Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.
Brookings India, in collaboration with the University of Chicago’s Center in Delhi, hosted two panels to discuss some of the most profound challenges impeding India’s democratic institutions and processes – the absence of women and the continued presence of criminals in politics. The discussion served as a forum to bring together researchers, journalists, political commentators, and politicians, and was therefore able to look at these issues from a variety of perspectives. A common theme that emerged from the discussions was that electoral reforms need to be complemented by investments in more basic institutions and public utilities, to address the root causes of these issues.
The first panel was based on the research of Brookings India Fellow Shamika Ravi, and Milan Vaishnav, Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. While Ravi presented her findings on the changing trends in women voters and candidates, Vaishnav shared his research on the nexus of corruption, criminality, and Indian politics. They were joined by Suhasini Haider, Foreign Affairs Editor, CNN-IBN, and Anchor of Power of 49, a programme promoting women’s participation in the electoral process, and Jagdeep Chhokar, Founder and Trustee, Association for Democratic reforms, to comment on these findings.
The second panel comprised Nirmala Sitharaman, National Spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Sanjay Jha, National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress, who discussed how their parties were responding to these challenges. Economist and Senior Fellow, Delhi Policy Group, Devaki Jain, and Associate Editor of the Business Standard, Mihir Sharma, served as discussants.
Including the Excluded: Women in Politics
Changing Dynamics of Women Voters:
Ravi’s research pointed out that there has been a significant increase in women voters – from 715 per 1000 male voters (in the 1960s) to 883 per 1000 (in the 2000s) – across all Indian states, including those that have traditionally been regarded as socially backward. Additionally, panelists noted that in the past few years, each time women have come out to vote in significant numbers, there has been a decisive verdict, with the margin of victory very clearly in favor of the candidate that was tipped to win. This has been observed in states such as Bihar, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, and Rajasthan.
However, the increases in the number of women voters notwithstanding, at least 20% of the female electorate – or 65 million women – is still missing from the electoral rolls. This absence of women from electoral rolls also points to a more profound concern that women are missing from the population as a whole.
Absence of a Female Constituency:
Stratified by caste, class, location, literacy, and economic status, women voters in India have been unable to come together to form a “vote bank,” and consequently, there is no understanding of a woman’s “agenda.” The space reserved for women’s issues in political party manifestos is severely limited, and while we speak about caste, religion, and minorities as constituencies, women are not seen the same way. A panelist pointed out that women leaders in politics are hesitant about representing women’s issues because of the fear of being marginalized and pigeonholed by their identities.
However, panelists did note that there has been a change post December 16, 2012, in that there is now greater solidarity among women from different strata of society. As seen in the Delhi State Assembly elections, political parties too have begun taking up women’s issues more than they have in the past.
Need for Women’s Reservations:
Ravi’s research demonstrated that women are more likely to contest in socially backward states than they are in socially advanced states, where they already have the ability to voice their choices by virtue of their larger presence in the electorate. However, they have a lower chance of winning in the socially backward states as the sex ratio is skewed against them. Consequently, there is a comprehensive absence of women political leaders across the country.
This makes external shocks such as the reservation of seats necessary. However, if the logic for the reservations is compensatory justice, then they cannot be randomly implemented for constituencies across the country, but instead, need to be targeted to those areas where the gender ratios are the worst.
Other panelists agreed with the need for reservations to provide an external shock to the status quo. Mrs. Sitharaman explained that the BJP’s internal reservations for women had a very positive impact on women members of the party, including herself. Additionally, panelists also noted that even just the debate on the Women’s Reservation Bill had positive externalities, with parties such as the Trinamool Congress putting up more women candidates.
But Reservations won’t solve the problem:
Reservations, by themselves, will be unable to resolve to the larger issues that impede women’s political participation. Despite reservations, women’s preferences will not be adequately represented in the constituency because the average voter is male. At the voter level, at least 20% of the female electorate – or 65 million women – is missing from electoral rolls, implying that election outcomes reflect the will of a population that is artificially skewed against women. This, however, is much more than a “registration problem,” and women are not just “missing” from the electorate, but also from the broader population, reflecting a gross neglect of women in all age-groups in the population. This issue is much more fundamental and calls for reforms in more basic issues affecting women and skewing the sex ratio of the population against them – healthcare, sanitation, public safety, and education. Eventually, a panelist noted that the ongoing debates on the Women’s Reservation Bill should not take away from a discourse on these more significant issues.
Excluding the Included: Criminality and Indian Politics
Voters Choose to Vote in Criminals:
Vaishnav’s research focused on the presence of criminals in politics and highlighted that candidates with criminal backgrounds thrive because voters vote for them. He pointed out that among candidates for the Lok Sabha, those with at least one case against them are three times more likely to win than those with no case against them. In addition, there is also a positive correlation between severity of criminal charges and electoral success.
The success of criminals does not stem from either the absence of information or from coercion, but from the impression that such candidates can use their criminal background and offer protection – protection of the voters’ caste, religion, or position in society. Panelists also explained that candidates with criminal records do not only provide protection, but also represent the power to get things done, not just through the State, but also through intimidation. Eventually voters need someone who can lean on either the state or a private party, in the course of exercising their power.
The Buck Stops with Political Parties:
While voters choose to elect criminal candidates, a panelist pointed out that this was because their choice was pre-constrained by the choice made by political parties to nominate such candidates in the first place. Vaishnav explained how the increase in candidates with criminal backgrounds was related to the increasingly competitive nature of Indian politics. The margin of victory in Indian elections is just 9%, and these elections are perhaps the most costly in the world. As a consequence, parties, with limited coffers and motivated by rent, want candidates who can contribute to the party apparatus, and easily raise funds for themselves and others. Candidate wealth and electoral success, he noted, are correlated.
Both party spokespersons however explained that there was greater room for optimism and urged against the cynicism towards political parties, explaining that some changes are societal and shouldn’t be rushed or the outcomes wouldn’t be sustainable. However, even they agreed that criminality stems from the competitive nature of electoral politics, and some electoral reforms are necessary.
Need for Election Reforms:
Based on the above discussion about the motivation for political parties to nominate criminal candidates, panelists accentuated the need for electoral reforms, particularly in the area of campaign financing. At least a dozen government commissions have recognized the need for a new election finance regime since 1966, but very little action has actually been taken in this regard. Independent third-party audits of party finances are required to facilitate greater transparency on how candidates and parties fund elections. Currently, per election commission requirements, parties only need to provide details for transactions above ₹20,000, which causes transactions for any amount under this amount to go unreported.
The Election Commission’s powers are also severely curtailed in various areas – for one, while they can register political parties, there is no legal mechanism in the country that allows the deregistering of a political party. In addition, the Election Commission should also have the power to intervene in scenarios where there might be false and misleading affidavits and disclosures.
Addressing basic institutional lacunae:
Panelists agreed that while electoral and party finance reforms are urgent, these still won’t address the root cause of the problem – that voters find value in electing criminal candidates. For this, the institutional gaps that voters try to fill by electing criminal candidates need to be ameliorated. Consequently, a restructuring of the civil administration and judicial infrastructure is needed. India faces severe police shortfalls, and while the Supreme Court passed a judgment for police reforms nine years ago, these have not been implemented. Eventually, the success of criminal candidates is positively correlated with the voters’ expectations of the State. The creation of public goods is a basic responsibility of the State, and should not require the intervention of pressure or political force.