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Women's Representation:A Social History

A Constituency Suitable for Ladies and Other Social Histories of Indian Elections by Wendy Singer;


Women’s Representation:A Social History

A Constituency Suitable for Ladies and Other Social Histories of Indian Elections

by Wendy Singer; OUP, Delhi, 2007; pp 246, Rs 575.


n the 1978 post-Emergency election, among the posters with stenciled drawings of a farmer and plough, the symbol of the Janata Party, and the corresponding Congress graffiti of “Support Indira Gandhi – Vote Cow and Calf of the Congress Party”, also with a stenciled drawing, were the Election Commission posters exhorting the voter to vote without fear. Widely displayed all over India, the official poster produced by the Election Commission stated, “vote without fear – your vote is important”, and had a distinct anti-government ring [Weiner 1978: 25-28]. While the outcome of the 1978 election indeed turned out to be a fearless popular indictment and rejection of an authoritarian regime, at a deeper level, the entire process also manifested people’s faith in the electoral system, through which the citizen-voters could register their protest. Moreover, the fact that successive governments have complied with electoral verdicts, and the 1978 verdict was no exception, was a re affirmation of the virtues of electoral participation for democracy.

Electoral Trial

Wendy Singer’s book, which as the title of the book indicates, incorporates social histories of election in India, tells us that an electoral verdict is not only about the people’s exercise of choice through an act of voting to reject or consent to particular regimes in an “electoral trial”. It is also embedded in a protracted and continuing contest over issues of design and access, both of which are crucial in modern representative democracies which are continually grappling with the ways and means by which the mediated/representative form of democracy may best emulate its pure/direct form. The contests over design and access which are basically concerned with issues of equality in representation, particularly in relationship to social groups, were a constant feature of debates on the rules framing the electoral system in the constituent assembly. The contests were also evident in the manner in which political participation was being envisaged in the national liberation struggle and in the experience with colonial governmentality in the course of the gradual progression towards selfgovernment, in particular the election to the provincial assemblies held in 1937 under the provisions of the Government of India Act of 1935.

Theoretically and historically, the relationship between representation and participation has been addressed in two divergent ways, each having a special resonance for women and their relationship with politics. The universalist framework looks at representation and participation as part of an inclusive model, wherein an articulated public sphere constituted through deliberation, provides the institutional and socio-cultural space within which the various components of political action take shape. On the other hand, the proportionality or group-specific approach sees representation and participation as distinctive, but rejects the elevation of participatory democracy as the only “real” form of democracy. The primary purpose of this approach, therefore, is not to devise ways by which representative democracy could as closely as possible replicate participatory democracy, but rather to give centrality to patterns of exclusion and the corresponding concerns around access.

Effective Representation

The question of effective representation of specific groups, women in particular, and the terms of their inclusion – as voters and representatives – has raised animated debates on issues of equality and the practice of democracy. In this book Wendy Singer examines the contentious issues of representation, exclusion and access, by “studying the emergence of ‘women’ as an ‘election category’”. Singer traces the historical trajectory of the evolution of this category, the debates surrounding it, and the various contending strands that framed the contours of this category which assumed different forms depending on the specific ideological and historical context within which it was articulated.

Spread over six chapters and a conclusion that looks at the Women’s Bill, the book unravels the historical and ideological layers that constituted the special category of women in elections. It is interesting how diverse ideological formulations come into play in the course of articulating women as a “special category” in electoral politics and electoral rules, machinery and design, starting with the provincial election of 1937 and through the debates surrounding the Women’s Reservation Bill from the 1990s. Ranging from the “social feminism” which emphasised women’s difference and the special contribution that women would make to the political domain to a steadfast adherence to a politics of presence stressing the importance of women in public/political/decision-making bodies in a “critical mass”, interspersed by strands that hold that the arena of electoral politics is not where women’s politics is being articulated, the category “women” appears in the debates as uneven and unstable, its contours always in a state of flux. Yet, irrespective of the terms of women’s access to the electoral arena and the significance of the electoral arena to a particular women’s movement, the struggle for representation in the electoral domain has been an integral part of the history of women’s struggle for a transformative change in the society and politics.

Women’s Constituency

Through a dexterous use of the “constituency” – the basic unit of the electoral division of the voting population – as an analytical category, Singer shows how through the course of the debates, women were construed as a constituency in multifarious ways – sometimes as geographical/ territorial units as in the debates on separate

Economic and Political Weekly October 6, 2007 electorates, at others as a notional grouping embodying special needs and interests, at still others as a constituency garnering assured support, and as a critical mass generating transformative change in the political processes itself. The electoral processes over the years, through successive elections have shown that the women’s constituency as inscribed in these debates, unfolded in diverse, divergent, ambivalent and conflicting ways. Beginning with the 1937 elections, the reservation of seats for women, separate electorates and women’s constituencies, led to the articulation of women voters as a distinct electorate, and the identification of women’s constituencies and women candidates on the basis of some special qualifications and attributes distinguished from the “general” and “ordinary” categories. Identified in electoral policy thus as a constituency both in terms of physical space and political interest, women, asserts Singer, came to be seen as representing particular, exceptional and “minority” interests in elections.

