If you stumbled into the country of Rajasthan in northwest India in 2010, in the weeks prior to elections for local authorities, you would find an unusual sight, certainly for this particular region. Groups of several hundred villagers, sitting on the ground around an improvised stage leaning on a van, with two male actors atop it – one dressed as a woman – putting on a play using simple language to detail the laws of the federal election and specifically the right of every citizen to apply to the head of the local council. In some cases, the actors noted that women elected to the role carried it out unsurprisingly just as successfully as their male colleagues. To understand these events, we must go back over 15 years, to one of the most significant constitutional amendments in India.

In 1993, India passed an amendment to the constitution which determined that a third of all council chair positions would be reserved for women. The local council – or the Gram Panchayat – is the ruling body in India entrusted with handling infrastructure and division of resources in the regions under its control, usually a region including five to fifteen villages. At the head of the council is the Sarpanch – the elected chair – traditionally a man belonging to one of the upper castes.

In 1998, the first post-amendment elections were held, and a third of the 250,000 local councils in India were transferred to the control of women. Since the allocation of quotas was random, a natural experiment was formed on a massive scale, which allowed the effects of the quotas to be measured. The first question researchers hurried to explore was whether the women indeed conducted themselves differently. Was there any significance at all to men having been forced to formally concede the position to women, or had they just become the long arm of men, as many critics of the amendment claimed?
In 1998, the first post-amendment elections were held, and a third of the 250,000 local councils in India were transferred to the control of women. Since the allocation of quotas was random, a natural experiment was formed on a massive scale which allowed the effects of the quotas to be measured.
Esther Duflo, then a young and promising researcher, joined Prof. Raghabendra Chattopadhyay of Calcutta in surveying 265 districts where women were elected, to examine whether any changes in policy had actually been effected following the new wave of female leadership. The researcher compared the budget allocations the new council decided upon to the will of the voters as reflected in surveys of priorities for government investment filled out by men and women in the “female” districts.

The data was conclusive – districts led by women explicitly allocated resources according to the priorities of the women in the region they oversaw. Thus, for example, in West Bengal most of the women were troubled by the lack of clean drinking water, and the poor condition of the roads. And the new councils in the region did indeed invest in approximately 9 water purifiers more than their predecessors, and raised the investment in road improvement by 18%. On the other hand, in Rajasthan the roads were of no real concern to the women, but drinking water and health were at the top of the surveys, and indeed the new councils invested in more health and water facilities, and as expected reduced (by 8%) the investment in roads.
Resident survey: what is important for you to change?
When it became clear that the diversity forced upon the local councils led to real policy changes and were not a mere formal procedure, all that was left were the critiques of certain economists that quotas would not lead to real change in the positions of voters regarding minorities, and that the election of women must be encouraged without imposing the desired change on the voters. In response to this criticism, Esther Duflo – who had already become a professor at MIT – waited until after another local election campaign in 2003, when the policies of the new quotas were actualized for the second time and enough data could be collected regarding the results of both election campaigns.

When 468 villages were sampled in 165 local councils, it became clear that the experience of female leadership had changed – albeit slowly – the perceptions of villagers towards the election of women. In districts where positions had only been reserved for women in one election campaign, the indicators of satisfaction were significantly lower than the national average. But in districts where women were elected twice consecutively, the indicators of satisfaction were equal to districts where men were elected. Additionally, when local men were played tapes of hypothetical candidates, male and female, they estimated the abilities of the female candidates as slightly greater than their male competitors. Exposure to female leadership worked. Moreover, the chance of a woman being elected freely, without quotas, consistently increased the more the district experienced female leadership.
In districts where the play was performed, a rise in the number of candidates was observed equal to those of districts where at least one reserved spot had been filled in the past, and the selection of candidates up for election was more diverse.
But elections were held just once in five years on average, and even then it took time for the fruits of electing women became apparent in the field, and Duflo asked herself whether there was a way to accelerate the change in awareness regarding electing women. Duflo’s creative solution was to have the short presentations intended to imprint the ideas regarding diverse elections among the villagers. Ten teams of actors visited over 400 villages during the twenty days prior to the 2010 elections, putting on the play written by Duflo and associates again and again.

Happily, the performances worked as intended. In districts where the play was performed, an increase in the number of candidates was observed similar to those in districts where at least one position was reserved in the past, and the selection of candidates was more diverse. More women and representatives of lower castes felt safe to announce their candidacy. And most of all their chances of being elected under their less successful predecessors increased. The data showed that the chances of reelection for council chairs with better performances records remained the same, while, on the other hand, the chances of removing dysfunctional and sometimes corrupt council chairs increased.

Though in theory rational voters can weigh all the options before them and intelligently choose the most correct one, in practice we tend to choose the familiar and the ordinary. Thus, even if the critics were correct to say that real change must grow from the bottom, Esther Duflo’s work presented the simple fact that in order to allow such a change to grow, external intervention is required that will make the desired choice – for example, women – something familiar that is included among the available options, even if theoretically the possibility had already existed for a very long time.