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Saturday, September 18, 2004

Over the past five decades, the representational base of our legislatures has definitely broadened.  Unfortunately, this has not translated into more number of women as MLAs or MPs.  The representation of women in Lok Sabha has remained more or less stagnant at a very low 9% over the years.

This under-representation of women has prompted India, as the first country in the world, to consider the possibility of a 33% reservation for women in its Parliament.  Publicly, every major party or politician of our country supports the Women’s Reservation Bill. Privately, the same political interests repeatedly scuttled this initiative and really do not want it passed!   At the heart of the debate is the fact that the Bill proposes ‘rotating reservation’ that was designed to avoid permanently reserving too many constituencies.  But this provision creates more problems than it manages to solve.

First, when the reserved seats are rotated, incumbent MLAs/MPs get unseated in spite of their good performance and despite carefully nurturing their constituencies.  If a constituency knows that it may be randomly selected as for reservation, its representatives will lose incentive to build a strong base of support. Voters will be subject to vast shifts in the legislature every term, regardless of the previous legislator’s performance. This kind of instability will undercut political accountability by reducing the incentive for legislators to respond to the demands of voters.

Second, women themselves will suffer in terms of legislative position. While more women will be in the legislature, they will constantly have to change or run from new districts, preventing their own chances of creating a strong following based on their political record. They will owe their position then, not to a loyal electorate, but to party bosses. Though they will not be legally barred from contesting in non-reserved seats, they are unlikely to be given the party ticket to do so in these areas. Effectively, women will only have chances to contest against other women. This will ghettoize women’s politics and pure tokenism will replace legitimate representation of women’s concerns. Women will become a burden on democracy rather than a means to increase competitiveness and standards of representation.

In any case, if the Bill becomes law, the male candidates replaced will be tempted to nominate their female relatives as proxy candidates to keep the seats warm for them. The women elected on their own will never be able to build a political base as they will lose the seats on rotation!

But, Indian elections have a very interesting property: women seem to have a higher chance of getting elected than men!  On an average, only 10% of all male candidates were elected (in 12 general elections up to 1998), while over 17% of women were winners. Among the recognized party nominees, only 26% of men were elected as opposed to 32% of women. This is because Indian voters have never discriminated against women candidates. It is the political parties which deny women the opportunity.

That brings us to a rather simple and robust solution: an electoral system where party seats depend on the number of votes obtained.  In other words, proportionality based political representation.  Proportional Representation (PR) offers a natural and intelligent way of increasing women’s representation.  Since PR requires parties to have a majority vote in order to come to power, they might lose out on the significant percentage of the female vote by not nominating women. And the more women get nominated, the more likely are they to win elections. There would then be enough serious women candidates and there will be no need for rotation of reservation, as constituencies are not reserved.

Do the facts support our line of thinking? Yes, and overwhelmingly so. All countries that have a PR-based electoral system such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Austria, Holland, New Zealand and Germany have a very high degree of women’s representation (30-35%).  Countries that follow the Indian style of First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system like the USA, the UK and France have (not surprisingly) ‘Indian levels’ of women in their legislatures – a paltry 10%.  In fact, in 1994, a threat by women supporters of major parties in Sweden to form a new women's party led to women winning 41% of seats because major parties recruited more women candidates!

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