Redefining the Politics of Presence:

Women in Panchayati Raj Institutions in Rajasthan and Kerala


This article draws upon Shilpa Jain’s B.A. thesis presented to the Departments of Political Science and Women’s Studies at Harvard University, “Redefining the Politics of Presence: The Case of Indian Women in Panchayati Raj Institutions” (1998). For questions or comments, Shilpa can be reached c/o Shikshantar, 21 Fatehpura, Udaipur, Rajasthan, or via email at

What is the value of women’s representation in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs), for themselves, for the political process, and for development in India? Nearly two years ago, intrigued by the 73rd Amendment and its mandated reservation of 1/3 of all seats for women, I set out to try to qualitatively answer this question.  Over the course of a year (1997-98), I analyzed several political, sociological, and feminist theories and case studies on political presence and empowerment, met with a number of government officials, academics, and activists, and interviewed panches and community members in four villages, two in Rajasthan and two in Kerala.  What follows is a summary of my findings and ideas.[1] 


Why should reservations exist at all?

Various theorists have argued that reservations are desirable for at least six reasons: (1) Elected women will served as role models to other young and old women, encouraging them to participate in politics and even contest future elections.  (2) It is a matter of justice that women be included in political structures, as they constitute 50% of the population and should not be absent from spheres of power.  (3) Elected women will bring “women’s interests” to the formal political sphere. Because men do not understand “women’s interests”, male-dominated political institutions either leave them off of the agenda, or they act in a manner that indirectly or directly damages women’s position.  (4) Elected women will transform the very culture of politics.  This argument relies on an assumption that women are more caring, cooperative individuals.  Therefore, less prone to factionalism and corruption, women will be able to transform today’s ‘dirty politics’ into a more equitable, kinder, and participatory politics.  (5) Although most representatives are confined to vote along the lines of their political parties, they have a few moments of autonomy.  In these opportunities for independent thinking, the character and identity of the politician is significant.  Women – through their various identities – can therefore contribute to the political discourse by adding their unique perspectives.  (6) There is a symbolic relevance to women’s reservations.  The quotas dismantle the status quo and let women feel, and be seen as, represented in the formal decision-making process.[2]

Yet, while many theorists have speculated on the need for and impact of reservations for women, few had been able to practically understand reservations in a real-world environment.  However, this is not their fault. Throughout the world’s representative democracies, despite the fact that across the board few women are present in formal political institutions, quotas for political representation are rare, if not non-existent.  India’s decision to include reservations for women, Scheduled Tribes, and Scheduled Castes in the Panchayati Raj Institutions is therefore groundbreaking and unique.  The closest parallel is in Sweden and Norway, who implemented a 40% quota for women’s representation in political parties.

Why did reservations appear in India?

Not only are reservations unusual in the world context, it is also surprising that they appeared in India at all.  Judging from accounts of the passage of the legislation, it appears that the  political elite installed quotas in the absence of an organized movement devoted to this goal.  Reservations in India did not emerge out of a typical historical pattern (of industrialization, urbanization, the entrance of women into the formal wage-earning sector, and their subsequent demands for political representation), nor did the Indian women’s movement push the formal political sector for the quotas.  Indeed, the women’s movement in the early 1990’s was primarily mobilizing around issues of dowry, rape/sexual harassment, and prohibition.  Using direct action techniques and other informal strategies, women tended to push civil and political institutions to uphold their own laws.  They were not challenging the gender ratios of those institutions, and they were certainly not demanding formalized entry into those institutions. Finally, the fact that the reservations would apply to Panchayati Raj Institutions makes their appearance even more striking.  In the vast majority of rural areas, women rarely exercise power in the formal political sphere, but rather express their authority and power in the more informal spaces of the home, the commons, and community associations.

