Under-representation of women’s interests in the Indian Parliament

Women’s issues, except ones that concern their domestic and familial roles, are severely under-represented in the Indian political narrative. I attempt to argue this through an analysis of the Question Hour data from 2006 to 2017.

In elected democracies, there is no specified role of a representative; is the task of a representative to be a delegate of the constituents’ demands and voices, or is it to represent policies, even unpopular ones, that would do their constituents well? According to political theorist Hanna Pitkin, there are four kinds of representations: Formal, Symbolic, Descriptive, and Substantive.     [i]

If we were to understand representation as substantive representation  – the activity of representatives that is taken on behalf of and in the interest of those they represent – we would be able to judge representatives in the parliament based on the questions they ask and the issues they decide to discuss. That is to say, the role the parliamentarian performs during the question hour, if done as prescribed, is one of being a Substantive Representative. This is the metric used in this paper while analysing how women’s interests are navigated in the Indian Parliament.

For this paper, women shall be understood as cis-gendered women. While trans and non-binary identities are important to study, it is beyond the scope of this paper. Additionally, I will be using questions asked during the Question Hour to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, to be questions pertaining to “women’s issues”.  The unintended consequence of defining such a boundary may include exclusion of programmes such as health care and education schemes impacting the population. However, due to the absence of any other Ministry dedicated (solely) towards Women’s Welfare, it can be assumed that the rest of these questions happening to represent women’s interests were accidental or unintentional. They have been excluded since they were not specifically meant to benefit women, even if they do so.

Background Literature

The standpoint theory informs us that women have been left out of the pursuit and creation of knowledge. Thereby, most, if not all, knowledge that has been created over the centuries is inherently androcentric. Proponents of the theory believe that even the ‘empirical’ science is partial towards men; it is not neutral, but in fact, based out of a historically sexist point of view. The theory further emphasises on the need for women to provide the previously underrepresented perspective and are in a better position to represent women’s interests, given the historical bias. Although such a theory runs the risk of essentialising the female identity and women’s interest, it gives us a great starting point to analyse how female parliamentarians navigate their positions as women in the parliament.

Women make up about 11% of the Lok Sabha, asking only about 7.5% of all questions and approximately 13% of these on women’s issues.[ii] This is strikingly different from other minority identities that are politicized in India, such as religion and caste. Muslims make up about 5% of total MPs in the Lok Sabha and ask about 22% of total questions on Muslim issues. SC/ST MPs make up about 24% of the seats in the Lok Sabha, and they raise 41 % of questions on caste issues.[iii] The ratio of women’s numbers in the parliament to the questions they ask is severely disproportionate when compared to similar ratios of other minority representatives.

There are some intersectionalities: a representative can be both a woman and a Muslim, or a member of the SC/ST community and a woman. Are they then more likely to adopt their non-woman identity? Is the ‘woman’ identity of a representative less politicised than their identity as a different minority? Texts concerning women in Hindutva Politics may help to answer these questions.

Sikta Banerjee details that women in the hyper-masculine Hindu Right navigate their position by fitting into the boxes of a heroic mother, a chaste wife, or a celibate warrior[iv]. They adopt these non-sexualized female identities since they are drawn from the Right’s narratives and hence are more accessible. Even in the discomfort that patriarchy creates, such identities provide a comfortable space to exist; an alternative to an outright defiance of the system. Banerjee has found that, “[the] cost of defiance is quite high in India…rebellion remains an alienating, isolating factor”.[v] Furthermore, as Tanika Sarkar put it so poignantly: all women are not feminists.[vi] This means that they may not identify as women-leaders per se. Despite this, there may exist a large-scale movement among (not-feminist) women from the right who bring with them agency and informed consent.[vii]

This perceived alienation between women and their female identity is contrary to the experiences of women in the Parliament such as Malini Bhattacharya. She has noted that, “…there was a tendency in Parliament to push women into certain corners. Just as in social life […], in Parliament also women are pushed into certain spaces saying, “this is where women should intervene””.[viii] If this were true, current participation should suggest that women are only participating in discussions about specific topic areas where it is allegedly acceptable for them to have a say, but that is not the case.[ix]

Contrary to the Parliamentary data, the data from state and local level legislation suggests that an increase in women sarpanches was more likely to be contingent on identity-based investment in women-centric issues, such as availability of drinking water.[x] Jacob and Basu explain that this lack of difference may be the product of the lack of a critical mass of women in the house (globally defined as 33%). We stand at 11.4% in 2014, which is much lower than the global 22.3%.[xi] India doesn’t fare well in comparison with its South Asians neighbours like Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, all of who have reservations for women.[xii] Nepal fills 29.9% of its house with women and ranks highest in South Asia.[xiii]

  (Figure 1: Jacob 237)[xiv]

