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Around the world, numerous nations have witnessed a resurgence of strongman politics — and with it, many governments are beginning to bypass democratic norms and embrace more populist ideals. We spoke with Rachel Brulé, Assistant Professor of Global Development Policy at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, to learn more about what this means for India, and its potential effects on political representation throughout the nation.

Brulé will be one of three panelists at our upcoming “Voting for Strongmen: Nationalist and Populist Leadership in Brazil and India” seminar on Monday, September 30, speaking alongside Bruno Carvalho, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University, and Patrick Heller, Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

How would you characterize the relationship between political representation and social and economic inequality in India?

Rachel Brulé: I consider India a particularly hard case for achieving gender equality in social and economic domains via political representation. Despite constitutionally-mandated gender equal rights since its establishment as a Democratic Republic in 1950, India is rated the worst place to be a woman of all G20 countries, lagging behind even Saudi Arabia. Gender disparity affects life at all levels, from conception to old age. In India, three quarters of women derive their income from agriculture, but own less than 13 percent of the land. In addition, civil servants charged with enforcing property rights often have a direct interest in denying women’s entitlements to land. I chose to study India because it provides the most formidable crucible of a democratic state’s ability to achieve gender equality.

I argue that quotas “reserving” the highest elected position in a given village government for a woman can set in motion seismic waves that unsettle this entire system. In India, traditionally, men have used local political power to safeguard the status quo. When women occupy these positions of authority, they observe the state from a different vantage point and organize it to solve the challenges their unique perspective throws into light. In this new terrain, the state-led reforms mandating equal land inheritance rights for women create a particularly meaningful lever for female citizens to make claims upon and through the state. Women’s negotiation of substantial property rights overturns and reassembles the system of power in potentially productive ways. Unsurprisingly, the possibility for such sweeping change sets in motion varied forms of resistance.  

What is most surprising is the evidence I uncover of many women’s ability to navigate and redirect challenges to their new authority. My research identifies an important focal point for coordination that enables women to assert their rights: bargaining around marriage choices. When women approach this transformational social event with a powerful female interlocutor — that is, a female head of local government who can advocate for their equal economic rights — they are able to revise prior systems of power. I call this a “gatekeeper theory” whereby female political representation — placing women in traditionally-male positions of power as “gatekeepers” — facilitates alignment of the local state machinery with enforcement of women’s claims for economic rights. 

In your research, what effects did you observe in areas of India where quotas were put in place to increase female representation in politics?

RB: My research combines over two years of field research with analysis of data from over 100,000 individuals across 17 Indian states (using the National Council of Applied Economic Research’s Rural Economic and Demographic Survey from 2006-9). I find evidence that quotas can improve women’s economic well-being via a specific mechanism: their ability to spur enforcement of women’s rights to inherit property. However, there is a catch. The impact of female political representation varies based on a crucial moderating force: whether or not eligible women gain access to these representatives “at the right time.” In India, the crucial time is when women come of age and begin considering marriage arrangements between their natal families and those of potential husbands. These negotiations are critical because in the presence of reform and female representatives to enforce it, they enable a bride to trade traditional inheritance — monetary dowry, given to marital families rather than to women themselves — for land inheritance. When females hold “gatekeeper” positions of elected authority, they catalyze change in how women engage power within the state and the household, enabling “integrative bargaining solutions,” where everyone in a woman’s family benefits from gender-equal property inheritance. 

In fact, I find that quotas increase these women’s welfare across other domains as well. Exchanging dowry for property lowers the risk that marital families will attempt to extort additional money from the bride’s natal family in the future. In addition, we see greater female solidarity such that mothers are more likely to support a daughter’s autonomy in selecting her marriage partner. We also see lower female infanticide. Finally, there is tentative evidence that women who inherit property may be more able and willing to assist in the care of aging parents over the long term. 

Yet, women who have completed marriage negotiations by the time they access female representatives are unable to strike these mutually-beneficial bargains, in particular since monetary dowries were likely already paid on their behalf. Quotas actually diminish these women’s welfare, decreasing access to property inheritance and thus increasing reliance on dowry, with its associated vulnerabilities. Overall, this results in weaker familial ties. As parents, these women are more willing to punish a daughter’s autonomous marriage decisions, and more likely to conduct female infanticide. 

Resistance to political enforcement of women’s new economic rights is real and conspicuous across contemporary India. Where daughters have rights to ancestral property, sons renounce their preeminent familial duty to care for elder parents. Even daughters who enjoy substantial inheritance rights are unable to fill this gap in support. In addition, while women who possess the bargaining power to secure real and credible inheritance rights are less likely to conduct female infanticide at the margin, relative to women without bargaining power — suggesting a long-term trend toward lower levels of female infanticide — they still bear fewer daughters. This means that while attitudes toward daughters are improving — that is, we see the slope of sex selection diminishing over time — as of now, these women still internalize resistance to female economic empowerment and commit female infanticide. 

What explains such behavior? My gatekeeper theory of female representation identifies the importance of social as well as material determinants of familial responses to female representatives’ ability to enforce gender-equal property inheritance rights. While representatives’ enforcement of women’s economic rights has the potential to improve the wellbeing of all family members — not just daughters with new rights — the opportunity for such improvements may not be the dominant factor in a family’s decision to resist or comply with reform. Social status also influences familial choices. Where concerns about status dominate, as long as female gatekeepers’ commitment to enforce a daughter’s rights are in doubt, families will maintain status at the expense of mandated, gender-equal land inheritance. Where high levels of socio-economic inequality make social identity both more weighty in daily life and more risky to lose, I expect uncertainty about reform’s enforcement to encourage resistance independent of material benefits families anticipate from compliance.

The resurgence of strongman politics around the world has affected many nations, even those with democratic systems of government. What do you think this means for India? 

RB: The resurgence of “strongman” politics around the world, from Brazil to China, India, and Indonesia has important implications for the capacity of democratic institutions to support the fundamental equality of all citizens. In India, Snigdha Poonam describes the appeal of Narendra Modi’s strongman image to voters as based on “his ability to take bold risks, to attack his opponents, and to crush dissent.” Modi’s strength comes in large part from a highly curated mobilization of support for Hindu nationalism by Modi and his party (the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP). This version of Hindu identity enables the many Indians who Pankaj Mishra describes as “forced to inhabit the vast gap between a glossy democratic ideal and the squalid undemocratic reality” to redirect their fears about permanently lost entitlements into actions against a common enemy: minorities, not only religious minorities, but any members of traditionally non-dominant groups, including women.

Such concerns owe a great deal to two surprisingly effective, simultaneous processes: first, national projects to redistribute political opportunity, particularly via electoral quotas, and second, hyper-speed, loosely regulated globalization that radically magnified economic opportunities and inequalities. The result is a democracy increasingly tied to protecting “majority” rights at all costs. The highest cost that citizens pay for supporting such leaders may be the fraying ability of democratic institutions to rectify the gaping inequalities that have hollowed out support for democracy. These are ironically the precise failures of democracy that Modi and other strongmen claim they can rectify. ☆


All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.