Ethnonationalist Gender Norms: How Parties Shape Voter Attitudes toward Female Candidates in India

The forthcoming article “Ethnonationalist Gender Norms: How Parties Shape Voter Attitudes toward Female Candidates in India” by Anjali Thomas, Sayan Banerjee, Charles Hankla, and Arindam Banerjee is summarized by the authors below.

How does the rising tide of ethnonationalism shape gender disparities in the political sphere? The question is timely and urgent since ethnonationalist parties – which often serve to protect the status of historically advantaged “elite” groups – are increasingly a part of mainstream politics in many societies across the globe. While it is widely known that these parties have important implications for the representation and well-being of minorities, few scholars have explored how they shape the fate of women politicians seeking to run for office.   

We examine this critical question in the context of India.  Here, the core ideology espoused by the Hindu nationalist ruling party encompasses patriarchal norms targeted towards the party’s elite Hindu upper-caste core constituency. To explore the implications, we conduct a large-scale survey experiment in the North Indian state of Bihar where we present voters with profiles of paired hypothetical candidates that vary according to gender, caste and party affiliation. This survey shows – somewhat paradoxically – that the profiles of upper-caste women candidates who are affiliated with the Hindu nationalist ruling party receive less support than both the party’s lower-caste women candidates and the party’s upper-caste men candidates. Further analyses show that this loss of support is driven by voters outside the ruling party’s core upper-caste constituency. We attribute these findings to its embrace of patriarchal gender norms which – as we show using descriptive evidence – are systematically more prevalent amongst the party’s core upper-caste supporters. Moreover, we show that these patterns present in our survey experiment mirror those found in real-world elections. 

Why might elite women politicians suffer an electoral disadvantage even, or especially when they belong to their party’s core constituency? Our research addresses this puzzle by drawing attention to “ethnonationalist gender norms,” which we define as patriarchal norms targeted towards women belonging to an ethnonationalist party’s core constituency. We argue that while these norms cater to the interests of party loyalists and help preserve the existing ethnic hierarchy, they also provide informational cues to voters about the effectiveness – or lack thereof – of elite women politicians affiliated with the party in representing their interests. In particular, voters may expect that these norms which place limits on the mobility and assertiveness of elite women may hinder their ability to effectively advocate for the interests of their constituents. Moreover, while ethnonationalist parties may select elite women candidates to signal a commitment to ethnonationalist gender norms to their base, these norms may run counter to the interests of voters outside the ethnonationalist party’s core constituency. Thus, ethnonationalist parties – who often need to attract voters outside their core constituencies in order to win a majority – often experience a backlash from these voters when they field elite women candidates from their core ethnic constituency. 

Overall, our findings have important – and previously overlooked implications – for how ethnonationalism shapes the representation of women. They suggest that ethnonationalist parties and the ideologies they embrace may not only have negative consequences for minorities and historically disadvantaged ethnic groups, but also for elite women.  They also highlight the complicated trade-offs that ethnonationalist parties must make if they are to succeed at the polls. 

About the Authors: Anjali Thomas is an Associate Professor of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Sayan Banerjee is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, Charles Hankla is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University, and Arindam Banerjee is a Co-Founder and Partner at Policy and Development Advisory Group (PDAG). Their research “Ethnonationalist Gender Norms: How Parties Shape Voter Attitudes toward Female Candidates in India” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.