This brings us to the elephant in the room –   the Women’s Reservation Bill. While the legislature has approved a bill that reserves seats for women in local legislatures, they have been averse to the same in the state and the centre. Proponents argue that the bill will help reach critical masses of women (globally defined as 33%), and that this would alter the outcome and tenor of the parliamentary debates.[xv]  There are two very important oppositions to this bill that we must take into account. The first opposition is that such a reservation would act as a ceiling rather than a base, thereby limiting the number of women who could be had in a Parliament.[xvi] The second opposition is a caste-based opposition which believes that the whole debate on the women’s reservation bill is an upper-caste ploy that is intent on erasing the new wave of lower-caste men who are entering into politics.[xvii] They believe that a blanket women’s-based reservation would erase caste, and the only people who would benefit would be upper-caste women – the biwis, betis and bahus.

Proponents of this line of thinking believe that a lot of women in positions of power are upper-caste women who are merely placeholders for the men in their families. Data shows that dynastic women are more likely to get elected. In 2014, 43% of the women in parliament (12%) had dynastic links as compared to only 19% of the men.[xviii] If this were true, it could be a valid explanation for their passive participation in the process of legislating for women.

Methodology

For this paper, I will be conducting a quantitative analysis. As previously mentioned, I will be using questions from the last four terms of the Question Hour in the Parliament. The Question Hour is a latent paradigm which can reveal intriguing patterns in the discussion on women’s issues.  As in several western legislatures, during Question Hour, legislators are not restricted by party regulations. They pose up to five questions, four of which must be written. The government is obliged to answer. The speaker allows a maximum of only 250 questions (20 oral) picked via a ballot,[xix] providing us with a rather unbiased metric.

Saloni Bhogale, at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University, has been working on the issue of Muslim Representation through the Question Hour data. The data was scraped from the Lok Sabha website, and with her help, a specific sub-set of questions asked to the Ministry of Women and Child was drawn. We were left with a sub-set of 2833 questions that contained the ID number, question number, subject, question, date, member(s) who asked the question, ministry (only the ministry of women and child for this data set), and whether the question is starred or unstarred.  They were then further categorised based on whether they were about children, women, the girl child. Several data points lie in the intersection of these categories and have been accordingly assigned to all applicable categories. Then the questions were further classified into nine categories: Anganwadi, abandonment and adoption, child welfare, economic, education, girl child, law and order, legislation and nutrition, health and growth. Some of these questions applied to more than one category and were assigned to all applicable categories. Lastly, to account for the effects of gender and the party allegiances of the members asking the questions, this data was merged with general election data as scraped, cleaned, and collected by TCPD.

Analysis

Out of the 2833 questions, eventually, 2519 questions were analysed. 314 questions had to be discarded due to the absence of question text. Ten of these did not have enough data to be classified into women/child/ girl child but remained in the dataset under “cbd” (‘could not be determined’). Analysis of data was conducted in five different ways, a) all questions, b) questions asked about children, c) questions asked about women, d) questions about women and the girl child and lastly, e) questions asked by women.

  1. All Questions
Year No. of Questions
2006 152
2007 173
2008 119
2009 166
2010 275
2011 200
2012 274
2013 275
2014 228
2015 213
2016 253
2017 192

A total of 2519 questions have been asked to the Ministry of Women and Child since its inception in 2006. The trend of the number of questions being asked has remained similar over the years:

The lowest was 152, in the year the ministry was set up, and there seems to be a steady rise but not extremely significant given the highest has only been 275, in 2010 and 2013. The peak in 2013 could be attributed to the Nirbhaya Rape Case in December 2012[xx].

4436 people have asked these questions – since more than one person can ask a question. 3848, which is 87% of these people, are men and 588, which is 13% of them, are women.

From available data for 4340 of these people, 1482 of the questions have been asked by BJP elects, and that’s 34% and 21%, respectively. 1950 of the questions have been asked by others – that is the remaining 45%.

Topic No. of Questions
Aanganwadi 262
Abandonment and
Adoption
180
Child Welfare 486
Economic 225
Education 50
Girl Child 94
Law and Order 435
Legislation 484
Nutrition, Health, and Growth 326

A general distribution of questions across topics looks as follows:

Most of the questions asked to the ministry were about child welfare (19.1%), followed closely by legislation at 19% and law and order at 17.1%. Questions about economic interests, education and those about the girl child remain on the fray at 8.9%, 2% and 3.7%, respectively.

  • Questions about Children:

Not inclusive of questions about children within other categories like child + women, there are 1227 questions about children. 2165 people have asked these questions, 1898 of who are men and 267 of who are women – that’s 88% and 12%, respectively.

We have parties available for 2059 of these (106 are missing). Given that data for 106 people is missing, from the remaining people, BJP asked 730 (30%); Congress asked 448 (22%); and 881(43%) questions were asked by members of other parties.

