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From Margins to Mainstream: The Evolving Landscape of Women's Electoral Participation in India

The evolution of women's electoral participation in India is a story of transformation, from the margins of society to the forefront of democratic engagement. Historically marginalised, women worldwide began their journey towards political empowerment in the late 19th century, with New Zealand becoming the first country to grant them the right to vote in 1893. This milestone marked the beginning of a global movement toward gender equality in voting rights, signaling a shift in societal norms and the recognition of women's roles in governance.

In India, this movement took a distinctive path. The struggle for independence was a catalyst for women's active involvement in politics, laying the groundwork for their participation in the newly formed democratic state. The Constitution of India, adopted in 1950, promised JUSTICE-social, economic, and political, equality of status and opportunity, setting a strong foundation for women's rights (Basu, 1991: 21). Despite these guarantees, the journey toward equal electoral participation has been complex, reflecting the nuances of India's diverse and multifaceted society.

The importance of women's involvement in elections as a measure of democratic maturity is well recognised in the world today (Nelson & Chowdhury, 1994; Thomas & Wilcox, 2005). However, India's progress in this domain has been gradual. Although the gender gap in voter turnout as depicted in figure 3, has significantly reduced, indicating a positive trend toward gender parity in electoral participation (Deshpande, 2004: 5431–2), women's representation in legislative bodies remains modest. India's rank of 149 out of 193 countries in terms of women's parliamentary representation highlights the ongoing struggle for equal representation (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2022).        


This article sets out to unravel the complex dynamics of women's electoral participation in India, tracing their journey from limited involvement to a pronounced presence in the political arena since the 1990s. By focusing on women's roles in state and national elections through voter turnout and representation in the Parliament with data from the Election Commission of India and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), we aim to shed light on the factors driving and hindering their participation. This investigation seeks to offer insights into the ongoing challenges and achievements of women in India's quest for gender equality in electoral representation, providing a comprehensive overview of their evolving participation in the democratic process.


The Landscape of Women's Representation in Indian Parliament

In the landscape of Indian politics, the participation of women as electoral candidates and their representation in legislative assemblies present a stark contrast to their male counterparts. This imbalance is not just a reflection of societal norms but also of systemic barriers that have long hindered women's full participation in the political arena. To contextualise the extent of this disparity, it is instructive to compare India's scenario with that of other South Asian nations. As shown in figure 1, data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union as of May 2022 reveals a varied landscape: Nepal leads with 34% women's representation followed by Bangladesh and Pakistan with 21 and 20% share respectively. India, with women's representation in the Lok Sabha slightly below 15%, lags behind the global average of 26.4%. Such a comparison not only underscores India's lag in fostering female political representation but also sets the stage for a deeper dive into the nuances of women's roles within both the lower and upper houses of Parliament.


Figure 1 : Women’s Representation in Parliament in South Asian Countries                                                         

Source: World Bank’s data on the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments

While the Lok Sabha (the lower house) and the Rajya Sabha (the upper house) both manifest the challenges of gender disparity, the mechanisms and historical contexts underlying these disparities vary, reflecting the complex fabric of India's political and social systems. The momentum for addressing these disparities gained significant traction following the publication of the report by the Committee on the Status of Women in India (Government of India, 1974), which underscored the necessity for increased female representation across all governance levels. This was further supported by the National Perspective Plan for Women (Department of Women and Child Development, 1988), advocating for a 30% quota for women in elective bodies—a proposal aimed at rectifying the gender imbalances within political institutions. Despite these recommendations, a consensus emerged around limiting reservations to the Panchayat level, leading to the enactment of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution in 1993, which instituted a 33% reservation for women in local governance (Ghosh & Lama Rewal, 2005).


Figure 2 : Women Representation in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha ( 1951-2020)

Source: Author’s analysis based on data from Election Commission of India


Therefore, as reflected in figure 2, a noticeable spike of increase in the percentage of women participation can be observed in the lower house of Parliament from the 1990s onwards. The 2019 elections marked a historical high for women's representation in the Lok Sabha which was 78 in number, yet this pinnacle did not surpass 15 percent of the total membership. This discrepancy is further accentuated when dissecting the data across different states and political parties. Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal lead with the highest number of women MPs in the current Lok Sabha, with West Bengal showcasing a remarkable 26 percent representation of women MPs, juxtaposing Uttar Pradesh's 14 percent (Election Commission of India, 2019). The political landscape in terms of women candidates presents a nuanced picture: the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fielded 54 and 53 women candidates respectively in 2019, accounting for approximately 12.9 percent and 12.6 percent of their total candidates (Election Commission of India, 2019). Notably, states like Goa and Manipur achieved the highest proportion of women candidates, each fielding women for 17 percent of their total candidates. The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal set exemplary benchmarks by nominating 33 percent and 41 percent women candidates, respectively, showcasing a proactive approach towards gender inclusivity in political representation (Election Commission of India, 2019).