In fact, women appear to prefer informal political spaces over formal institutions. As Amrita Basu highlights in Two Faces of Protest, adivasi women in Maharashtra were able to better exercise their political power in direct action organizations.[3]  Free from having to tailor their language or action to mainstream politics, the women were able to mobilize quickly and use spontaneous tactics (even songs!) to carry out their political agendas.  She contrasts the freedom of informal politics with the constraints of formal politics, by giving the example of women belonging to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal.  There, women felt stifled by the political organization and structures, which tended to reinforce or reshape dominant social patterns, thereby relegating women to lesser work and fewer leadership opportunities.  They did not offer women the space for spontaneous action, for unusual tactics, or for placing their agenda on the table.  Basu’s work helps explain why perhaps the thrust for women’s reservations did not come from women themselves.

So, where did the impetus for reservations for women come from?  Some have argued that the political parties, who approved the 73rd amendment in record time, were motivated by noble intentions; they wanted to “strengthen the position of the poor and weaker sections in rural India.”[4]  However, I suspect that the majority of (if not all) political parties supported quotas for women, because they did not expect women’s participation to be empowering. Instead, perhaps they assumed that women would take on a passive, subdued role in the formal political sector.  This weak presence would enable parties to easily dominate the representative and forward their own agendas through them.[5] 

There is certainly historical and contemporary evidence to support this speculation.  In two very different contexts (the nationalist movement of pre-Independent India and Japan of the late 1970’s), Partha Chatterjee and Susan Pharr describe how women’s roles in formal political spheres took on a subordinate, ‘traditional’ character.  As Chatterjee describes, during the nationalist struggle, “woman” was essentially equated with “nation” and represented the values of “self-sacrifice, benevolence, and devotion.”[6]  Central to this idea  were the contrasts between the material and spiritual, Western and Indian, modern and traditional, and men and women.  Because women were representative of the true India – of its spiritual, traditional world – they were invited to participate in the Independence movement, but only as long as their involvement did not threaten the prevailing notions of femininity.  Women could not break from their ascribed feminine roles, nor empower themselves through the movement, for to do so would be to contest the value of the Indian nation as a whole.  Similarly, in Japan, Pharr depicts another example of “presence without empowerment” in her study of Japanese women politicians.  She labels them “neo-traditional activists,” as their entry into politics, their understanding of their political role, and their political causes/ideologies all depend upon a male figure (typically a father, brother, or husband).[7]  While neither Pharr nor Chatterjee are speaking about women in the context of PRIs, their insights into “presence without empowerment” help explain what may have motivated those who supported the emergence of reservations in India.  Now, the question becomes, given this history and contextual background, what can be the impact of women in formal political institutions?

How can we understand the notion of representation?

Before I go further in my analysis, I feel it is important to understand what the term “presence” actually means.  I have divided representation into three aspects — descriptive representation, substantive representation, and personally transformative representation.  Descriptive representation refers to the physical fact of particular individuals being located in political, economic, social institutions.  It is the symbolic effect of quotas for women’s representation; it simply means that they are physically in these institutions and everyone can see them there.  Substantive representation refers to the substantial content of one’s representation.  In other words, it is the influence or impact of one’s presence on the political discourse, the culture of politics, the political party, or political outcomes.  It is the substantial content of one’s presence.  Personally transformative representation deals with the impact of one’s representation on oneself, one’s identity, one’s meaning-making systems, and one’s world.  While the other two forms of representation are essentially external, this aspect of representation deals with the internal and the individual herself.  It is neglected by most theorists and academics and rarely enters the vocabulary of political science. 


These three forms of representation can be extended into a language of interests.  Drawing upon the work of Anna Jonasdottir, I divide the concept of interests into two connected aspects: form and content.[8]  The form aspect refers to the demand for participation in society’s public affairs and spaces; the content aspect deals with the substantive values emerging from political activity.  To these two aspects, I add the personally transformative interest.  That is, alongside interests in shaping political content or holding political presence, women also have an interest in using the political process to transform themselves, develop their capacities, and alter their roles. 