A general distribution of questions across topics looks as follows:

Topic No. of Questions
Aanganwadi 173
Abandonment and
Adoption
115
Child Welfare 274
Economic 42
Education 23
Girl Child 31
Law and Order 236
Legislation 171
Nutrition, Health and Growth 164

Most of the questions are about child welfare, closely followed by law and order. The topic of education remained unexplored.

  • Questions about Women

In this category, there are questions asked about women in any combination. That is, it could be a question about both women and children, the girl child and children, about the girl child, children and women and so on.

1282 such questions have been asked about women. These questions have been asked by 2242 people, 1924 (86%) of whom are men and 318 (14%) of whom are women.

Parties are available for 2130 of these members (112 are missing). 740 of these are asked by members of BJP, that is 35%, and 455 of these are asked by members of Congress, that is 21%. 935 of these, that is the remaining 44%, are asked by members of other parties by other parties.

The general distribution of the kind of questions asked looks like this:

Topic No. of Questions
Aanganwadi 89
Abandonment and
Adoption
65
Child Welfare 212
Economic 183
Education 27
Girl Child 63
Law and Order 198
Legislation 312
Nutrition, Health and Growth 154

Legislation, at 312 questions, has the most amount of questions asked, and Child Welfare continues to have 212 questions. Education, too, continues to have the least amount of questions asked.

  • Questions only about women and the girl child

This category completely excludes the child, and only includes questions that have been categorised under ‘women’, ‘girl-child’ or ‘girl child and women’.

890 such questions have been asked, by 1585 people, 86% (1338) of whom are men and 14% (206) of whom are women.

Discounting 86 people with missing party data, 35% (520) of the questions have been asked by members of BJP, 22% (326) by members of Congress and 43% (653) by members of other parties.

Topic No. of Questions
Aanganwadi 64
Abandonment and
Adoption
54
Child Welfare 116
Economic 139
Education 17
Girl Child 54
Law and Order 153
Legislation 224
Nutrition, Health and Growth 69

The general distribution of questions looks as follows:

The greatest number of questions are those with regards to legislation at 224, followed by law and order at 153 and economic at 139. Child Welfare, at 116, has a considerably large amount of question base in this context.

  • Questions asked by Women

Although this does not qualify under the Substantive Representation of Women, given this paper is about women, it is important to also see what questions women who make it to the house ask. At least one woman has asked 528 Questions to the Ministry of Women and Child.[xxi]

The general distribution of these questions are as follows:

Topic No. of Questions
Aanganwadi 55
Abandonment and
Adoption
42
Child Welfare 86
Economic 52
Education 13
Girl Child 12
Law and Order 96
Legislation 106
Nutrition, Health and Growth 68

 Legislation seems to be the most important topic at 106 questions, closely followed by law and order at 96. Child Welfare continues to occupy an important space here at 86 questions.

Conclusion

The Ministry of Women and Child did not exist before January 2006. It was originally set up as a department under the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 1985. That it took 13 houses to set up a ministry dedicated to women, highlights the inadequacy of constructive discourse around women in the country’s policymaking.

Further, it is problematic that the ministry compiles both women and children under one ministry. This suggests that the archaic narrative in Indian politics about a woman’s primary role –as a mother, a wife, a caregiver, is still at large. While the mandate of this ministry says that, “… these efforts are directed to ensure that women are empowered both economically and socially and thus become equal partners in national development along with men”[xxii], the subject allocation that follows this mandate tells a different story. The first item on this subject list is ‘welfare of the family’ and pertinent issues such as the National Commission for Women, the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh and Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equity come much lower in the list. Several of the subject areas that do deal with women are concerned with nutrition and crimes such as trafficking and while these are important, women’s issues are only seen as either that of the family or that of crime, and not of equity and opportunity. For decades, feminist critiques have been commenting on the limited appreciation of women’s issues in light of family and marriage,[xxiii] but this conversation has evidently not percolated into the political discourse in India. While questions on economic growth and opportunity made up only 8.9% of the questions asked to this ministry, child welfare accounts for more than twice of that, with as much with 19.1% of the questions. Questions about children alone (1227 questions) make up more than the questions about both women and the girl child put together (890 questions).

Kind of Questions No. of Questions
All Questions 486(/2519)
Only Children 274(/1227)
Women in some capacity 212(/1282)
Only Women and Girl Child 116(/890)
Questions asked by women   86(/528)    

This focus on child welfare remains irrespective of how the data is classified, as seen in the table below.

Irrespective of the nature of the classification, the questions about child welfare make up an average of 17% of the questions.

More than 50% of the questions, irrespective of the classifications, are asked between BJP and Congress. The representatives from BJP seem to be asking more questions than the representatives from Congress, irrespective of classification, which seems counter-intuitive given Congress’s popular narrative[xxiv]. This would make for interesting future research.

