13 September 2021 | 2 min read
In this column, we use recently collected data on women contestants to the Assam 2021 election to bring some perspective on their representation.
The first observation is that in 2021, the number of women elected was significantly lower than in previous years. Only six women won out of 76 contestants, against 120 male winners, out of 872 male candidates. Over the past three elections, the number of women MLAs has reduced by more than half (from 14 to 6), and so did the women candidates’ strike rate (Fig.1).
Table 1: Women performance in three Assam State Elections (2011-2016)
|Year||Total Women Contesting||Total Women Elected||Women contestants’ Strike Rate|
Source: TCPD – Indian Legislators and Candidates Dataset (TCPD-ILCD)
While the number of women MLAs went down, the total number of women candidates varied but not by much. More women contested in 2016, although not on major party tickets. The decline in strike rate comes from the fact that more women ran on non-major party tickets, a pathway towards defeat (not a single woman contesting a non-major party ticket has ever won a seat in Assam). At the same time, major parties gave fewer tickets to women candidates altogether.
Women’s engagement in the public sphere
The low presence of women in the state assembly does not do justice to the involvement of women in Assam’s politics. From pre-Independence, women have played a pivotal role in protests, demonstrations, campaigns and voting, among other forms of political participation. For example, Assamese women came out in support of the Civil Disobedience Movement in such large numbers that Assamese historian Benudhar Sarma described it as the women’s movement. Post 1947, this participation in mass movements has only continued to grow, however, the role of women of Assam in electoral politics has not been nearly as impressive.
During the 1975 Assam Agitation movement, millions of Assamese women came out on
the street and participated in the mobilization picketing, by breaking curfew, protesting black out, hunger strike, demonstrations, and so forth. Women created their own separate organizations to further the cause like ‘Mula Gabharu Sangha’ to make the agitation a success. The numerous Mahila Samiti (Women’s Association) that came up during the agitation contributed money. Other groups like the Assam Mahila Sangha (the Assam Women’s Club) and the Assam Women Writers Association contributed support.
Yet, despite their involvement, women were essentially excluded from the negotiations that led to the signing of the Assam Accords in 1985. The leaders of the autonomist movement went on to form the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and contested the 8th Lok Sabha General Elections of 1985. They nominated only four women candidates. All four – Chinu Rani Roy, Janaki Gour, Lhingzaneng, and, Bucy Gogio lost their deposit.
Jumping to the present, the heart of the anti-CAA protests in Assam, like in other parts of the country, was composed of women, from college students to businesswomen to actresses and housewives. Two new parties emerged from that period of mobilization: the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal (RD). Both of them contested the 2021 election. During the campaign, a representative of the RD declared that “Our main objective is to take strong action against CAA and to oppose the BJP, who brought the CAA, in all ways possible”. Both parties stood for a movement that gained a lot of its traction due to women participation, yet the AJP fielded only 9 women out of 82 candidates on their party ticket.
Why do we see such a gap in participation in social movements and party politics? And why does this gap persist through time? While both social movements and elections provide the scope for participation, why do women actively participate more in one activity than the other?
The main reason lies, as always, with the unwillingness of major parties to make space to women candidates. Arguably, the large involvement of women in social and political movements should stem political ambitions, that cannot be pursued due to the lack of space created for women by male-dominated parties. It is also possible that given this obstacle, women view participation in social movements as a more effective form of political participation, than electoral politics.
Political Capital (and capital) Required
To run for elections, “the system is such that you need a good amount of funds, and if you are not sure you have support, you won’t take the risk”, remarked a woman from the Sixth Schedule district of Assam, interviewed by Åshild Kolås, a social anthropologist and Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO).
Political parties do not provide specific support to women candidates. “The trend in Assam is similar to the rest of the country when it comes to parties’ decisions on women candidates for elections. It is never on a woman’s capabilities but on compassionate ground, like one saw in the case of Ajanta Neog of Congress, to whom the party gave a ticket when her husband and party leader Nagen Neog was shot dead by United Liberation Front of Assam. The party hoped to get sympathy votes through her. Then, you see someone’s wife or daughter getting a party ticket. This is based on keeping the legacy of a leader going,” says Junu Bora, a Guwahati-based columnist and the vice president of the All India Progressive Women’s Association’s Assam chapter, in an interview given to Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty.
In a state such as Assam, political selection is often based on a candidate’s dynastic credentials, or on the connections they possess within parties. The six women elected in the 2021 Assam assembly have all both prior experience and political family connections. Only two of them are first-time MLAs. The four others contested as incumbent MLAs. These four MLAs, namely Renupoma Rajkhowa, Sibamoni Bora, Ajanta Neog and Suman Haripriya, have relatives or husbands involved in politics, some of them at the ministerial level. Suman Haripriya and Ajanta Neog both belong to the BJP, whereas Renupoma Rajkhowa and Sibamoni Bora belong respectively to the AGP and Congress. Clearly, the importance of family ties transcends parties.
Additionally, the only two women who didn’t have familial connections, occupied organisational roles such as Nandita Garlosa, President of Bharatiya Janata Mahila Morcha (BJMM) of Dima Hasao District and Nandita Das who was already an incumbent MLA.
Lack of Organizational Equality
Besides the basis on which political parties hand out tickets, women are also under-represented in party organizations. The BJP has 36 district committees and not a single one is headed by a woman. Of the seven vice presidents, only two are women; four out of the nine secretaries are women. Of the 12 spokespersons, only three are women. Somehow, the management structure is worse in Congress. Only four of the 15 state vice presidents are women; three of the 17 general secretaries are women; and just 14 of the 67 secretaries are women.
It becomes increasingly hard for a woman who has successfully participated in a social movement to transition into politics due to the lack of organizational positions open to her and the impossibility of securing a party ticket without connections. It is therefore not surprising that women can thrive more in social movements, which do not impose these kinds of obstacles with the same systematicity.
For example, with the Bodo Movement in 1987, many Bodo women took part in the protest marches, sit-ins, rallies, cultural vigils and silent marches. These women were strategically wearing the indigenous dress of the Bodo people and it soon became a visual point to draw attention to the ethnic identity of the Bodo people. Often, women would be standing in the frontlines to protect their male counterparts from law enforcement. Their gender helped to lend a sympathetic picture to the movement as a whole. Women played the roles of caretakers, messengers, provided food and hideouts to activists and armed rebels at the critical period of the movement.
As such, the social movement sphere has lower entry barriers. All these forms of protest do not require social or financial capital and can be brought into more easily as compared to receiving a ticket from a party, much less actually winning an election. Additionally, even voting requires less investment from these politically aware women. In 2016 assembly polls 84.81% of female voters cast their votes and outnumbered the turnout registered by the male voters. The electoral rolfor 2021 also had 1,13,55,79 female voters which is 49.30% of the total electorate size. In terms of the gender ratio, the state has 972 female voters to every thousand male voters which is above the average in India.
Thus, political activities like social movements and voting are within the grasp of women whereas the activity of contesting an election, due to the political capital it requires, is more difficult to achieve. The transition from one to the other can then only happen when parties themselves actively champion women into positions of power and do not give tickets to women as a result of who their relatives are.
Niharika Mehrotra is a third-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She is pursuing Political Science, International Relations and Psychology.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Professor Gilles Verniers for helping in editing the content and Professor Maya Mirchandani for helping pinpoint the direction this article should take. I also would like to thank Avishek Jha and Ananay Agarwal for their continued help.