Across India the representation of women in different legislative bodies remains alarmingly low, in fact only 14 percent of elected members to India’s national parliament are women.
Some barriers to women running for office, such as forms of illiteracy, work burdens within the household and discriminatory attitudes towards women are well known, but new research from the Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability at the Monash Business School has found there are significant financial and social barriers to women’s participation in India’s political system.
In fact, one substantial deterrent is a procedural rule that requires nominees to pay a monetary deposit to stand in elections, which is forfeited if they obtain less than one-sixth of the votes. The fee, which was designed to discourage non-serious contenders from clogging the ballot paper, instead widens the gender gaps in political candidature.
Monash University researchers Dr Umair Khalil and Dr Sundar Ponnusamy, along with their co-author Associate Professor Marco Faravelli, analysed state elections in India from 1977 to 2019 and studied whether deposit forfeiture is inadvertently contributing to perpetuating gender imbalance in the Indian political landscape.
“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 literally means deposit gone) is commonly used as a metaphor to indicate a debacle or extreme loss of face,” says Dr Ponnusamy.
“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.
Their analysis shows that female candidates who forfeit the deposit are profoundly impacted by this humiliation and are 60 per cent less likely to re-contest in the next election, while there is no impact on men at all. The authors believe it is already very challenging for women to stand for politics in India, but systemic barriers make the challenge even harder.
Theoretically, replacing 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 that SC/ST candidates pay, can ameliorate such a situation.
Female under-representation in politics is pervasive the world over; according to the United Nations only one in four parliamentarians worldwide are women, which has dramatic efficiency repercussions globally. For example, female participation in government has been linked to greater government spending on welfare and health care.
Encouragingly, at grassroots political level in India, women’s participation is building.
During the 2014 election, a total of 260.6 million women exercised their right to vote, and in 16 out of 29 states of India more women voted than men, but nominations to stand for office are still low.
“Even the presence of female role models, measured by past electoral winners or women who have managed to secure high vote share, does not seem to have the influence it should, perhaps because men have dominated the political arena in India for many years. There is much more work to be done to encourage women to run,” says Dr Khalil.
The authors believe a reform of the system is needed, focussed on reducing procedural barriers such as the nomination fee, adding that change needs to also come from male-dominated party leadership.
“We found that party leadership tends to stigmatise female failure more than male failure particularly in relation to the forfeiture of the nomination fee. Future policy reforms that are focussed on revisiting procedural barriers to political candidacy are a means of increasing female representation. Such policies can also have a wider relevance for other democracies around the world that implement similar rules, such as Australia,” says Dr Khalil.
Read the study here