Long before Angela Merkel or even Margaret Thatcher, Indian politics has produced some fearsome female leaders. Indira Gandhi, also known as the "Iron Lady" of India, took office as the first female prime minister of the country in 1966 and returned for another term in 1980. Years after Gandhi's assassination in 1984, her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi, carried forward both the family and female legacy, and still stands as longstanding president of the Indian National Congress party.

Lesser known abroad, but in some ways perhaps even more influential, was Jayalalithaa, fondly known as Amma ("Mother"), who ruled the huge southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, for nearly two decades until her death in December.

And yet, while these handful of prominent female figures continue to command headlines, the full picture of gender parity in Indian politics is very different. A new global tally of female representation in national parliaments found that only 11.8% of the total number of parliamentarians in India are women. That number is well below the 22% world average, and is topped by such countries as Rwanda, Iraq, Sudan and Somalia. Similar results were found at the state level in India, with only 364 of the 4,128 legislative seats are taken by women.

With a relatively long history of strong female leaders, as well as a law reserving at least one-third of local government seats for women, India should by all measures be doing better on this front. Yet, as The Wire reports, the power of nepotism in Indian politics skews the reality. "Ironically, most of the tickets given to women candidates in reserved constituencies were prompted not by their personal stature, but for their husbands or other male relatives," the Delhi-based news website writes. The situation is even bleaker at national and state levels, where there is no reservation for women.

The final hurdle may be the highest: changing a sexist mentality that persists even when women are in charge.

There are several hurdles to gender parity in Indian politics, "ranging from socio-historic reasons and the inherent masculinity of popular politics to institutional hurdles like family and marriage and the current socio-economic and political policies," write Haris Jamil and Anmolam in The Wire.

India can learn from the different systems developed worldwide to increase female policy makers, such as the "soft quota" system used in New Zealand. France's new ruling party of President Emmanuel Macron imposed gender parity in its list of parliamentary candidates and cabinet ministers.

But the final hurdle may be the highest: changing a sexist mentality that persists even when women are in charge. Only 24 hours after she assumed the New Zealand Labour party's leadership, Jacinda Ardern was asked how she would juggle her career and motherhood. It is the kind of seemingly benign question that undermines the very idea of progress on gender parity.

Better instead to talk about "motherhood" and politics by returning to Jayalalithaa, whose death late last year was the occasion for mass mourning in Tamil Nadu. The people wept for their Amma, who had no children of her own, but was a different kind of mother to 68 million citizens.

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