Contrastingly, women's representation in the Rajya Sabha has slightly lagged, not exceeding 13 percent of the house's total membership as of 2020 (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2020). This trend of underrepresentation extends to state legislative assemblies or Vidhan Sabhas, where women's average representation predominantly falls below 10 percent, delineating a broader challenge of gender parity in political institutions (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2020). The persistently low representation of Indian women in political spheres can be attributed to a complex interplay of socio-historical, cultural, and institutional factors. Rooted in the socio-historical legacies of nationalist movements and compounded by current social policies and the gendered nature of citizenship, these factors significantly hamper women's political participation in government structures, elections, and community organizations (Vissandjée et al., 2006). The absence of seat reservations for women in Parliament and state legislatures further exacerbates this issue, alongside a lack of national consensus and a general reluctance among political parties to nominate women candidates (Basu, 1992). The perpetuation of patriarchal political structures, intertwined with class, caste, and gender subordination, acts as formidable deterrents for women aspiring to contest elections, as identified in the Baseline Report (1998).

Moreover, the lack of awareness and knowledge about electoral politics, coupled with insufficient familial and political support in terms of resources, severely limits women’s opportunities to contest and succeed in elections (Rai, 2011). This under-representation is further reflected in the numerical analysis of seats allotted to women by major political parties in recent general elections, revealing a continued policy of gender-exclusion by these parties, thus discouraging active female participation in formal politics.

Political scientist Francesca R. Jensenius highlights that the introduction of reservations for women at the local level in 1992 improved their representation in those seats significantly. Despite this progress at the grassroots level, the proposal to extend seat reservations to Parliament and state assemblies has languished since its introduction post-1996 general elections. This reluctance starkly contrasts with the empirical evidence suggesting women's higher success rates in elections compared to men, challenging the notion of women’s ‘winning ability’ as a rationale for their under- nomination (Deshpande, 2004).


Women Turnout in Election Process


The scenario is not entirely bleak, however. The Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) indicates an increase in women’s participation in political activities over the last three decades showcasing a transformative trajectory from post independence to contemporary times. The graph elucidates more than just numbers—it illustrates a profound societal shift, capturing the essence of women’s growing political engagement. From a substantial gender gap in the early years to a near-parity in recent elections, this visual testament encapsulates what has been aptly termed a "silent revolution of self-empowerment" (Yadav, 2000).

Figure 3 : Gender wise Voter Turnout in Lok Sabha Elections( 1962-2019)


Source : Author’s analysis based on data from Election Commission of India


The path to this juncture has been paved by several key factors: enhanced literacy rates, greater workforce participation, and expansive media reach, all of which have bolstered women's political consciousness. Institutional initiatives like the establishment of 'pink booths', combined with the visionary step of reserving 33 percent seats in local governance, have not only fostered an environment conducive for women to vote but also challenged the entrenched stereotype that politics is an arena reserved for men.

Yet, while the closing of the voter turnout gap from 16.7% difference in 1962 to a mere 0.4% in 2019 is a milestone to be celebrated, it is not the journey's end. The increased turnout among women voters in 2019 reflects a potent potential for change and a clarion call for broader systemic reform. The graph underscores the urgent need to translate women's participation as voters into equal representation in legislative bodies, addressing the multifarious barriers that impede their path to political prominence. To sustain and capitalize on this upward trend of women’s electoral engagement, a concerted effort from all sectors of society is essential. This includes continued advocacy for legal reforms, cultural shifts to dismantle residual patriarchal norms, and a resolute commitment from political parties to foster women's roles beyond voters—to leaders, lawmakers, and policymakers.

In sum, the narrowing gender gap in voter turnout is a significant stride toward gender equality in India's democratic process. However, for the nation to truly harness the capabilities and insights of its entire populace, the silent revolution must echo loudly in the halls of power, ensuring that women's increased participation as voters is faithfully reflected in their representation across all strata of governance.



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