This election season, India's dismal score on women's representation

ByGilles Verniers
Mar 09, 2022 04:28 PM IST

While women have been at the core of parties' campaigns, every party — barring the Congress — has done little to actually include them. Here are four charts that explain this:

Women in this election cycle have occupied a central place in parties’ campaigns and manifestos but have, by and large, remained at the doorstep when it comes to their inclusion as candidates. Among the 6,944 candidates running for an assembly seat across five states, only 760 are women. 

The Congress’ shock announcement at the beginning of the campaign clearly did not inspire other parties to make more space for women contestants. (Burhaan Kinu/HT) PREMIUM
The Congress’ shock announcement at the beginning of the campaign clearly did not inspire other parties to make more space for women contestants. (Burhaan Kinu/HT)

In 2017, there were 660 women candidates running for office, out of a total of 7197 candidates. This may seem like a significant increase, but when we convert these numbers into percentages, the overall increase remains modest, from 9.2% to 10.9%. 

The variation is greater when one isolates major parties’ candidates, defined as national and relevant regional parties and their local allies. Across five states, Major parties have fielded 363 women candidates in 2022 against 216 in 2017 (14.2% against 8.3%). As Figure.1 shows, the main gains come from Uttar Pradesh, where Congress fielded 155 women, that is 42.7% of all women candidates fielded by major parties across all five states.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did not give more tickets to women (45 against 46 in 2017) while the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) slightly increased women's representation among their contenders (42 and 46, against 34 and 21 in 2017).   

In the four other states, women's representation among candidates hardly increases. In Manipur, most parties have nominated one to two additional women candidates each compared to five years ago, bringing the total number of women contestants from 6 to 13. 

Small states are likely to show a higher percentage of women contestants given the small size of their assemblies. The absolute numbers, however, are not encouraging. Only 13 of the 155 candidates fielded by major parties in Goa are women, 10 out of 163 in Manipur, 34 out of 404 in Punjab and 23 out of 252 in Uttarakhand. 

The Congress exception

The Congress, as was mentioned, nominated more women than any other party in these elections. Of the 155 women candidates it fielded in Uttar Pradesh (out of 399), only 13 have contested a state election before and only three have been elected before. The two veteran contestants are Arti Bajpai from Bangarmau, Louise Khursheed from Farrukhabad and Kiran Bharti, an SP transfuge from Balha. 

The only three women to have been elected before are Louise Khursheed again (elected once), Umakanti from Kalpi (elected twice) and Mona Aradhana Mishra from Rampur Khas (elected twice). The Congress made a point to recruit newcomers, symbolic candidates, social activists and party workers, in a bid to start grooming future generations of professional politicians. 

Women candidates are mostly new contestants

This ratio of new contestants is not unusual. Among the 760 women candidates, only 30 are rerunning incumbents (18 in Uttar Pradesh, 4 in Uttarakhand and Punjab and two each in Goa and Manipur). 104 have contested at least once in the past. This means that 86% of all women candidates are contesting for the first time. 

A breakdown of these numbers shows that the percentage of first-time candidates among women is superior to that of men across all five states, which isn’t surprising given their history of under-representation in state electoral politics. 

The veteran contestant among women across these five states is Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, from Lehra in Punjab. She is a five-time MLA who contested in eight elections. 

Women’s hidden political experience

It would not be fair to depict these new entrants as political novices. A rapid examination of their personal trajectories and biographies indicate that many of them have accumulated significant political experience in local elected bodies or in social and political work. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, at least eleven women candidates have held positions in Zilla Parishad — including positions of zilla adyaksh — arguably more influential than local Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs). 

The BJP candidate in Agra (Rural), Baby Rani Maurya, was the first woman elected mayor of Agra in 1995. She was appointed governor of Uttarakhand in 2018, even though she never won a Vidhan Sabha or Lok Sabha seat. SP candidate Supriya Aaron is a former mayor of Bareilly, now fighting for the assembly seat in the same city. Many other candidates started their careers in party organisations, either student politics or women’s wings. 

It is true however that many women candidates enter politics without much prior experience, which can be also said about male candidates. Even though their victory prospects might suffer from it, it remains a positive sign that electoral politics is not systematically captured by local strongmen. 

That being said, low nomination rates, with the notable exception of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, is not an encouraging trend. The Congress’ shock announcement at the beginning of the campaign clearly did not inspire other parties to make more space for women contestants and one does not expect women's representation to improve much, whoever wins these elections.

Gilles Verniers is assistant professor of Political Science and co-director, Trivedi Centre for Political Data

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