Women in Indian Politics: Thinking beyond the Token Representation

Photo: Feminism in India

By Chanda Rani

Women have played an instrumental role in strengthening the nation-building process of democratic India. Despite their tremendous contribution, women have been continuously excluded from different walks of life, particularly politics. A traditional patriarchal society in India still discriminates when it comes to increasing the political participation and election of women as representatives. India as a nation is yet to fully emerge from inherited gender stereotypes.

Fernanda Nissen, one of the earliest feminist politicians of Norway, stated if women were to have any say in the lives they lead, they must enter politics. Unfortunately, in post-independence India women continue to remain unwanted and neglected, as evident from their low representation. The newly elected 17th Lok Sabha in 2019 has 78 women Members of Parliament (MP’s), the highest since Independence, but still abysmally low in proportion to their population. The Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2018 ranked India 149 out of 193 countries on the basis of representation of women in national parliament. The parochial and discriminatory approach of the political class on the issue of representation has not propelled women as a potent political force in Parliament, despite constituting 48% of the total population of the the country.

The token representation of women in Indian politics symbolises the age-old traditional patriarchal notion where politics revolves around the patron-client relationship, paralleling the father-son relationship in which the male member is seen as natural heir depriving women of power. The maleness of Indian politics is compatible with the continuation of patriarchy in political culture which is hyper visible from the existing gender inequalities and the pending Women’s Reservation Bill in parliament. The Bill was introduced in 1996 and still pending in the parliament, revealing the lack of political will of India’s two largest national political parties, BJP and the Congress, which have been in power at the centre for long. The male chauvinist nature of both the parties is evident from the higher proportion of the ticket they give to male candidates in comparison to the female candidates. A similar pattern has been observed in the regional and state parties over the candidacy of women in state and general assembly elections.

The political representation of women in India is even less than Nepal (33.2%), Pakistan (20%) and Bangladesh (20.3%) but that doesn’t mean that the prejudices of political parties toward women’s candidacy is less in these countries. It is accommodative political system and the provision of reservation in National Assemblies which result in the proportional representation of women in these countries. There is a need for structural shift in power sharing mechanism in the political system of India which can ensure proportional representation for women. The rise in the numbers of women in Parliament by 1% does not facilitate the presumptions that women have equal accessibility to tickets and the authorities as their male counterparts do.

Article 243D of the constitution empowers the respective state governments to reserve 1/3rd  to 50% of the seats for women in Panchayat. There is no doubt that the participation of women representatives including members from weaker sections appears to have increased substantially over the years mainly on account of affirmative approach. However, it has been found that women representatives are illiterate, depend on husband in taking their decisions which means women are rubber stamps and the male members exercise real power and autonomy. The political journey of women in a highly patriarchal and caste-ridden society at the Panchayat level is not a smooth one. Despite having the affirmative provision in the constitution, women representatives are yet to reach a level of equilibrium.

Although Indian politics is generally defined by men, it has offered strong female leaders  such as Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Rabiri Devi, Mayawati, Mamta Bannerji and Jailalitha who have ascended to the office of Prime Minister and Chief Minister and, to some extent, have changed the trajectory for women in Indian politics. Citing the case of these women leaders, people have generally discredited the claim that politics is dominated by men. However, many of these powerful women leaders have been catapulated into politics by their political lineage through  powerful male stalwarts like Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajeev Gandhi, Laloo parsad Yadav, Kanshi Ram and MGR. If all these women did not have such strong support of family and male members as political mentors, their chances of becoming PM and CM would have been slim. Therefore, one cannot disprove the fact that Indian politics is male-centred and it is still a herculean task for women politicians to rise from the grassroots.

Women as a whole are a marginalized section of society in India. At the same time, there is a huge diversity within the women community. As Nivedita Menon said, “Women are neither a stable nor a homogenous community.” Some are Hindu women, some are Muslim women, some are upper caste women, some are lower caste women, some are dalit women, some are tribal women. Like any other representation, women’s representation is also dominated by upper caste women and dynastic politics. As Kimberle Crenshaw argued in her theory of Intersectionality in the context of American social and political system, the suffering of a white woman is not equal to the suffering of a black woman. The black woman suffers six times more than a white women. So in the Indian context, how can an upper caste woman represent a lower caste and a dalit woman? The representative should always be the foam of the same sea.

There is a history of social movements led by women in India, not only for the cause of empowerment and representation of women but for societal concerns such as the Chipko Movement, Save Silent Valley Movement in Kerala, Narmada Bachao Andolan and many more similar movements. Before the outbreak of covid-19 in March, women in India particularly Muslim women, were leading the mass movement against the discriminatory CAA and NRC since December 15, 2019 across India. Unfortunately none of the women leaders have emerged prominently in this four month long agitation at the national level. We still see a traditional pattern where male upper-caste, Muslim, Dalit and OBC leaders are more dominant than women leaders.

Since beginning women in India have been in a vulnerable position in party politics and political activities because of a number of reasons such as systematic obstacles created by the state and the social stigma attached to women in politics. It constructed a wizard of structure which locked the women in a traditional yet patriarchal political culture. This subordination of women undermines the democratic legitimacy of the wider Indian social and political system and questions the idea of democratic justice and symbolic equity

Proper representation is the essence of a true and vibrant democracy. Women in India do not only need reservation in parliament but also the removal of structural barriers which deprive them from becoming a potent force in Indian politics. Along with these two pre-requisites, women should focus on the quality of leadership, so as not to repeat the same mistake by tilting themselves towards symbolic face of female representatives backed by the male politicians and family members. There are a number of women leaders having the lineage of male politicians in post-independence India who have blazed the trail of women’s empowerment and have been seen as icons for women in Indian politics. But to achieve the principle of equality and justice, there is a greater need for the participation of middle-class women and lower caste women in politics to represent their own cause and to defy the notorious patriarchal dominance in Indian political culture. With women constituting half of Indian population, it is fair to expect that their representation would commensurate with their number. Anything falling short of proper representation will continue to violate the principle of equality of opportunities and equality before law.

Chanda Rani studies Masters in Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.


Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s