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Grassroots party activism by women promotes equal political participation


Published 08.03.24

In Indian local politics, women politicians empower women party activists for their campaigns, which reduces gender gaps in political knowledge and political participation

Gender gaps in politics persist on a range of indicators from political representation to political knowledge and participation. Gender quotas are a widely used yet contentious instrument of bringing gender-based political inclusion (Hughes et al. 2019). Although we know a great deal about how gender quotas change political and economic outcomes (Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004, O’Brien and Rickne 2016), one understudied aspect is mechanisms by which gender quotas influence political participation in societies marked by clientelism and gender-based inequality. In my research (Goyal 2023), I show that women politicians are more likely to recruit women party activists than men, and recruited women then reach out to constituents equitably for canvassing efforts. Consequently, women constituents demonstrate higher levels of political knowledge and participation, fostering increased involvement and engagement of women in the political sphere.

My analysis focuses on municipal elections in Delhi, India, and draws on extensive surveys involving 1,664 respondents, 1,243 party activists, and 92 incumbent local politicians. In India, gender quotas are implemented as reserved seats, wherein half of all positions are quasi-randomly assigned to women candidates. Within these reserved seats, only women are eligible to contest and win elections. Delhi comprises a total of 272 wards, of which 136 are randomly reserved for women. Citizen-level surveys help compare the workings of women party activists, and voters’ political knowledge and participation between reserved and unreserved seats.

Grassroots party activism of women politicians 

Although previous research on party activists focuses on vote buying (Stokes et al. 2013, Pande 2020), party activists perform a range of functions that are ignored in development economics.. They are at the forefront of various party activities such as canvassing, fundraising, organising rallies, and in helping the poor access state services. They serve as crucial mobilisers during elections, contacting voters, disseminating party messages, and working to secure electoral support. For instance, during each national election in India, party activists contact roughly 540 million citizens in door-to-door campaigns. A similar intensity of contact is observed in local and state elections. Party activists are often the first point of contact between politicians and voters. Party activists reduce information costs for voters by informing them about candidates’ agendas, party positions, and political events. They also assist constituents in accessing resources or services and navigating political processes. Thus, they hold important functions in shaping democratic as well as welfare-related outcomes.

By focusing on the linkages of gender quotas and political participation through grassroots party activism, my research bridges two key gaps. One, I highlight the role of party activism in bridging gender gaps in political knowledge, efficacy, and participation. This linkage demonstrates that scholars should examine party activists beyond their role as political brokers or their ability to buy political support in exchange for material benefits to voters. Second, my research focuses on the role of women party activists, who remain grossly understudied.

I argue that women politicians recruit women party activists for the following key reasons. It is comparatively easier for women politicians to persuade male gatekeepers within the family to allow women to actively engage in politics. As opposed to male politicians who often rely on male party activists, women politicians can strengthen the party cadre by recruiting more women. Further, women politicians can cultivate their dedicated support base, enhancing their future career prospects and securing party nominations (Goyal and Sells 2021).

Key findings from citizen surveys

  • Active engagement of women party activists: In reserved constituencies, women party activists are more active compared to unreserved constituencies. Approximately 15% of respondents in reserved constituencies reported being contacted by women party activists, whereas only 6.4% of respondents in unreserved constituencies reported similar contact.
  • Outreach of party activists: The outreach strategies of women party activists are more equitable compared to their male counterparts. Women activists actively engage with both male and female constituents, effectively reducing the gender gap in canvassing efforts. Interestingly, men-party activists in reserved seats are more likely to reach out to women constituents compared to those in unreserved seats. This indicates that women politicians can identify, recruit, and lead male activists so that their outreach efforts are more equitable.
  • Outreach to women constituents: Women constituents are generally less likely than male constituents to be contacted by party activists. However, this gender gap is reduced by half in reserved constituencies. To put this in perspective, with each constituency comprising approximately 20,000 women voters, an additional 1,540 women are contacted in reserved constituencies.

It might be presumed that women party activists engage more with citizens in reserved constituencies compared to unreserved ones due to their higher resourcefulness. However, survey results from citizens in both reserved and unreserved constituencies reveal an equal likelihood of receiving partisan contact. This suggests that, despite similar levels of resourcefulness for canvassing efforts among party activists, women party activists, on average, demonstrate greater gender equality in their outreach efforts.

Why does partisan contact matter?

My findings suggest that the higher partisan contact through party activists, the higher the levels of political engagement of constituents. Particularly, women respondents in reserved constituencies, in contrast to their counterparts in unreserved areas, report higher levels of political knowledge and electoral participation. Contact with party activists diminishes the information gap concerning party stances, political events, and access to public services. This carries far-reaching implications for political knowledge and behaviour.

Dispelling many myths

Findings from this research challenge the prevailing belief in the role-model effect, which proposes that women in positions of power can shift gendered norms and stereotypes related to women's political leadership and participation (Wolbrecht and Campbell 2007, Beaman et al. 2009, 2012). My survey results with party activists as well as with politicians indicate that women engage in party activism not necessarily due to inspiration from women politicians, but rather because women politicians reduce constraints imposed by regressive gendered norms without weakening them.

Furthermore, this research dispels the common misconception surrounding the effectiveness of women party activists. Often, party leaders discriminate against women party activists as they are relegated to women’s wings or are assigned non-electoral tasks. This hierarchy of division of labour stems from the misguided belief that women are less effective than men in party activism. These findings reveal that women party activists are more successful in reaching out to voters than male party activists. This finding holds particular relevance in the Indian context, where women's turnout at the polls now equals that of men, prompting political parties to acknowledge the pivotal role of women voters in shaping electoral outcomes.

Finally, this research sheds light on the debate surrounding gender quotas as furthering pinkwashing or token representation (Turnbull 2022). Through my fieldwork, I observed instances of male capture in reserved seats; however, women party activists continued to be relied upon in these settings compared to non-reserved seats.


Taken together, these results suggest that women politicians contesting in reserved seats recruit women party activists who conduct electoral campaigns. Women party activists are, in turn, more effective than their male counterparts in contacting both men and women voters, equalising campaign contact. This in-person mobilisation helps to reduce gender gaps in political knowledge and political participation.


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