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The uncomfortable question of gender equality in Narendra Modi's cabinet

Tuesday, 27 May 2014 - 4:00pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

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How many women will join the Narendra Modi Council of Ministers, and what percentage will they constitute of the whole? Moreover, what will the number and percentage be for each rank in the Council – Cabinet, Minister of State and Deputy Minister? When you read this, we will likely know the answers and my guess is the numbers will barely approach an equal percentage of men and women. This offers a great opportunity to face up to the uncomfortable question of parity.

Last week, I posted a petition online asking Mr Modi to appoint women to 50% of the posts in his Council of Ministers. In anticipation of, and in order to refute the argument that women are not qualified and merit matters, some of us prepared a table which juxtaposed the age, education and profession of MPs with possible portfolios. We found a portfolio for every woman MP.

I started the petition for three reasons. I had just listed things that needed to be done the morning after the election results. I needed to get started, and the interval between the results and the swearing in offered a narrow window of opportunity to say, this is something that can be done quite simply, if Mr Modi would just make gender parity a consideration. But how could I, an ordinary citizen in a distant city with no VIP connections, communicate this? A petition would be a way to send this message to Mr Modi, and if other people wanted to back it, so much the better. I did not harbour any illusion that my petition would swing this debate in favour of gender parity, but if it brought attention to the equal competence and integrity of women candidates, that would be good enough. 

Finally, I wanted to start a conversation about this. If people disagreed with the petition, that was fine, as long as they were taking cognisance of the presence of women candidates. If people realised that we never have anything close to parity in the Council of Ministers, so much the better. We could discuss why. If people wanted to discuss merit versus quotas, that was fine too, because the idea of equality and inclusion would still be on the table.

In a small way, the petition did start a conversation both on Twitter and Facebook. It got support, but more interesting are the counter-arguments that were voiced. The same concerns recurred.

Should we not favour merit over all other considerations in the selection of the executive that will govern India? Yes, of course, we should. But, in the Westminster (Parliamentary) model, the Council of Ministers is chosen from the majority party and not on the basis of technical expertise. The latter is the case in US-style presidential systems. Appointment as minister could be followed by an election to the Rajya Sabha, of course. Most ministers however come from the existing pool of Parliamentarians, and professional politicians do not always have other technical expertise. This is true of men and women. All other things remaining the same, the probability of merit is equal across gender, and therefore, there is no argument not to include women on the grounds of lack of merit. 

The problem with the merit argument, to my mind, is that it works for whoever is visible in the eyes of the decision-makers. If those who are deciding ministerial appointments have been conditioned to not notice the presence of women, then it does not matter what merit lies in their curriculum vitae, because you cannot choose those you do not even see. The demand for parity, by calling attention to the presence of women candidates, at least makes it impossible to overlook their existence. Beyond that, one could argue about every inclusion or exclusion on its merits, and that is exactly what we want to do. We do not want women to be invisible by virtue of gender, any more than detractors of quotas want them to be chosen by virtue of gender.

Let’s talk about quotas, the next objection to the call for parity. Several people wrote and said they were in favour of equality but opposed to quotas as a means. They asked, “Do you really want to add one more endless quota to this political system?” My answer is “no”; no quota is supposed to be endless. Affirmative action of any sort is supposed to be a transition measure, and quotas work when they are accompanied by structures and process designed to make them redundant. This has been the failure of Indian quotas, no argument. But a failure of design or implementation cannot negate the reality that there is no level playing field in politics (or elsewhere). And this is the problem that quotas seek to remedy.

We are happy with the pitiful number of women in this Lok Sabha, saying 61 is the highest ever, at two persons more than last time, and a laughable 11%. This, by the way, has been offered to me as a counter-argument to parity (50-50). Even with a falling sex ratio, this is hardly reflective of the percentage of women in the Indian population; why should I be happy about it? But in the same spirit, we are asked to be happy that in the super-sized Council of Ministers that is the norm these days, we will have three or four women ministers. The same 10%, very likely, and I’d like to suggest, more suitable for a commission than equal representation.  

At each stage, getting a sizeable number of women candidates – if not exactly half – is a distant dream. They do not get nominated, except under legal duress or as a political expedient. Their access to funding and donations is limited. They do not always get the same attention and support as male candidates even from their parties. And when elected, they remain part of this category – women MPs. How much do you hear about them individually? 

The women MPs of the present ruling party bring business, agriculture, medical legal, social work and arts training and experience to the table. Many have seen success in their professional work prior to entering politics. The celebrities make headlines for trivial reasons, and most others remain nameless and faceless, no matter what their accomplishment. In the circumstances, to ask for parity is not an inappropriate demand to ensure that women get the attention they deserve.

And in this instance, the demand was not for a quota but a single individual’s commitment to equality expressed as, “I really want to bring gender parity into my Council, and I am going to give it a serious effort.” Then, if that commitment yields 40% women or 60% women, it does not matter. The commitment and the process do. This is also my answer to those who ask, why do you want to limit this to 50%? I don’t. To demand parity in appointment is a way to guarantee parity in consideration for appointment. That is the most important thing, really. When it becomes normal to take everyone into account for each opportunity – regardless of gender, caste, religious or ethnic identity – then we will have made the quota debate truly irrelevant.

Busy with these conversations here and there all week, I have noticed that no one else is talking about gender at all. I saw a link on women’s safety. People pointed out to me now and then that the two or three most prominent women were on Cabinet lists floating around. But no one seems to have raised the question of gender parity on the op-ed pages or on the prime-time talk shows. Almost as if gender equality were a trivial question and must not interrupt while the big topics get discussed. Good girls, after all, know when to be quiet and wait their turn.

The candlelight vigils and manifestos, the nightly outrage and shouting about safety do not translate into vigilance about the more boring institutional and attitudinal shifts that are also required. We want to fast-track everything but social and political change, it would appear.

I will not offer a justification for inclusivity (gender and otherwise), defined here as equal and meaningful participation and access to decision-making. I think that in 2014, if someone does not see how intrinsically important inclusivity and equality are, it is up to them to justify their blindness. But I will answer the question of whether gender inclusivity will make a difference in instrumental terms, just this once. And no, I am not going to say, women are better or women are more honest; I am not going to offer you essentialist arguments.

A commitment to parity is a commitment to looking equally seriously at all available candidates. Taking women’s background and experience into account creates a larger pool of prospective ministerial candidates. This larger pool affords a better chance of choosing a meritorious Council of Ministers than does a smaller, exclusive one. An inclusive Council of Ministers will have a few first-timers, but that is an investment we make in our future. After all, first-timers are that exactly once, and then, they bring freshness to government. Seeing an equal number of women and men ministers – indeed, all diversity in the Council of Ministers – will inspire young people to enter politics because they will not see it as the preserve of people like this, or those who look or sound like that.

Every journey begins with one step. Committing to parity in the executive is that first step, and if many (at the national, state, district and party levels) make that commitment voluntarily, we engineer the change we want to see without statutes and penalties.  

PS: More women voted in 2014 than did men. Surely to ask for as many women ministers as men, is reasonable at least on this count?


Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist and the founder of Prajnya

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