Insights and Analysis

Women Take the Lead in India’s State Assembly Elections

June 1, 2011

By Mandakini Devasher Surie

India was gripped by election fever this spring as voting kicked off in the states of Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and West Bengal. After months of suspense and conjecture, the results are finally in. In West Bengal, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee defeated 34 years of Communist rule to become the first ever female chief minister in the state.

Indian woman

Despite impressive gains in the political arena, women in India continue to face numerous challenges and threats that prevent them from claiming their rights and seizing opportunities. Photo by Karl Grobl.

Meanwhile, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, former actress and politician Jayalalitha swept the polls to defeat the incumbent DMK government. Although political analysts and watchers had predicted these results, the rise of long-time women leaders to prominent positions in government has drawn international attention and generated considerable debate in India.

Banerjee and Jayalalitha are not anomalies, but part of a growing number of women leaders in the upper ranks of Indian politics. In New Delhi, Chief Minister Sheila Dixit has won three successive terms in government on an agenda of growth and development. Meanwhile, in poverty stricken Uttar Pradesh, Dalit leader and icon Mayawati is a political force to be reckoned with, and also a source of inspiration to Dalits (so-called “untouchables”) across the country. There are also prominent women leaders at the national level. Pratibha Patil currently serves as India’s first female president, while in Parliament, the speaker of the Lok Sabha (lower house), Meira Kumar, and leader of the opposition, Sushma Swaraj, are also women. Last but not least, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi has transformed the political fortunes of the Congress party and was recently listed by Forbes magazine as the ninth most powerful leader in the world.

In the rough and tumble theatre of Indian politics, personality is critical and women such as Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalitha, Mayawati, and Sheila Dixit have successfully carved niches for themselves as credible political leaders. They are singular, ambitious women who have put their own unique stamp on politics. A student leader from a young age, Mamata Banerjee is known for her austere and simple lifestyle. Jayalalitha, a former Tamil movie star with a fanatical fan following, is as well known for her saris as her politics. Daughter of a government clerk and India’s first Dalit chief minister, Mayawati is notorious for using public funds to construct self-aggrandizing statues across Uttar Pradesh. Sheila Dixit, a veteran of the Congress Party, comes from an affluent and political family. Despite their differences and idiosyncrasies, these strong and often controversial women leaders are giving their male counterparts a run for their money. Moreover, their rise to important positions is significant given the many difficulties Indian women still have to overcome.

Women here continue to face numerous challenges and threats that prevent them from claiming their rights and seizing opportunities. Patriarchal attitudes, early marriages, low levels of literacy, and lack of access to healthcare prevent many women from entering the work force, let alone participating meaningfully in the political sphere. Moreover, women continue to face threats to their security from female infanticide, domestic violence, rape, abuse, and so called “dowry deaths.” A recent study published in The Lancet estimates that 12 million girls were aborted in India over the last 30 years. While there are signs of change, particularly in urban areas, it’s also clear that there has been much less progress in rural areas.

The government introduced reforms in the 1990s that reserved 33 percent of seats for women in urban and rural local bodies. Since reforms were introduced, the number of women in local government has increased significantly. In 2008, the government estimated there were over 1 million elected women representatives at the local level. Research suggests that once in power, women affect resource allocation and development in important ways. Specifically, they tend to focus on addressing the needs of other women, families, and communities, whether this means investing in more water, nutrition centers, or children’s education.

Nationally, the percentage of women representatives in parliament is still quite small: 11 percent of the Lower House of Parliament – but this is the highest women’s representation has been since independence (59 women MPs out of a total of 543). Despite these low numbers, there has been progress. In 2010, the government committed to providing 33 percent reservations for women in parliament and in state legislatures. The Women’s Reservation Bill, approved by the Upper House of Parliament, has faced stiff opposition and is currently stalled in the Lower House of Parliament. If passed, the bill could have game-changing effects, bringing substantially more women into politics.

India still has a long way to go in terms of securing equal rights for women in the social, economic, and political spheres, but these women politicians offer a glimpse of a better future. Historian and political analyst, Ramachandra Guha, sums things up nicely: “Whatever the reasons for their rise – personal (their courage and drive), historical (the impact of generations of reformers), or political (the advent of universal adult franchise, where a woman’s vote equals a man’s) – and whatever its consequences, the phenomenon itself is noteworthy, and merits an appreciation, however qualified.”

Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s program officer in India. She can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

Related locations: India, Washington DC
Related programs: Economic Opportunity, Elections, Empower Women


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