This pattern persisted in the 1946 election contributing to the political careers of women, and especially to shaping a Congress Party policy in the first three general elections, which required 15 per cent tickets to be given to women candidates. Congress Party records of 1962 stressed the need for seeking out women candidates for and identifying also “constituencies suitable for ladies”. Focusing on the elections of 1952-62, the second chapter in the book examines the 15 per cent solution prescribed by the Congress Party, as well as the ways in which women emerged as a special category in electoral rules, and many legal decisions which were crafted on the assumption of women as a special case. Women were a special category in creating electoral rolls, establishing rules for voting procedures and selecting locations for polling booths. Such policies and practices, while manifesting the early political and electoral attempts to address “women’s interests”, Singer argues, established also patterns of both electoral opportunities and disadvantages for women, and had ramifications for women’s political participation. The “women’s constituency” in particular made itself manifest in paradoxical ways. In a constituency identified as appropriate for women, women were pitted against women, so that one-fifth of the women in Parliament in 1957 ran against a woman opponent. On the other hand, some constituencies that ran women candidates in the


1950s continued to run women candidates for several successive elections.

Reservation Debates

Debates around reservation for women, resurfaced in the 1990s with the 73rd Amendment institutionalising elected panchayats with reservation for women and the scheduled castes and tribes, and the proposed and still pending bill for 33 per cent reservation of seats for women in Parliament. The third and the concluding chapters in the book, ‘Where One-third of the Government Is Women’ and ‘The Women’s Bill’, respectively, discuss these debates within the framework of an unfolding history of women’s participation in government. While continuing with the discussion of the ways in which women come to be seen as a special category, the panchayati raj system being another institutional form for protecting the interests and needs of women as a special group, Singer shows innovatively how notions of class, caste and gender are imbricated in the successful consummation of the Panchayat Bill and the persistent deferral of the Women’s Bill. It seems to the author that the trajectories of reservation for

Economic and Political Weekly October 6, 2007

backward castes and women, which have been founded on two different principles – of affording representation and subsequent empowerment to a group with special needs in the case of women and correction of past wrongs to be rectified through a system of numerically proportionate representation – have converged in a relationship of contest, manifested in the vociferous objections to the Women’s Reservation Bill by the other backward castes.

Women’s groups have subscribed to different notions of “women’s constituency”. As Chapter four on ‘Manifestos’, focusing on the events and mobilisations by women’s groups around reservation, leading up the 1996 election, shows that women’s groups have diverse views on how women could form a political constituency. Thus while the 1996 manifesto of the Centre for Social Research, “pledged to transform women’s politics in India, calling for women to act towards establishment of women as a constituency”, the manifesto of the Joint Women’s Committee acknowledged that women were already active politically and asked for a new form of politics directed towards women’s welfare, especially in the context of the “deliberate retreat and withdrawal of government and state from its social responsibilities”. Indeed, the different ways in which the relationship of politics of change or ‘andolan’ and electoral politics (‘rajniti’) with “women’s politics” is seen by women “activists” and women politicians, emerges most clearly in the chapter on ‘Rhetoric, Culture and Elections on the Ground’ where Singer takes a look at the 1991 campaign in Bihar and campaigns in the subsequent decade in other states.

Singer sees the 1991 elections as something of a “turning point”, to which she returns after her discussion of the manifestos preceding the 1996 election in the previous chapter, in order to place the changing electoral rhetoric about women in the larger historical contest. ‘Rhetoric’ and the following chapter on ‘Candidates, Potential Candidates and Non-Candidates’ weave together the stories from the field across different election campaigns thematically. They are the most interesting sections of the book, and perhaps, also the strongest, since they reinforce the analytical framework of the book and its methodological promise of moving forward through comparisons. Part of this is due to the enduring field research that Singer has undertaken since the 1980s, primarily in Bihar, but also in other parts of India, and her understanding of the electoral processes, in particular the campaigns as play out at the local level, which she has described elsewhere as the “democratic rite” [Hauser and Singer 1986]. A lot of it, however, also owes to the painstaking archival research that the author has carried out over the years, and her interactions with women politicians and activists in whose memories she has obviously dipped in to reconstruct some of the debates. In fact, reading the book, two things struck me most – the continuity of issues that the author maps over almost eight decades of the unfolding of the electoral system in India, giving the work a unique comparative and historicalsociological perspective, and the “interrelationship of methodologies” – a dialogue among methodologies – considered most appropriate for studying elections [Yadav 2007: 349]. Singer’s work combines the “mole’s eye view” with the macro level analysis, bringing together the everyday events of election campaigns and local experience with the unfolding of processes of policy and politics in the long duree.




Hauser, Walter and Wendy Singer (1986): ‘The Democratic Rite: Celebration and Participation in the Indian Elections’, Asian Survey, Vol 26, No 9, pp 941-58.

Weiner, Myron (1978): India at the Polls: The Parliamentary Elections of 1977, American Enterprise Institute of Public Policy Research, Washington DC.

Yadav,Yogendra (2007): ‘Invitation to a Dialogue: What Work Does ‘Fieldwork’ Do in the Field of Elections?’ in A M Shah (ed), The Grassroots of Democracy: Field Studies of Indian Elections, Permanent Black, New Delhi.

Economic and Political Weekly October 6, 2007

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