Three North-Eastern states – Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya – went to the polls last month. They registered high turnout – nearly 90% on average – and have seen major churning in terms of outcome. The Left lost its last bastion in Tripura, the BJP won power in Nagaland in an alliance with a new party, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, and is part of the National People’s Party-led coalition in Meghalaya. The Congress got eradicated in two states (Tripura and Nagaland) assemblies, both in terms of seats and vote share.
These are spectacular results.
There is, however, one area in which these three elections have shown great continuity, which is the marginalisation of women in politics. Tripura and Meghalaya elected only three women each out of 59, and Nagaland failed to send its first woman to the state assembly.
Sixty women contested the elections in these three states (13 as independent candidates) and only six were elected (three in both Tripura and Nagaland). In percentage terms, women made up for 7.1% of the candidates and make for 3.3% of the MLAs.
The long-term trends are actually worse. Since the creation of these three states in the 1960s, 307 women candidates have contested elections, only 44 of whom have been elected. If one accounts for women contesting more than one election, only 221 individual women have contested elections in these three states, 30 of whom won a seat.
Candidature trends are going upward, but this only goes to show that the situation in the past was even worse than it is now. In 2018, 8.6% of the candidates in Tripura were women, against, 8.2% in Meghalaya and 2.6% in Nagaland. Compared to 2013, the representation of women actually goes down, from nine to six MLAs.
In Meghalaya, two women retained their seats: Mazel Ampareen Lyngdoh, in East Shillong, and Dikkanchi Shira, in Mahendraganj. Agatha Sangma, daughter of PA Sangma and former Union Minister, won her first term in the state assembly. The fourth 2013 MLA, Deborah Marak, contested in William Nagar, a seat where results have been suspended.
In Tripura, Communist Party of India (Marxist)‘s Bijita Nath, in Bagbassa, is the only woman incumbent (out of five) to be re-elected. The two other women in the assembly won on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket: Kalyani Roy in Teliamura and Santana Chakma in Pencharthal.
In Nagaland, half of the contesting women ran as independents. Mainstream parties barely fielded any candidate. None got elected.
Put together, the ration of women representation in those three states show clearly that the trend has been generally been going downward.
The North-East at rock bottom
Most north-eastern states are located at the bottom when it comes to women representation. A state ranking reveals that the national average for women representation across assemblies is 7.6%, with variations going from 0% for Nagaland to 14.4% for Haryana.
The seven North-eastern states’ stand at an average of 3.7%. Since most of them have a 60-member assembly, it basically means that they generally don’t have more than two women per legislature. For most states, in fact, those ratio actually represent only a handful of women legislators.
A shared responsibility
Parties have to own responsibility for this sorry state of affairs, as they determine the supply of candidates, and therefore, the gender imbalance. With such low numbers, it would be difficult to point at anyone in particular. Obviously, parties that have been in power – sometimes for long – bear more responsibility. But opposition parties could also have fielded more women than they did.
Meghalaya: Independents ahead
The largest group of women candidates in Meghalaya, historically, are independent candidates (who contest in far greater numbers than any other party). Thirty seven women have contested as independents since 1978 (out of a total of 968 independent candidates). Only one of them, Myriam D. Shira, succeeded to win a seat twice – first in Songsak, in 1978, then in Rajabala, 10 years later.
The Congress is the main party purveyor of tickets for women in Meghalaya, with 29 candidates fielded in 40 years. The BJP has recently erupted as the second party, having distributed one or two tickets to women candidates regularly, since 1993. The rest is split between regional and local parties. In total, 131 women candidates contested elections in Meghalaya. Only 26 won.
Unsurprisingly, Congress comes first among the women MLAs, with nearly 60% of the seats won by women. No one else exceeds two MLAs over time.
Out of the 297 candidates fielded by the three main parties in Tripura in 2018 – CPI(M), Congress and BJP – only 23 were women.
The CPI(M) did only slightly better than its opponents, with seven tickets distributed to women candidates.
