India’s record in terms of representation of women in politics has been largely stagnant since 1999. Over the span of two decades, women’s representation in the Lok Sabha has increased from 8.4% in 1999 to merely 14.4% as of 2022.1 Additionally, India’s global position in terms of reservations for women in parliaments and party candidatures has declined over the years––according to the Women in National Parliaments Index2, India, which ranked 65th globally in 1999, fell sharply to the 147th position in 2021.
Despite being a part of the agenda of both the major national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC), the question of women’s reservation in parliament is repeatedly pushed back based on a “lack of consensus” between political parties. While initially the bill was criticised based on oversight of intersectionality, it could not be passed even after the 2008 version proposed 1/3rd reservation for women belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.3 In the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections, however, the INC made a strategic move of highlighting the issue of women’s under-representation in its agenda and consequently reserved 40% of tickets across seats for women candidates, indicating that parties are viewing discussions on women’s representation as significant for building political capital. 4
In this context, a key feature of women’s representation in India emerges: political dynasticism. In her essay Women, Dynasties, and Democracy in India, Amrita Basu, a political scientist at Amherst College, offers three possible reasons for dynasticism within sparsely represented women parliamentarians. Most important is the lack of reservation for women at the state and national levels. Second, the inherent sexism present in political parties and their organisational structures poses a hurdle for women without any prior political background or family backing to enter into active politics. To compound this is the fact that it is easier for women from families with political backgrounds to sustain themselves within the system because they are better shielded from the violence likely to be faced by women in the domain like slander, abuse and physical harassment.5
The World of Political Dynasties
It is observed that several women from political families enter politics as proxies with no prior political antecedents or experience when a male family member passes away––typically the father or husband––and there is no male heir present to contest elections. This is known as widow’s succession or widow’s mandate.6
When the topic of women in dynastic politics is broached, the names that feature prominently and come to mind, for instance, are the Nehru-Gandhi family––Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi; Kannimozhi Karunanidhi, daughter of M Karunanidhi, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for more than five terms and prominent figure in the state’s politics, and Supriya Sule, daughter of Sharad Pawar, the founder of the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra.
This article explores women’s representation in the states of West Bengal and Maharashtra to offer regional perspectives on political dynasticism.
From the Trivedi Centre for Data’s Women Politicians – Dynasties and Antecedents dataset, we find that between 2000 – 2021 in West Bengal and between 2000 – 2019 in Maharashtra, at least 9 out of 36 candidates and 5 out of 16 candidates respectively who had dynastic ties had contested elections based on the grounds of widow’s mandate. These candidates, political analysts argue, are fielded to ensure that the newly vacant seat stays within the party.
Runu Mete, the wife of late Gurupada Mete, for instance, contested as an All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) candidate from the Indus constituency after her husband’s sudden death during the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections.8 Deepa Dasmunshi, a former MLA in the 2006 West Bengal Assembly, went on to take on her husband’s political mantle by contesting and winning from the Raiganj Lok Sabha constituency after he fell into a coma in 2008.9
However, it must be noted that women wielding political power through family succession do not always imply political agency and will. In an area where women function as proxy candidates, not all take on the responsibility willingly, as in the case of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) MLA Sandhya Desai-Kuperkar, the wife of late Babasaheb Kupekar, who was the speaker of the Maharashtra assembly. She won the Chandgad seat during a by-election in 2014 but was reportedly reluctant to contest, conceding only when her husband’s followers threatened to revolt against the party if it chose to field anyone but her.10
Additionally, these women candidates eventually make way for other male members of the family to take up the position, as with Ranjana Kul, the wife of Subhashrao Kul, who represented the Daund constituency in Maharashtra from 1990 to 1999. Ranjana Kul contested elections from Daund in 2004 and won, but sources who would prefer not to be named during fieldwork carried out for this article confirmed that she had to vacate the seat when her son Rahul Kul was eligible to contest elections. Her nomination was also a result of pressure from supporters of Subhashrao Kul, who wanted the seat to remain within the Kul family.a
Even as women’s entry into politics is often shadowed by their familial connections to male politicians, there are also examples of women who use this as a stepping stone to carve a space for themselves as weathered and proficient politicians. In West Bengal, the Ghani Khan Chowdury family has held political ground since the 1950s. Chowdhury was a prominent Congress leader in Bengal who arranged for his sister Rubi Noor to contest assembly elections from the Sujapur seat in the Malda district. Noor held the seat for four terms from 1991 until her death in 2008, after which her daughter Mausam Noor took on the mantle.7
Rubi Noor in West Bengal went on to be a politician in her own right, paving the way for the next generation of her family to follow in her footsteps in Malda’s politics.11 Similarly, Madhuri Misal, the incumbent BJP MLA from Parvati constituency in Maharashtra, entered politics when her husband, BJP corporator Satish Misal, was shot dead in 2003. After serving as a corporator from 2007 to 2012, Misal has been Parvati’s representative in the Legislative Assembly since 2009. To add to her growth trajectory, in 2019, she was appointed as the chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ( BJP) Pune unit, becoming the first woman to hold that position.12
This article is a preliminary overview of the phenomenon of women’s representation in terms of political dynasticism at the regional level. While this form of succession thrusts female candidates without prior political experience into the domain and threatens democratic principles and efficiency in governance, it also paves the way for women candidates to establish their careers at the local, regional and national levels on their own might. Basu remarks that while it is too early to determine the impact of dynasticism on political outcomes, it does serve as a means for women to enter politics. Moreover, dynasticism is enabled because of the unaddressed flaws of India’s current political system, including structural biases against minorities, the power of a candidate’s wealth to influence political success, high levels of electoral violence, corruption and so forth.5
The Women Politicians: Dynasties and Antecedents dataset, from which preliminary insights were drawn for the framing of this article, aims to further the inquiry into women’s representation in the context of political dynasticism while contributing to the larger discourse on female political representation and seeks to present a more nuanced understanding of the nature of women’s participation, agency, and future in Indian politics.
