The record of Indian women in politics is often cited in rebuttal to accounts and reports that dwell on the subordination of women. Indian women can vote and stand for election to all provincial and central bodies. Women have been ministers, ambassadors and, most notably, the Prime Minister. While the extent of their involvement falls far short of the equality promised by the Constitution of India
it is significant in comparison with other countries of the world.
Women vote in approximately the same proportion as men. Analysts argue that most women follow the lead of male family members, but a few surveys suggest that women are increasingly interested in political power and vote independently. The number of women elected to the assemblies often seems larger than it is because of the personalities involved. The first assembly had very few women, about 2 percent, but included Masuma Begum who later became the Minister of Social Welfare and deputy leader of the Congress Party; Renuka Ray
, a veteran social worker; Durgabai (later Durgabai Deshmukh
), a well-known Gandhian and, after Independence, chair of the Central Social Welfare Board and Radhabai Subbarayan, appointed delegate to the first Round Table Conference. Accounts from the time suggest that men in the assembly listened carefully to their speeches.
In the following elections, the return was somewhat better and women consistently held 4-5 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha
(the lower house of India`s parliament) until the 1980s when their numbers increased to 7-8 percent. In the less powerful Rajya Sabha
(the upper house of parliament), where members are elected by their state assemblies and nominated by the Indian President
, women have held between 7 percent and 10 percent of the places. The number of elected women compares favourably with other countries.
What is worthy of attention is the striking number of women who have held responsible positions. For example, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur became Union Health Minister in 1947; Renuka Ray was West Bengal
`s Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation; and Sucheta Kriplani
was general secretary of the Congress in 1959, Labour Minister in the Uttar Pradesh
Cabinet in 1962, and Chief Minister of United Province from 1963 to 1967. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit
was appointed Uttar Pradesh`s Minister for Health and Local Self-Government m 1937 and following Independence was selected as a delegate to the United Nations. In 1947 she was appointed ambassador to the erstwhile USSR and in 1949 ambassador to the USA. In 1953 she was elected president of the United Nations General Assembly. This is only a short list of the women who have wielded power and influence in post-Independence India.
Examined next to other nations, India`s record of women in polities is impressive. However, it is not remarkable from a historical perspective. The politics of agitation brought women into all aspects of the freedom movement where they demonstrated their bravery. Following Independence these women found it difficult to make the transition from the politics of agitation to electoral politics.
Problems in the way of women in Politics
First, there has been the problem of party backing. The political parties all give lip service to the ideal of women in politics but have been reluctant to gamble with seats.
Second, woman candidates have disliked the rough and tumble of political life. While many expressed a willingness to put up with the hardships of a political campaign, they have not been able to change social attitudes about women`s proper place. Those women who accepted the challenge have had to endure sexual harassment and sordid gossip. Many women found themselves agreeing with Anutayi Limayi, former member of the Executive Board of the Prajya Socialist Party, who expressed her dislike for the political process and preference for the gentler arena of social welfare work.
The third problem women in politics face are related to their representation as both "feminine" and "unfeminine". Indian news media never fail to notice a woman politician, but much of the attention focuses on either their performance of traditional roles and dress, appearance, and style or on their masculine traits. In some instances - and Mrs. Indira Gandhi
is a case in point - political women become icons - dressed in the garb of a powerful goddess or the heroic Lakshmi Bai
, the Rani of Jhansi. But there is little room for either goddesses or warrior queens in day-to-day political life and women politicians must perform like their male colleagues. Like men, women must do battle for the bills they want passed and the constituencies they serve. In short, they must learn the games of power.
The situations and urgency of political life prevent concentrating only on issues of interest to women or approaching all issues from a feminist perspective. Nevertheless, women in political positions are highly visual and may serve as models of empowered women. Women have proved to be extremely effective politicians and the degree of their success can be understood by examining their individual careers. Indira Gandhi may have owed her ascent to power to dynastic politics but she was certainly an effective politician.
Increasingly today the political field is seen being controlled by women and there is a seen a constantly increasing rise in the participation of women in politics.