The Congress fielded only five women, followed by the BJP, with four women candidates. The other women candidates were fielded by small players, such as the Trinamool Congress, the Socialist Unit Centre of India (Communist) and the Amra Bangali, who all fielded two women candidates each. Previous BJP candidate Radha Rani Das was the only woman candidate contesting as an independent.
Over time, both the Congress and the CPI(M) have distributed the most tickets to women (30 and 27, for a total of 148 tickets).
Independent candidates form the third block, with 26 candidates (out of a total of 743 independent candidates). The only independent candidate to ever win is Ratna Prava Das, who won in Pencharthal in 1983. Das is a one-time candidate who tried her luck in four different seats during the same election.
Because of its dominant position in Tripura politics, the CPI(M) has been better able to get women elected than its opponents (16 out of 23). But it does not necessarily field more women candidates than its opponents.
Old habits and party biases die hard. The CPI(M) in particular bears responsibility for the political marginalisation of women. In most states in India, the cost of entry into politics represents a further obstacle for women participation in election. In Tripura, the CPI(M) has the practice of funding entirely their candidates. In fact, Tripura is a rare state in India where the assets of many sitting MLAs declined over time. Despite those advantages, despite the quality and the experience of the state’s few women politician and despite a dominant Marxist ideology that at the least professes adhesion to an ideal of real equality, the Left has proven to be a major obstacle to women inclusion in politics. The party is now challenged by a new contender – the BJP – that is not faring any better in that regard.
No-one stands out in Nagaland
In Nagaland, there were only five women out of 196 candidates in 2018. The National People’s Party fielded two candidates, while the BJP and Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party fielded only one woman candidate each. The fifth contested as an independent candidate.
Over time, nearly half of the women candidates in Nagaland have been independents, attesting to the lack of space provided by parties. Mainstream parties have fielded only nine women in the state’s history.
These nine women contested on mostly different party tickets. Except the National People’s Party that fielded two women candidates in this election, and the BJP that fielded one woman candidate over the last three elections (including 2018), no other party has ever fielded more than one woman in an election in 53 years.
Not only are there hardly any women in Nagaland politics, but the few who contest also tend to disappear once they lose. Only three women - RL Kinghen, Chubalemla and Rhakila – have contested more than once. Since the creation of the state in 1963, only 18 women have contested assembly elections.
Busting the image of gender progressiveness
The low inclusion of women in North-Eastern politics may come as a surprise as these states tend to display otherwise fairly advantageous human development statistics. The child sex ratios in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland for instance, are among the less skewed in India (957, 970 and 943 per 1000, respectively).
Some of the main tribal groups in the region – the Khasis and the Garos in Meghalaya, follow matrilinearity, which is seen by some as an embodiment of women empowerment in an otherwise extremely patriarchal country and society.
There is, however, a lot of misunderstanding on what matrilinearity entails. While it does give women some privileges and rights (such as property rights), it does not bestow on them any particular power in the public sphere. As Julien Bouissou, the South Asia correspondent of Le Monde noted, the matrilineal system should not be confused with matriarchy. Khasi women have never held power.
Despite the positive discourse on the state’s progressiveness with regard to the condition of women, some of these states display unflattering gender statistics. Tripura, for instance, nearly tops the country’s ranking in terms of child marriage (one third or all marriages, second only after Rajasthan) and in terms of teenage pregnancy (18.8% of women deliver before turning 18, according to an Indiaspend report).
Women outvote men
One area in which women surpass is participation in elections. There hasn’t been a large gap between male and female turnout, contrary to most of the rest of the country. Since 2008, women tend to outvote men in all three states. In Tripura, women have outvoted men from 1988 to 2008.
In Meghalaya, the male turnout came down in 2013 while the female turnout remained stable.
In Nagaland, women outvoted men from the state’s first election, in 1969, to 1993. Men have outvoted women since, with a small margin.
These gaps however are not significant since turnout in those states is extremely high – in fact higher than most democracies in the world, including those who have mandatory voting. Since the sex ratio is not too skewed, one cannot argue that the absence of women in politics might be caused by a lack of women in the electorate.