1 “Political Career Tracker for Candidates in Indian National and State Assembly Elections”, Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University.
2 Inter-Parliamentary Union: Monthly ranking of women in national parliaments, November 2021
3 GOVERNMENT OF INDIA MINISTRY OF LAW AND JUSTICE. 2019. Women’s Reservation Bill: Kanimozhi Karunanidhi. http://loksabhaph.nic.in/Questions/QResult15.aspx?qref=10398&lsno=17.
4 Seth, Maulshree. 2021. “Congress to reserve 40% tickets for women in UP polls, says Priyanka.” The Indian Express, October 20, 2021. https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/lucknow/congress-to-reserve-40-party-tickets-for-women-in-2022-uttar-pradesh-polls-7579824/.
5 Basu, Amrita. 2016. “Women, dynasties, and democracy in India.” In Democratic Dynasties: State, Party, and Family in Contemporary Indian Politics, edited by Kanchan Chandra, 136-172. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 10.1017/CBO9781316402221.006.
6 Ingraham, Christopher. 2014. “Interactive: When women inherit their husbands’ Congressional seats.” The Washington Post, March 18, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/03/18/when-women-inherit-their-husbands-congressional-seats/.
7 Dasgupta, Partha. 2011. “Mausam Noor: Daughter of the East – Cover Story News – Issue Date: Sep 26, 2011.” India Today, September 17, 2011. https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/cover-story/story/20110926-india-today-youth-special-mausam-noor-daughter-of-the-east-747694-2011-09-17.
8 Mint. 2020. “Tmc Mla Gurupada Mete Dies After Testing Positive For Coronavirus.” Mint, October 1, 2020. https://www.livemint.com/news/india/tmc-mla-gurupada-mete-dies-after-testing-positive-for-coronavirus-11601563260776.html.
9 Express Web Desk. 2017. “Who was Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi? | India News.” The Indian Express, November 20, 2017. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/who-was-priya-ranjan-dasmunsi-late-congress-leader-4946083/
10 FPJ Bureau. 2019. “Kupekar family infighting adds to NCP’s woes.” Free Press Journal, June 1, 2019. https://www.freepressjournal.in/mumbai/kupekar-family-infighting-adds-to-ncps-woes.
11 Bagchi, Suvojit. 2019. “The Ghani Khan Chowdhury legacy and Malda.” The Hindu, April 21, 2019. https://www.thehindu.com/elections/lok-sabha-2019/the-ghani-khan-chowdhury-legacy-and-malda/article26901546.ece. 12 Express News Service. 2019. “Madhuri Misal first woman to head BJP’s Pune unit.” The Indian Express, August 20, 2019. https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/pune/madhuri-misal-first-woman-to-head-bjps-pune-unit-5919269/.
a.Interview with a close relative of the Kul family, January 12, 2022.
About the Author
Madhushree works as a part-time Research Associate at Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Her research interests lie in the intersections of labour, education and participatory development.
Ritisha was a part-time Research Associate at Trivedi Centre for Political Data. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Development Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
This article wouldn’t have been possible without the guidance and support of our supervisor, Ishika Sharan. Thank you to Aishwarya Sunaad for being such a patient and encouraging editor. We’d also like to thank the Trivedi Centre for Political Data team for their important work towards making political data publicly accessible.