer. Most studies in 1995 showed that about 70 per cent of women panchayat members were below the age of 45. In 2008, around 85 per cent of women were under 50 years of age. The average age of members of the current Lok Sabha is 53.03 years.

Reservation has definitely helped rural women. But the motivation for joining politics comes from increased public exposure through the self-help movement. By the time a girl turns 21, the eligible age to contest panchayat elections, she must have put in four to five years in community engagement through SHGs. SHG members form a substantial number of elected panchayat representatives. Secondly, being part of an SHG means more direct participation in village development, like implementation of midday meals for schools, health centres and the employment guarantee programme. This fetches women public credibility; men do not have access to such an institution. This is what seeds women’s political aspirations; reservation just provides the right opportunity. Does the rush for panchayats indicate political empowerment of women over a period of time? Does the consistent increase in their number indicate they have been effective in delivering development?

Here come the stains on the silver lining. Only a few members of panchayat have graduated to the parliament and legislative assemblies. Twenty-five years is a long time for testing political empowerment under the panchayati system. Around 84 per cent of the elected women panchayat leaders do not re-contest after the first term. Numerous studies with limited samples have concluded women leaders do not perform better or worse than men; and the public feels the same. So why don’t women carry forward their political aspirations? This is where the reservation policy has been hijacked by social biases towards women and the faulty mechanism of the policy itself. In panchayats, reservation for women is by rotation. A panchayat that reserves a seat for women once will not get the same privilege in the next elections. This means a woman gets five years to build on but loses the advantage later on. Women leaders, particularly from lower castes and poor families, are more prone to be dislodged by no-confidence motions, often engineered by men. Secondly, lack of knowledge of roles and responsibilities hampers both men and women representatives. But men can re-contest. There is an attempt to increase the reservation to two tenures.

The Women’s Reservation Bill for reserving seats for women in parliament, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha in 2010 but not by the Lok Sabha so far, is hanging fire. “It’s two different things. One is the response of the voters and the other the response of political parties,” says Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a Delhi-based research institute. This state of affairs may be about to change, he says, as a delayed result of the reservation for women in the panchayati raj. “What has happened is that more women have started contesting in those elections, and after two, three elections or 15 years these women have started realising that they have power. I think the turnout among women will be higher in the next Lok Sabha elections,” Kumar says.

Quantum Leap
In 2013, India completed 20 years of its experiment with local democracy. In 1993, through constitutional amendments, panchayats were made the third tier of elected governments in the country, after the Union and state governments. India, already being celebrated as the largest democracy in the world, witnessed unprecedented widening of its democratic space. Before the panchayati raj, India had just 4,963 elected representatives in state assemblies and the parliament. With panchayati raj in place, people elected close to three million representatives spread over 500 district panchayats, 6,000 intermediate panchayats and 250,000 village panchayats. India has more per capita elected representatives than doctors or police. Panchayats have moved from being a cultural reality to a constitutional one and now are in a consolidation phase to deepen participatory governance.

Arguably, this is the only government among the three — local, state and central — where elected members implement development programmes. A prime minister does not have the power to sign cheques for programmes, but the sarpanch has. Just to get a sense of their power and authority, consider this: panchayats implement close to Rs 70,000 crore of central government development programmes. On the accountability front, a panchayat member is technically more accountable than other elected members. In a few states voters can recall them; in most of the states the government can throw them out. Voters, in fact, throw out more panchayat members more often than MLAs or MPs.

Though panchayats are infamous for widespread corruption, their influence on state and national elections are increasingly being reported. Panchayat elections in states get political attention similar to those of state assembly elections. What assembly elections are to national elections, panchayat elections are to the state elections: the barometer of electoral moods. With the rise of regional parties in many states, it is but natural that panchayat elections are now attracting political attention of the national parties.

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