Lastly, women make up around 11% of the house and ask around 12% of the questions regarding women’s issues. When such an analysis is done with other identity markers, the difference is starkly noted. Muslims, for example, make up 5% of the house but ask 20% of the questions with regards to Muslim issues.[xxv] This is also true for SC and ST representatives.[xxvi] This points towards literature that suggests that women don’t want to be seen as “only” women’s representatives[xxvii] but as representatives beyond their identity.

What is hence outlined is a concern vis-à-vis the core of an Indian woman’s identity. As equal citizens of this Republic, the constitution bears upon Indian women every one of the same rights that it bears upon the men, to pursue their social, economic and political goals. Therefore, it is critical that the representatives of this country and especially the representatives of Indian women, recognise this and legislate accordingly.


[i] Formalistic Representation: Institutional, formal representation for the represented, Symbolic Representation: The value that the representative holds for the represented, Descriptive Representation: How much a representative resembles those represented? [and] Substantive Representation: The activity of representatives—that is, the actions taken on behalf of, in the interest of, as an agent of, and as a substitute for the represented (Stanford Encyclopedia).

[ii] Bhogale, S. (2018), Text of questions raised in the Lok Sabha (1999 to 2018), TCPD [Forthcoming]

[iii] Bhogale, S. (2018), Text of questions raised in the Lok Sabha (1999 to 2018), TCPD [Forthcoming]

[iv] In the Indian imagination: heroic mother like Rani of Jhansi, a chaste wife like Rani Padmavati, or a celibate warrior like the God Kaali

[v] Banerjee, S. (2006). “Armed masculinity, Hindu nationalism and female political participation in India.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 8(1): 62-83.

[vi] Sarkar, Tanika, “Pragmatics of the Hindu Right: Politics of Women’s Organizations.”  Women’s Studies in India edited by Mary E John, Penguin Books.

[vii] Sarkar, Tanika, “Pragmatics of the Hindu Right: Politics of Women’s Organizations.”  Women’s Studies in India edited by Mary E John, Penguin Books.

[viii] Bhattacharya, Malini. On Being a Woman in Parliament, www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2511/stories/20080606251102600.htm.

[ix] Jacob, Suraj. “Gender and Legislative Performance in India.” Politics & Gender, vol. 10, no. 02, 2014, pp. 236–264., doi:10.1017/s1743923x14000051.

[x] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xi] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xii] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xiii] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xiv] Jacob, Suraj. “Gender and Legislative Performance in India.” Politics & Gender, vol. 10, no. 02, 2014, pp. 236–264., doi:10.1017/s1743923x14000051.

[xv] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xvi] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xvii] Menon, Nivedita, “The Elusive ‘Woman’: Feminism and the Women’s Reservation Bill.”  Women’s Studies in India edited by Mary E John, Penguin Books.

[xviii] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[xix] Jacob, Suraj. “Gender and Legislative Performance in India.” Politics & Gender, vol. 10, no. 02, 2014, pp. 236–264., doi:10.1017/s1743923x14000051.

[xx] See Harris, Gardiner. “Charges Filed Against 5 Over Rape in New Delhi.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2013/01/04/world/asia/murder-charges-filed-against-5-men-in-india-gang-rape.html?hp&_r=0.

[xxi] As previously mentioned, some questions are asked by more than one person

[xxii] “Ministry of Women & Child Development | GoI.” About the Ministry | Ministry of Women & Child Development | GoI, www.wcd.nic.in/about-us/about-ministry.

[xxiii] Satz, Debra, “Feminist Perspectives on Reproduction and the Family”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/feminism-family/

[xxiv] See PTI. “Women Empowerment Must for Country’s Development: Rahul Gandhi.” Https://Www.livemint.com/, Livemint, 28 Feb. 2014, www.livemint.com/Home-Page/bOvloajGWM6w6EBeOrTUaP/Women-empowerment-must-for-countrys-development-Rahul-Gand.html.

[xxv] Bhogale, S. (2018), Text of questions raised in the Lok Sabha (1999 to 2018), TCPD [Forthcoming]

[xxvi] Bhogale, S. (2018), Text of questions raised in the Lok Sabha (1999 to 2018), TCPD [Forthcoming]

[xxvii] Basu, Amrita, “Women, Dynasties and Democracy in India.” Democratic Dynasties: State, Party and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, Cambridge University Press, 2016.; Bhattacharya, Malini. On Being a Woman in Parliament, www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2511/stories/20080606251102600.htm.

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Latha Iyer

Really impressed by the amount of research done, Sukanya and the points you highlight here.. Especially alarming is how we seem to be doing on this and other development parameters vis -a-vis other Asian countries.
Look forward to hearing and reading more thought -provoking insights from you

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