Broadening the definition of interests, in this way, allows us to go beyond the narrowly understood concept of “women’s interests,” which tends to confine women to issues of reproduction, marriage, and sexuality.  Although these three issues have validity and relevance to nearly all Indian women, such a limited sense of interests is problematic for at least three reasons.  First, it constructs women as generic beings and reduces them to biological traits, thereby denying the important roles that cultural context, caste, religion, socioeconomic status, and education play in determining interests.  These narrow understandings deny the diversity and complexity of women.  Second, by limiting women to issues reproduction, marriage, and sexuality, women are viewed as unable to put other “non-gendered” issues on the political agenda, such as employment, land, housing, and water. Nor are women offered space to articulate their larger visions of development, the system, or change.  Thirdly, by calling these women’s interests, we deepen the already large chasm between men and women.  We fail to see the role that men play in these areas and therefore prevent constructive action by men (i.e., how can they help to solve or prevent this problem?).  Instead of thinking of our interests and aspirations as human beings, and of how we all have a responsibility to think and act in ways that nurture and benefit all of us, we close the door to dialogue, common interests, and generative action.


This discussion brings me to the particular context of Panchayati Raj Institutions.  What do these three notions of representation and of interests mean for rural Indian women in an environment of decentralized democracy?  To get a sense of how these ideas play out in an empirical context, we must turn to the structural and substantive limits of women’s representation in Panchayati Raj Institutions.

What are the obstacles to women’s effective participation in Panchayati Raj Institutions?

To understand the obstacles to women’s participation, we must first comprehend the historical debate surrounding PRIs.  Taking a break from academic parlance, I would like to imagine a conversation between Mohandas K. Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, and Jawaharlal Nehru to illustrate the various sides of the Panchayati Raj controversy.  The issues they discuss have relevance for us still today, as we struggle to make sense of our roles, not only as political actors, but as change agents in an increasingly complex world.

Gandhi: Part of the goal of the Freedom Struggle was the achievement of village swaraj. How can achieve this with a tight, centralized government, where British elite rule is simply replaced by Indian elite rule?  In a country as large and diverse as India, who lives in her 700,000 villages, the masses would be excluded and untouched.

Ambedkar: Why should the village become the locus of the political structure?  The village is a ‘cesspool, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and communalism.’ Why would we want to entrust political rule and development to it?  Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes will be oppressed by the upper caste ruling elite.  In fact, upper castes will have total control in an unregulated decentralized system.

Nehru: Perhaps we can attempt some type of modified centralization. We can institute Panchayati Raj, cooperatives, and other village-level organizations. But instead of permitting limitless authority by upper castes, we can monitor and regulate the panchayats at the state level.  That is, the center and the states will limit the autonomy of the panchayat by controlling its finances, planning, projects, and administration.  It will be a face of decentralization with a heart of centralization.

Gandhi: What is the point of such a deception?  If the state and the center will maintain power and continue to exclude the people from participation, then why bother?  If PRIs had financial, administrative, and conceptual autonomy, then we would not need to fear Ambedkar’s fears.  Panchayats could enhance the social and economic development of India and make swaraj a reality.

Narsimha Rao (in a time machine):  But because we realistically fear village ignorance and hatred, and because we (the state and the center) have a difficult time giving up control, I propose we try for a modified decentralization.  The 73rd amendment to the Indian Constitution will strengthen Panchayati Raj Institutions, ensure them with certain developmental responsibilities, and guarantee representation from the marginalized segments of society.  But the federal and state governments will still have much of the financial and conceptual control.  The state will devolve some responsibility to the panchayats, but it will not relinquish total power.

This conversation not only highlights the many competing visions of PRIs, it also illustrates the subsequent history of Panchayati Raj in India.  Though originally implemented with Nehru’s vision of modified centralization, PRIs quickly deteriorated in the decades following Independence into Ambedkar’s strong version of centralization.  In 1993, PRIs were reintroduced as modified decentralization by former Prime Minister Narsimha Rao. 

Though lingering in the background, Gandhiji’s vision of PRIs remains unrealized.  He saw the village panchayat as

“an oceanic circle whose center will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, never aggressive in their arrogance, but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the economic circle of which they are integral units.”[9]

In other words, in spite of hierarchies related to caste, tribe, gender, education, etc., Gandhiji believed that Panchayati Raj would offer opportunities for real participation at the rural level, in which the individual saw herself as part of the greater whole.  Therefore, she would engage with others to improve herself as well as the community at large.  In Gandhiji’s decentralized democracy, development would grow out of the village, where people would collectively work to conceptualize what they meant by ‘development’ and ‘progress’ and then learn and act together in ways that allowed them to realize their visions and common aspirations.