Women as mobilisers
The campaign also demonstrated the omnipresence of women during rallies and other events. Parties make sure to place women at the forefront of their parades, as to showcase their inclusiveness.
There are a number of persistent myths about women in politics, used as excuses by parties to not field women candidate. The first myth is that women make for weaker candidates. In competitive and harsh elections, they can’t measure up to men. A second myth is that women are less experienced than men in public affairs and therefore have no business meddling with it. In the case of the North East, most parties also argue that since women have been absent from politics historically, they lack political experience compared to their male counterparts. A third myth is that only elite women can get elected. Parties that boast of representing backward segments have used that argument in order to justify their gender imbalance.
Data and fieldwork can help debunk those myths with hard evidence.
Performance of women candidates in three North-eastern states
What explains the prejudice of the parties against women? Most parties argue that women are not competitive candidates compared to men, particularly in close elections. In the case of the North-East, most parties also argue that since women have been absent from politics historically, they lack political experience compared to their male counterparts.
We can verify this claim in two ways. First by examining the performance of women versus men in state elections. Second, by looking at the profile, background and antecedents of women contesting elections.
Women outperformed men by an average of 3.5% in the 1983 elections. Otherwise, men have consistently performed better than their female counterparts.
In terms of victory margin, however, women tended to do better than men until 1983 and from 1993 to 2008, in which their performance was undifferentiated.
Although those figures take into account the difference in number of women compared to men, one cannot derive too much interpretation from these charts, given the gap between men and women. Also, these charts merely state difference in performance, but do not explain why. The causes may be attributed to individual qualities of women candidates, besides their gender.
In Meghalaya, women have episodically obtained higher vote share than men (in 1978, 1989, 1993 and 2013). The oscillations are large which indicates a stronger effect. Women underperformed markedly in 1983, where men obtained on average nearly 10% more vote share than women. The trend has been seeing a see-saw shift through the history of the state.
In terms of victory margin, women have won more decisively than men consistently since 2008. The trend has been getting more pronounced since. Given the small numbers, there are several possible explanations. The concerned candidates might have been more influential, well-connected politically, or contesting in safe seats for their party.
It does not make sense to look at victory margins in Nagaland, since no woman has ever won. What average relative vote share performance of women candidates tells us is that there have been moments in which the few women candidates outperformed men (in 1988 and in 2013) but that overall, they do underperform.
This is not surprising given the odds against women in politics in that state. The problem with consistent discrimination is that it reinforces itself, in a tautological manner: if women underperform, parties feel justified not to give them tickets. But women also underperform because parties have not placed their trust into them, thus reinforcing party prejudice against women in politics.
The fieldwork conducted by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data team has revealed that most women candidates check most boxes when it comes to winnability. More than half of the women interviewed (about 40 over three states) belong to political families (some prominent). Almost all are highly educated, several with doctorates.
Many started their public careers in local institutions, such as panchayats or municipalities. Overall, most women contesting these three North-Eastern elections were extremely qualified. Many of them did run on strong party tickets, and yet mostly lost.
No impact on turnout
Finally, could it be that fielding women candidates affect turnout at the constituency level? Prima facie, the data suggests the negative. There are very small variations between constituencies that have women candidates and those that don’t, and these variations could come from all sorts of factors besides the gender of candidates.
Women representation in the North-East has been abysmally low, despite women politicians being highly educated, politically experienced and politically connected. On all accounts, they tend to surpass men, including at times in terms of electoral performance.
But despite this converging evidence, parties remain completely biased and remain the main obstacle to their inclusion into electoral politics.
Evidence in these three North-Eastern states also suggest that voters may share some responsibility in rejecting women candidates. This is not surprising since women are not expected to make for strong candidates, which reinforces prejudices against them.
The Trivedi Centre for Political Data team is led by Gilles Verniers, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and co-Director, TCPD. Basim-U-Nissa, Ashish Ranjan, Akansha Naredy, Aryaman Jain, Sahil Satsangi, Naman Bansal, Apratim Chandra Singh and Sanket Kashyap contributed to the data and fieldwork in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Raw data available at http://lokdhaba.ashoka.edu.in.