The passage of the long-pending women’s reservation act granting women 33% reservation in Lok Sabha and state assemblies signalled a commitment to improve political representation.

But as of April 8, women account for only 16% of the 414 candidates announced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and 13% of the 246 candidates announced by the Congress for the Lok Sabha elections that begin on April 19.

The poor representation of women in Parliament has been a persistent concern.

Three quarters of a century ago, as India’s Constituent Assembly deliberated on the Constitution of what would be the world’s most populous democracy, women accounted for a mere 4% of that body – 15 of 389 members.

Although women’s representation in the Lok Sabha has increased over time, the progress has been slow, as seen in Figure 1. Until as recently as 2009, women accounted for less than 10% of the Lok Sabha. Progress in the Rajya Sabha has been even slower.

More generally, the relative absence of women MPs reflects the large gender gap in women’s political participation and leadership although the gender gap in voter turnout is low.

Figure 1: Women in parliament. Note: All graphs (except figure 4) are based on electoral data from the Election Commission of India. 

Representation and representation gaps in political leadership matter. That is why, even before independence, there were experiments to guarantee representation to large religious communities – and why the Constitution guarantees representation for some social groups. Guarantees can be in different ways – for instance, through nominations separate from elections, separate electorates, or seat reservations.

Last year’s decision to extend guaranteed representation to women, while laudable, may be delayed in implementation until the end of this decade. The continued low representation of women in political leadership greatly tarnishes the attainment of democratic ideals, besides being consequential for governance, policy-making, and development outcomes.

Across the world, the gender gap in political leadership is far greater, and persists more stubbornly, than gender gaps in education, health, and economic opportunities.

In India, of the 17 general elections since 1951, the last election, held in 2019, produced the most women MPs – 78. Yet these MPs account for less than 15% of the Lok Sabha. By contrast, women’s representation is far higher among Indian-origin politicians in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Figure 2: Women candidates in 2019. The South has 133 seats, the North East 25, the North 166, the West 101 and the East has 118 seats.

In 2019 almost a third of the constituencies had no women candidates (Figure 2a). Further, in 70% of constituencies, the total vote share of women candidates was less than 5% (Figure 2b).

The maps in Figure 2 also suggest geographic patterns in the vote share of women candidates and the presence of women MPs (Figures 2c and 2d) – specifically, the East did better and the South did worse. Figure 3 (left graph) shows five broad regions: North, West, South, East, and North East.

Despite relatively better gender-and-development indicators, the South had the smallest vote share (9%) and smallest fraction of MPs (8%). The figures for the South are smaller than the North and West and only half of the figures for the East.

Consider individual states (Figure 3, right graph). Of the 18 states with over 4% of Lok Sabha seats, Kerala has the lowest presence of women MPs and Odisha has the highest. The two states have a similar number of Lok Sabha seats (20 and 21) and yet Kerala has only a single woman MP while Odisha has seven. In fact, of the 18 states, three of the five lowest figures are for the South (Kerala, Telangana, Karnataka).

Figure 3: Women MPs from different regions, 2019. The remaining states and union territories account for 33 seats out of 543 (6%). They are: Goa, Puducherry, Lakshadweep (South); North East states except Assam; Andaman & Nicobar Islands (East); Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman & Diu (West); Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh, Delhi, Uttarakhand (North).

The low political presence of women in the South – particularly in Kerala, Telangana, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – is odd since these states are conventionally considered less gender-unequal than the states of the North and West.

Figure 4 shows, for the 18 larger states, the cross-state relation between the Gender Development Index on the one hand, and women’s vote share or women MPs on the other. It reveals that in fact there is little correlation. The figure also shows little correlation with the Human Development Index. That is, states with a higher Gender Development Index or higher Human Development Index do not have better representation of women in politics.

Kerala’s case is particularly interesting. While the state has the highest gender and human development index among the 18 larger states, today it accounts for only 1% of women members of the Lok Sabha. Three-quarters of a century ago, the same region had accounted for 20% of the women members of the Constituent Assembly. Indeed, the presence of women in Kerala politics seems to have regressed.

Figure 4: Gender Development Index, Human Development Index and women MPs, 2019 Note: GDI and HDI data are from the report Gendering human development from India’s National Statistical Office

If social indicators such as the human development index or gender development do not seem greatly relevant for women’s presence in politics, what about the nomination patterns of political parties?

The two national formateur parties – the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party leading the NDA coalition and the Congress leading the United Progressive Alliance coalition – did not distinguish themselves in nominating women candidates. In 2019, both nominated 13% women candidates. However, there was a regional difference: for the BJP the percentage was greater in the West while for the Congress it was greater in the East – but the South had the lowest percentage for both parties (Figure 5).

Despite the two parties contesting a similar number of seats and nominating a similar percentage of women, women candidates of the BJP won at a far greater rate than in Congress. This has to do with party rather than gender: 75% of women and 69% of men candidates of the BJP won, while for the Congress it was 11% women and 13% men. See this essay for a historical mapping of BJP and Congress electoral support.

Figure 5: Women candidates by region and party, 2019

The East had the best performance in 2019 because a quarter of MPs from West Bengal and a third of MPs from Odisha are women (Figure 3). The reason is that these states had strong regional parties that committed to nominating more women. The Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha explicitly committed to this. In 2019 they nominated by far the most percentage of women among all parties (Figure 6).

The two parties have nominated a number of women in the upcoming 2024 elections as well – 29% for the Trinamool Congress and 33% for the Biju Janata Dal.

However, other parties in West Bengal and Odisha did not follow their lead – in 2019 they nominated far fewer women nominees (Figure 7). Further, even the stances of Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal were unstable and dependent on political calculations more than ideology. This led both parties to nominate far smaller percentages of women in state elections.

Figure 6: Women candidates of different political parties, 2019 . Note: The figure covers parties that contested at least 10 seats and received at least 5% vote share averaged across seats. The percentage for the Trinamool Congress here and in Figure 7 differ slightly because figure 6 includes the party’s nominees outside the state. The party nominated 40% women in West Bengal and 30% outside the state. Similarly, for the upcoming 2024 state assembly election, so far women form only a sixth of nominees of the Biju Janata Dal (the party is yet to announce nominees for a fifth of assembly seats).
Figure 7: Women candidates, Odisha and West Bengal, 2019 Note: The graphs cover parties that, for the corresponding states, contested at least five seats and received at least 5% vote share averaged across seats.

India’s electoral history suggests that without institutional nudges or guarantees, adequate and sustained representation may not occur even in the medium term. The women’s reservation law passed in September is an important step to increase women’s representation in the Lok Sabha and in state assemblies – although implementation delays are expected.

In addition, there has to be sustained effort to strengthen the foundations so that citizens on the one hand and parties on the other both feel that such representation is important.

Misconceived perceptions about gender and politics need to be addressed, such as the notion that their gender makes women parliamentarians less active. Without more efforts to align both ideology and political calculations in favour of representation, even parties that supported the women’s reservation bill will not live up to its spirit.

Suraj Jacob teaches development and policy at the Azim Premji University.