Unfortunately far from Gandhiji’s vision, what we have today in Panchayati Raj Institutions are a series of structural constraints and contextual conditions that have failed to empower women, their panchayats, or village communities as a whole.  Through a critical examination of the State Panchayati Raj Acts of Kerala and Rajasthan in my longer thesis, I reveal how PRIs are structurally disempowered.  While I will not expand upon the details here, in brief, the overarching impediment to the effective functioning of PRIs is the tension in the relationship between state and local bodies.  As currently structured in both Rajasthan and Kerala, the panchayats have a hollow authority, for they lack executive power. State-appointed civil servants are used to implement predetermined schemes, keep control of panchayat minutes, and control panchayat budgets in all three tiers of the PRI system. If the state government carries such influence in the functioning and decision-making processes of the panchayat, where is the space for creativity, autonomy, and leadership in the panchayat?  For example, schemes run out of the state and center, like Indira Avas Yojana, Jivan Dara, and Integrated Rural Development Program, are particularly stifling.  They decide the needs and plans of the panchayat in advance, and thus determine the path of development all villages are to follow.  Yet, in preventing active conceptualization, planning, implementation, and evaluation by the panchayats themselves, such schemes fail to recognize diversity and knowledge and instead reinforce a financial and conceptual dependence on the state. 

The State Panchayati Raj Acts illustrate further structural limitations.  The overlap in responsibilities between the various levels (district, block, and village) of Panchayati Raj, the lack of connection and dialogue between the levels, the division of functions in mandatory functions and discretionary functions (Kerala) and the absence of technical sharing among the levels (Rajasthan) all damage the panchayat’s ability to participate in the process of decentralized democratic development.

If we pay particular attention to representation by women, the Acts reveal additional structural impediments.  For example, the Rajasthan Panchayat Act requires that the sarpanch be able to read and write Hindi.  Although this clause appears to be gender-neutral, given Rajasthan’s low rate of literacy among rural women, it is not for three reasons: It limits the number of possible women candidates, it may exclude the best candidates, and it places an inordinate (and in my view, undue) emphasis on literacy. Similarly, the mechanisms of election (direct vs. indirect), the quorum process, and the electoral rotation process are all impediments to women’s substantive and personally transformative representation.  In both Rajasthan and Kerala, I witnessed how the structural limitations could be easily abused in a real-world context.

The sociocultural context is therefore also critical to understanding the obstacles to women’s representation in PRIs.  Again, while this is expanded upon in my full paper, here, I will only highlight two contextual factors – the negative stereotypes of women in rural Rajasthan and the hierarchical political party system in Kerala – that affect women’s representation.  In the two panchayats I studied in Rajasthan, the stereotypes of women focused on their incompetence, their lack of merit, and were highly correlated with their levels of literacy.  As one up-sarpanch explained, “Because they are illiterate, women do not know how to think.  If they thought, they would speak.”[10]  Nearly quoting Susan Pharr, another panch explained that women only stood for election, because they were pushed by their male relatives.  Therefore, they could not be judged by their own personal merit like male candidates were.  Confronted with such attitudes, it is not surprising that low self-esteem and lack of confidence appear to be a problem for women panches in rural Rajasthan. 

On the other hand, in Kerala, it appeared that the party structure stifled women’s political participation.  While the CPI(M), the party in power during my research, seems to acknowledge that women have a place in the decision-making process, it confines that place to the number of reserved seats – no more, no less.  Leadership by women does not appear to overstep unwritten sociopolitical boundaries, as the party maintains its own established hierarchies.  For example, although women were present in the Gram Sabha I visited, and they participated in the village committees organized under Kerala’s People’s Planning Campaign, they did not take on leadership roles, nor were they extremely vocal participants.[11]  

Despite these bleak pictures, there are a few bright spots.  For example, women in one of the Rajasthani panchayats expressed that they had gained a knowledge of public affairs and they realized that they too could do public work.  In Kerala, the majority of attendees in the Gram Sabha I visited were women, who saw themselves as community role models. Although these examples may seem small in the face of larger problems, they do offer us foundations upon which to suggest recommendations for change.

