The Indian parliament passed a historic bill that necessitates the lower house of the parliament and the state legislatures to earmark one-third of their seats to women. In terms of women’s representation in politics, India ranks 141 out of 185, marking this reservation bill as a significant reform. Although the landmark legislature makes great strides for women, there are several impediments to the bill that will delay its discernible effects in Indian politics. Thus, the question begs, is this bill merely an empty promise made by the Modi-led government in the lead up to the 2024 general elections?
Women are significantly underrepresented in politics in India. Presently, 15.2% seats in the lower house of parliament are held by women, while it is merely 9% in the state legislatures. Globally, women hold a 26.5% stake in parliamentary office. The gender quota bill has been in the works for over 25 years, held back primarily due to demands for the inclusion of socio-economic factors in women’s reservation. In September 2023, however, it was welcomed almost unanimously by the Indian political scene.
Despite its grand investiture, the quota faces several challenges rendering it as a hollow gesture to include women in politics. Clearly, the value of women legislators is no longer questioned but the effectiveness of gender quotas and of women’s participation requires addressal.
The women’s quota will be implemented after delimitation or the redrawing of the electoral constituencies and the decadal census. The dates for completing these two projects have not been set by the government, indicating that the women’s quota may not come into play until at least 2029. Members of the opposition have called the bill as a gimmick and not a serious attempt at increasing the representation of women in politics. Despite calls for its immediate implementation, the Modi government is resolute in its employment after the delimitation and decadal census exercises although there appears to be no apparent need to connect the two exercises with the bill. Earlier drafts of the bill did not include delimitation as a prerequisite. In addition, quotas made to advance socio-economically disadvantaged sections of society and increase the representation of women in local governments were applied as recent as 2019, without the need for delimitation. It has been pointed out that if the bill were to be implemented with immediate effect, it would endanger the 179 current male legislators, who could potentially lose their place, indicating that the requirements of delimitation and decadal census may be held in place to enable these legislators to retain their positions. This resonates with former Member of Parliament Brinda Karat’s claim that ‘the Women’s Reservation Bill is a victim of patriarchal power to ensure the status quo of male entitlement.’ Thus, unfortunately, for the women who want a platform for their voice to be heard the reservation bill remains a promise for a distant future.
In addition, underlying factors including, patriarchal political settings, male-dominated political patronage, and illiberal practices that are coupled with religion adversely impact women’s effectiveness in politics.
While the Modi government has recognized and addressed the need for increased participation of women in politics, the BJP-led government has been contradictory in its approach to empowering women. Their appeal to women comes months ahead of the 2024 general elections, particularly when women represent almost half of the 950 million registered voters in India, undoubtedly forming a significant vote bank in Indian politics. Modi, an unabashed charismatic leader, is popular among women, bolstering women’s rights through the promotion of social welfare women empowerment schemes. However, the government is also marked by democratic decline, with crackdowns on dissent amongst civil society and the media, extrajudicial violence, and weakened checks on the executive. In addition, the government takes on a paternalistic approach to women’s empowerment that is founded on conservative religious factors and illiberal practices, particularly amongst marginalized groups, and damaging responses to sexual harassment allegations make for a contradictory case for the BJP-led government.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that women’s participation and advancement in politics is impeded by obstacles such as violence against women, increasing trends of sexism and harassment, and traditional gender norms that restrict women’s roles outside the domestic sphere. Patriarchal structures continue to hinder women’s active participation in politics despite attempts at including them into the fold. Since the 1990s, local governments in India have included women’s reservation, resulting in improvements in changing the public attitude and perceptions about women in politics, responsiveness to women’s needs, and the prioritization of women’s interests. But the effects have been bittersweet in the local governments, where women rarely hold actual power in these positions, as they are typically controlled in the background by their partner or a dominating male political figure.
This shows that a profound change in the political landscape of India requires not only a timely gender quota, but the genuine inclusion of women in politics.
The implementation of the landmark gender quota is years away and is impeded by delimitation and census exercises, which are not paramount to its induction. Moreover, the political spectrum is compounded by patriarchal structures that undermine the effectiveness of women’s participation in politics. This demonstrates that that the Modi-led government intends to enjoy the electoral benefits of the gender quota bill in the upcoming elections, indicating that these representational advancements for women could very well be a pipedream.
[Photo by Prime Minister’s Office, India, via Wikimedia Commons]
Lakshmy Ramakrishnan recently earned her MA in International Relations from King’s College London. In addition to her MA, Lakshmy holds a BSc and an MSc in Biomedical Science from the University of Adelaide, Australia, and Manipal University, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.