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Women Voters in India Play a Significant Role in its Electoral System, But They Should Be On the Ballot Too

Authors: Akhil Neelam and Fatma Tawfik

India, the world's largest democracy, recently concluded its parliamentary elections, resulting in a coalition government led by incumbent Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi made a clear pitch to women voters, and the 'women factor’ has been a focal point for political analysts and journalists tracking the 2024 Indian elections. Although, these discussions primarily focus on women as voters, leaving behind the lack of women as elected representatives. 

When conversations shift toward women's representation in office, narratives often center on women voters as crucial to the success of women candidates. This fixation perpetuates stereotypes of women candidates as serving only women voters. As a result, women elected to office are often given portfolios of only “women’s issues,” such as child welfare, domestic issues, and gender equality.=

Fighting stereotypes and creating a path to increased women’s representation must include rewriting these narratives and providing tangible solutions to electing Indian women to office.

Women As Voters

According to the Election Commission of India, a record 312 million women voted in the 2024 elections. In 19 out of 36 states and Union territories, women surpassed men in voter turnout, illustrating India's strides to close the voter gender gap. In 1962, women's voter turnout was just under 47%, lagging nearly seventeen percentage points behind men's voter turnout of 63%. Fast-forward to the 2019 and 2024 elections, and the gender gap has closed. 

While some attribute increased women voter turnout to improved literacy rates and economic independence, the tireless institutional efforts of the Election Commission, nonprofits, and grassroots social workers in galvanizing and educating women voters have been instrumental. Political parties have tailored their electoral promises to address women's welfare, recognizing women voters' potential. 

Additionally, policies have significantly improved political consciousness and education among women, especially at the local level. Government-backed Self-Help Groups (SHGs; empowerment-focused groups of rural women) and quotas in local governance are prime examples of such policies.

In patriarchal societies like India, where gendered challenges persist, all relevant stakeholders must come together and make deliberate efforts towards change for such changes to happen. These efforts are much needed given the current state of women’s representation.

Women As Candidates

In the 2024 elections, only 74 of the 543 parliamentary seats up for election were won by women. This decreased from the previous cycle, with four fewer women elected. The underrepresentation of women MPs can be attributed to political parties nominating fewer women; the total proportion of women candidates was roughly 10%

However, two parties stand out in this regard: the West Bengal-based Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Odisha-based Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which gave one-quarter and one-third of their tickets to women candidates, respectively. Eleven women MPs, equivalent to 15% of the total women elected to the parliament, are from TMC. The case of BJD, led by Naveen Patnaik, shows the crucial role of men's allyship. This is evident in their consistent practice of nominating women candidates for one-third of the seats across multiple election cycles.

While the TMC and BJP's use of voluntary party quotas shows progress, it remains disappointing that these rules have been adopted by only two parties in a country where 744 political parties competed this election cycle.

Moving Beyond Voluntary Gender Quotas: Systems Solutions to Representation

Political parties must uplift and support women candidates, but to achieve gender parity in our lifetimes, other strategies must also be implemented. The most obvious strategy is policy change: The Indian parliament recently passed a reservation bill mandating that women hold at least 33% of the seats in the parliament and state assemblies. However, the bill has yet to take effect, and its timeline for implementation remains unclear. 

SHGs have been critical in empowering women politically and ought to be leveraged to build women's capacities and ensure a sustainable upward trajectory from these village-level units to state assemblies and the parliament.

Another viable strategy would be to revisit the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system. Majority or plurality voting systems, such as FPTP, lead to an average of 12% lower women's representation than countries that use proportional representation systems. FPTP systems benefit status-quo candidates and lack incentives for political parties to support nontraditional candidates like women. 

The Importance of India 

India is the second-largest country in the world, meaning Indian women comprise 17% of all women globally. As this large percentage of women's livelihoods is controlled by one country, achieving gender balance in India would ensure that over 600 million women are fairly represented and protected and significantly rectify the global gender gap. Currently ranked 113th in the legal gender gap index, Indian women have 40% fewer legal rights than men in their country. 

Just as combined efforts have successfully closed the gender gap in voting, there is immense potential for similar multi-stakeholder initiatives to bridge the gender gap in political representation. By harnessing the same spirit of cooperation and determination, it is entirely within our reach to ensure that women are not just voters but active participants in the political arena. This is not just a matter of fairness but a critical step towards a more inclusive and representative democracy. The time for change is now, and with continued effort and commitment from all stakeholders, we can make this vision a reality.

Akhil Neelam is the Co-founder and Director of the Centre for Gender and Politics, a member of the UN Women’s 30 for 2030 Network, and a member of RepresentWomen’s Global Advocates for Parity (GAP) Network. He often tweets from his X account.

Fatma Tawfik is an International Research Manager at RepresentWomen and leads the Global Advocates for Parity (GAP) Network. 

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