What is the way forward?

Though the experiences of Keralite and Rajasthani women differ in content and magnitude, women in both states must still face structural impediments from their Panchayati Raj Acts and sociocultural constraints in their environments.  In this way, they both share the dilemma of presence without empowerment.  How do we move forward and facilitate true representation – descriptive, substantive, and personally transformative – for all women?

In my original paper, I had two major recommendations.  The first was to reconstruct the role of the Gram Sabha; the second was to alter the positions of governmental and non-governmental organizations in the process of decentralization.  With regards to the Gram Sabha, I recommended that the power to monitor the panchayat be transferred from the state to the community. This redirected accountability would give an outlet to women panches for redressing grievances against the panchayat, such as corruption and abuses of the quorum process.  It would also ensure a check on the financial expenditures and projects of the panchayat.  Finally, it would give the entire community a chance to express its vision of and interests in development.  It would open the conceptual door and shift the development dialogue from top-down to bottom-up.

I also proposed that governmental and non-governmental organizations rethink their roles. Instead of continuing in their current roles of taking power and control over the development process from the local people, they could cooperate with PRIs, offering technical assistance, support services, and civic training to panches and to the Gram Sabha, as requested.  The state could further reduce its overall involvement, by eliminating its schemes and administration over the panchayat.

However, I realize that much has happened since I conducted my study in 1997.  Another panchayat election is upon us, the center has introduced legislative acts that have given more power to the Gram Sabhas and to tribal areas, and a number of governmental and non-governmental organizations have implemented training programs for panches. I am also more aware of the tremendous strain (and drain) upon villages today.  Globalization, liberalization, national debt, a ubiquitous mass media, increasing consumerism, urbanization, growing violence, loss of land and water, frustrated and cynical youth, dehumanizing schools and health facilities, the disappearance of languages, cultures, and knowledge systems – the list of challenges faced by the villages (and cities as well) seems endless.  And I realize that simple ‘representation’ – whether by women or anyone – in a state-driven decentralized governance system will not be enough to mitigate these problems or to create new realities. 

The time has come for more meaningful action by all us.  Villagers and city-dwellers, governmental and non-governmental organizations, must begin to rethink their visions of ‘development’ and ‘progress’ and engage in serious learning, unlearning, and relearning processes.  People, of all castes, tribes, socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, and genders will have to work together to redefine their notions of identity and their relationships to one another in order to build these collective visions and undertake radical efforts for change. I think it is time to move from a culture of representation to a culture of learning. Each of us must begin to take responsibility for ourselves, for the collective, and for our common humanity if we are to survive – much less live and grow – into the next century.

[1] I refrain from including much of the theoretical and internationally comparative analysis I conducted.  For the purposes of this audience, I believe the relevant ideas can be expressed without referencing too many of the complex theoretical points.

[2] Anne Phillips, The Politics of Presence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

[3] Amrita Basu, Two Faces of Protest: Contrasting Modes of Women’s Activism in India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

[4] Hoshiar Singh, “Constitutional Basis for Panchayati Raj in India,” in Asian Survey 34, September 1994.

[5] I suspect that one could (although I did not) make the same argument regarding why reservations emerged for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes without much dispute or contestation.

[6] Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Post-Colonial Histories. Princeton: University Press, 1993.

[7] Susan Pharr, Political Women in Japan: The Search for a Place in Political Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

[8] Anna G. Jonasdottir, “On the Concept of Interest, Women’s Interest, and the Limitations of Interest Theory,” in The Political Interests of Gender: Developing Theory and Research with a Feminist Face. London: Sage Publications, 1988.

[9] M.K. Gandhi, Village Swaraj. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Trust, 1962.

[10] Interview, June 28, 1997.

[11] Interview and observations, August 24, 1997.