Kamala Harris’ nomination as the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate has excited the Indian diaspora. Her political elevation is being chalked down as a win for the community, even though Harris primarily identifies as African American and many in the diaspora display troubling racial biases. There is animated play on her name with slogans such as “America mein khila kamal” (lotus blooms in America), but if there’s a word that should be stressed in her name, it’s not the male kamal, the symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party, but the female mala.
In recent years, Indian-origin politicians have raised their profile in several countries, including in the United States and Britain. Five legislators of Indian origin, for instance, were elected to the US Congress in 2016, of whom two are women, including Harris. Across the Pond, in the United Kingdom, Indian-origin politicians occupy two of the senior-most positions in the current government, and one of them is a woman.
It is clear, then, that not only are some diasporic Indian communities doing well in politics, they also have a strong presence of women. This is not so in India.
As the above graph shows, in the UK election last year, more than half of the elected legislators of Indian origin were women (eight women and seven men). In New Zealand, too, the 2017 election returned three legislators of Indian origin, of whom two were women. Meanwhile, in Canada, women made up a fourth of Indian-origin legislators after last year’s election (five women and 20 men). While the figure for Canada is lower than for Britain and the US, it is still almost double the number for India. Last year’s Lok Sabha election produced a record number of female parliamentarians, and yet this works out to only 14% of the total members.
In fact, in Canada and the US, the presence of women among Indian-origin legislators is similar to women’s overall presence in the legislature. This is shown in the graph below. In the US House of Representatives, 23% of all legislators and 25% of Indian-origin legislators are women. In Canada, the respective figures are 29% and 25%. And in the British House of Commons, women make up a third of all MPs but half of Indian-origin MPs. Additionally, the graph below shows that the trends in Canada and Britain hold not only for last year’s election, but also the election before.
Could this be because assimilated diasporic communities take on some of the characteristics of their societies? Maybe. There is considerable intuitive appeal to the idea that greater political opportunities for women produce greater presence of women among Indian-origin legislators in the US, Britain and Canada. By comparison, fewer political opportunities exist for women within India, which leads to a bigger political gender gap. But this is not due to formal proscriptions on women in politics. Rather, it reflects structural forms of discrimination – the pipeline of female politicians is shaped by patriarchal processes. Such structural discrimination exists elsewhere too, including in the US, which is a prominent laggard in women’s political representation. However, policies such as gender quotas can address it at least partially.
Compared to India, its neighbours Bangladesh and Pakistan, which have similar patriarchal challenges, fare better. India lags considerably behind even when it comes to including women in the cabinet – an imbalance that can be addressed by proactive heads of government, as Justin Trudeau has shown in Canada.
India’s overall political gender gap is more stubbornly persistent than the gender gaps in other domains. This is true even within the country. Kerala, which performs better on conventional indicators of gender and development, and which has a history of women’s agency in politics and development, has a large political gender gap similar to that of other states. Women’s presence in its legislature and cabinet is low despite creation of opportunities for women in decentralised political and economic activities. In fact, until recently, Kerala did not have more than one woman in its cabinet – it is both true and sad that we have to celebrate the history-making inclusion of two women in the cabinet.
For Indians, Kamala Harris’ candidature is another welcome opportunity to reflect on two persistently ugly realities – one is racism, the other is patriarchy.
Suraj Jacob teaches at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.