On Thursday, the Nagaland Legislative Assembly passed a law reserving 33% of seats in urban local bodies for women. The Supreme Court had pulled up the state government and the state election commission for not implementing its order on women’s representation in April this year. Women’s reservation in local bodies was opposed in the state on the grounds of customary practices. This small big step for Kohima is a sign of changing attitudes: It’s only earlier this year that Nagaland got women MLAs for the first time since the state came into being 60 years ago. Nagaland is not exceptional in the Northeast in terms of a skewed gender representation in office. Manipur has just five women among its 60 MLAs, whereas Mizoram, which voted on Tuesday to elect a new legislative assembly, did not have a single women MLA in the outgoing House. This trend is ironic for these are states where women have a substantial presence and voice in social and economic life, as compared to most Indian states.
This brings us to a larger question of women’s representation in Indian politics. Parliament made a law in September that mandates 33% reservation for women in state assemblies and the Lok Sabha. Political parties were unanimous in supporting the law and were keen to be seen as backing the legislation. However, the candidates’ lists for the five state elections show no evidence of the support political parties displayed for increasing women’s representation in legislatures. Just 12% of the candidates are women. The BJP, which has announced 643 candidates for the five states, has fielded only 80 women whereas the Congress has only 74 women among its 666 nominees.
The numbers, clearly, reveal a structural fault line that seems to be influencing parties from fielding women as candidates, unless, of course, insisted upon by statutory quotas. So, in local bodies in many states, over 50% of members are women while this scale of representation is seldom replicated in state assemblies, where women’s presence is at best minuscule. Even in states such as Kerala, which has admirable achievements on many gender indices, there are fewer women in the assembly and in government — just 12 of its 140 MLAs are women and there are only three women ministers in a 21-member Cabinet. Patriarchy in politics works in insidious ways and a career in public life continues to be seen as the preserve of men. This is ironic because parties recognise that women, who constitute half the electorate, are now a constituency in itself and launch or tweak public policies to win their support. Leaders such as Indira Gandhi, MGR, J Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, and Nitish Kumar were conscious of the women’s vote and would appeal to it. The Prime Minister appeals to women voters in his campaign by citing the schemes his government offers to women.
A gender audit of Indian politics suggests that political parties are hesitant to address questions of representation unless confronted by the law. This may be because the under-representation of historically marginalised sections of society is seldom understood in ethical/democratic terms but addressed within a utilitarian framework (in this case, winnability) or left to the mercies of numbers. Inevitably, affirmative action has to wear the garb of quotas, with the necessary balance between equality of outcomes and quality of opportunities often lost in policymaking.
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