Women and Politics in India

A team of Monash University researchers analyse the barriers women face to entering politics in India.

Across India, the representation of women in different legislative bodies remains alarmingly low; only fourteen per cent of elected members in the national parliament of India are women. Monash University researchers’ Dr Umair Khalil and Dr Sundar Ponnusamy and their co-author Associate Professor Marco Faravelli analysed state elections in India from 1977 to 2019. They studied whether deposit forfeiture inadvertently contributes to bolstering gender imbalance in the Indian political landscape.

Stock image for representation purposes only

We at G’day India and the Indian Weekly often tackle ‘politics’ as news. When researchers in Australia analyse the systematic discrimination attitudes, illiteracy, and work burdens within the household towards women are some of the barriers for women running for office. We got an opportunity to speak with Monash University researchers Dr Umair Khalil and Dr Sundar Ponnusamy, further on this issue.

Female under-representation in politics is pervasive throughout the world, but in a billion-people democracy in India, do you think this theory can help solve the equation?

Of course, no single policy change will be sufficient to solve the issue of female under-representation in politics. We have to proceed step by step in tackling this critical issue. We do not even fully understand all the barriers and impediments that restrict the entry of women into politics. Our research has provided a window into a previously unexplored wall that has discouraged female politicians: the requirement of monetary deposits to contest elections. These are particularly frustrating for women but not men and reduce the re-contesting rates of only female candidates. In the long run, this reduces the opportunities for women to gain crucial experience in the political arena and hence contributes to perpetuating gender gaps in politics.

Female role models can bring a change in the patriarchal society, but how much will this influence the actual election?

Our paper shows that having female role models does little to reduce the discouraging impact on female candidates of losing the security deposit. So, in essence, you are correct that it seems to matter less in this particular setting. Our best explanation is that male-dominated party leadership contributes to the unfortunate effect that we document, arguably, by restricting party tickets to female deposit forfeiters but not to male ones. However, as more women rise to the top in politics and take on significant leadership positions, it will likely alleviate the situation.

Do you think writing this paper influences a reform, and how assured you are of this being?

It is a difficult question. As academic researchers, we have tried our best to provide compelling and sound evidence, based on real-world data, about an essential question of social and policy significance. We hope that it starts a conversation in this regard, and as we expand our research into this phenomenon and dig even deeper, we hope that it can help institute policy change.

What made you choose this subject?

Dr Ponnusamy grew up in Tamil Nadu and was well aware of the phrase `deposit gaali’, which, although referred to as losing one’s electoral deposit, had become synonymous with total and abject failure in general. That’s how we started thinking about this issue and wanted to explore whether this phenomenon can have different impacts on the response of men and women in the political arena in India.

“Forfeiture is universally regarded as a humiliating defeat in Indian society. The link between electoral deposit forfeiture and failure is so embedded in Indian culture that the Tamil phrase ‘deposit gaali’ (which means deposit gone) is commonly used as a metaphor to indicate a failure or extreme loss of face,” says Dr Ponnusamy.

Some barriers to women running for office, like illiteracy, work burdens within the household, and discriminatory attitudes towards women, are well known. Still, new research from the Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability at the Monash Business School has found significant ‘financial and social barriers to women’s participation in India’s political system.

One considerable discouragement is a procedural rule requiring nominees to pay a monetary deposit to stand in elections, forfeited if they obtain less than one-sixth of the votes. The fee is designed to disincentive non-serious contenders from obstructing the ballot paper and instead widens the gender gaps in political campaigning for candidates.

Their analysis shows that female candidates who forfeit the deposit are profoundly humiliated and are sixty per cent less likely to re-contest in the next election. On the other hand, there is no impact on men at all. The authors believe it is already very challenging for women to stand in a patriarch India for politics, but systemic barriers make it even more difficult for women in India.

“Indian media pays plenty of attention to this phenomenon and regularly reports the names of the deposit forfeiters, exposing them to the public. Forfeiters are generally mocked and ridiculed by their opponents,” says Dr Khalil.

‘They found that the stigma associated with that fee – and the potential forfeiture of it should the candidate fail to obtain one-sixth of the vote, is a major deterrent to women putting their hands up to run, and embeds a very deep gender divide into Indian society’

Theoretically, if India can replace the recoverable deposit with a non-refundable fee for all candidates can reduce or entirely remove the humiliation induced by losing the deposit. However, this can increase monetary costs, particularly for women, who are already financially marginalised.

The academics suggest a reduced fee for women candidates, similar to the one SC/ST candidates pay, can improve such a situation.

Encouragingly, at the grassroots political level in India, women’s participation is building.

During the 2014 election, 260.6 million women exercised their right to vote, and in sixteen out of twenty-nine states of India, more women voted than men, but nominations to stand for office are still low.

The authors believe reform of the system is needed, focusing on reducing procedural barriers such as the nomination fee, adding that change needs to also come from male-dominated party leadership. Their paper will be published in the Economic Journal in the coming weeks.

The paper finds that there is one substantial deterrent to women’s participation, a procedural rule which requires candidates to pay a forfeitable fee or monetary deposit to stand in elections

We at G’day India and the Indian Weekly are hoping and waiting to see these changes happen in India. There is a better world of politics for women who are not marginalised but equal at home, office, and politics.

(GDI Team & Media Release)