Tokenised without a say: Women in Karnataka’s politics

Ruling and Opposition parties have fielded just 3-7% female candidates on the ballot; about 6-15 women per large party in each election
Last Updated : 27 May 2023, 20:39 IST

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If you counted every woman who has ever been elected MLA in Karnataka since 1957, it will not even add up to 224, the total number of members in the state’s legislative assembly. It will not add up to half of that either. The state has elected a grand total of 96 female MLAs so far, after reorganisation in 1962.

In the same 61 years, Karnataka has elected 3,009 men. And to the current 16th Legislative Assembly, Karnataka sent just 10 women.

Of those, just one woman has made it to the state Cabinet of 34 ministers. While it is apparently a considered representation of various castes and sub-castes, it scrupulously neglects women. Karnataka’s woeful tale of women’s representation in the legislature is only beaten by the dismal tale of its successive Cabinets — never has it exceeded 6 per cent in the last 20 years, hovering between 0-3 per cent almost always.

We do get the democracy we deserve, but this one is not on voters. Ruling and Opposition parties have fielded just 3-7 per cent female candidates on the ballot; about 6-15 women per large party in each election. Even if each and every one of them had been elected, gender representation would still be abysmal.

Meanwhile, in the same 61 years, the state voter ratio of male to female has ranged between 53:47 then, to 51:49 now. Likewise, with a rise in education levels, efforts from the Election Commission, active campaigning for women’s votes by political parties and deployment of female cadres in campaigns and at polling booths, women’s voting percentage has also steadily increased.

Indeed, the gap between the voting percentage of men and women has shrunk from 12 per cent in 1962 to under 1 per cent currently. Women have made large strides in active political participation in Karnataka, from casting the ballot at par with men to joining political campaigns. They have also, in these very elections, voted with their feet on issues that matter to them, like hunger, price rise and unemployment.

For instance, women of the Muslim community firmly voted against the party that scuttled their education and livelihoods. In certain constituencies, like in Kalyana Karnataka, the party favoured by the women’s vote was the one that captured most seats.

This mirrors the story in many other Indian states. Yet, all of them do suffer from the underrepresentation of women in state legislatures. The same goes for the Parliament, but the imbalance is ever more acute in the states.

The people of Karnataka are particularly more deprived of adequate representation by women MLAs.

At first glance, it is surprising that states ranking lower on human development indicators do better with gender balance in the political establishment – states like Bihar, Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. In fact, they have exceeded the 9 per cent average across Indian states time and again while Karnataka has almost always been below par. Many other states, especially southern states, perform poorly.

The explanation for this is also linked to progress in human development. The more the agency of women, the better their personal and social autonomy with increased education and better health and the less conservative the society, the greater their abilities to make independent decisions, and the greater the perceived threat when they aspire to politics. More women elected in some of lesser developed states can be attributed to their parties’ comfort in putting many more of them on the ballot, since they perceive them to be more pliable than their male counterparts, once elected.

Women cannot win, either way, it seems.

This is not to say that Karnataka is all milk and honey for women, barring politics. Karnataka’s urban sex ratio at birth is alarming at 916. This is the lowest not only in South India, but far below the national average and the fourth-worst in the country.


The Female Labour Force Participation rates follow this predictable pattern of being at 23 per cent versus 74 per cent for men. Keep in mind that Karnataka has some of the highest per capita incomes in the country, and these outcomes are not commensurate with that aspect.

All of this may make it seem like the unequal representation is solely about women. However, it not only penalises the women of the state, but all citizens.

A diverse set of castes, religions, socio-economic groups, districts and urban and local MLAs provide for a variety of lived experiences, viewpoints and influences on governance. Similarly, gender as a component adds an irreplaceable perspective. This is not only for issues like violence against women or maternity but also fundamental deliverables like water, sanitation, housing, law and order, electricity, physical infrastructure like roads and transport, nutrition, agricultural policies and health.

Lack of gender inclusion distorts laws, policies, priorities and budgets. Unfortunately, voters have little or no choice for a gender-balanced government as the ballot is stuffed every election with an assortment of males from various castes and sub-castes. Ironically, while caste considerations run through food, clothing, housing, residence, education, employment, marriage and death in both women’s and men’s lives, electorally, caste representation applies only to male candidates and MLAs.

Party leaders, when asked pointedly about why women are not fielded as candidates in large numbers, deflect to the winnability clause. However, male/female winnability rates across all national elections—state elections have too few women candidates to be statistically valid — show that women are more, not less winnable than men. Simply put, voters want women representatives, but male party leaders do not.

Glass ceiling

What state political data over these decades shows incontrovertibly is a de facto reservation for men in all but a handful of the 224 constituencies. While it is clear that women have played a key role in determining the overall electoral fate of the state, the locus of power continues to lie almost exclusively with men. Women make up half of Karnataka, half of the voter list, half the vote bank. Yet, they remain a token dot inside the hallowed chambers of the Vidhana Soudha and the ministries.

Change is entirely and solely in the hands of the Union government and political parties across India. Parties can amend their constitutions so no candidate list bears more than 60 per cent of any gender. Unfortunately, there is no incentive or pressure, barring a few citizen groups, to force their hands. The Union government, with its absolute majority, is positioned well to enact political reservation for women in states and the Parliament.

The perceived zero-sum nature of the political game — men must lose seats for women to gain — has thus far stymied any modicum of political justice.

Without law mandating an end to men’s disproportionate usurpation of political seats, as the last seven and a half decades irrefutably show, the natural arc of politics will not bend towards just representation.

Political representation, that which writes the fates of people in democracy, will stay vested in one half of the population, while the other half is tokenised out of a say.

(Tara Krishnaswamy is a co-founder of Political Shakti and Citizens for Bengaluru)

Published 27 May 2023, 17:22 IST

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