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The 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India was introduced with a stated legislative intent of reserving not less than a third of seats for women in institutions of local self-government, the three-tier panchayati raj institutions. That amendment is considered a milestone in India’s project of empowerment of women. This paper evaluates the power and prestige of the post of an adhyaksha (chairperson) of a zila (district) panchayat (council) in general, and in particular the status of women elected to the post during 2016 in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Analysing the candidature, electoral success, electoral practices and subsequent functioning of zila panchayat adhyakshas (ZPAs), the authors argue that despite seats being reserved for women, no meaningful political empowerment of women has occurred in UP. The paper questions the efficacy of the indirect mode of election of ZPAs in bringing about empowerment of women, arguing that indirect elections enable powerful ruling elites to use women as proxies, subverting the legislative intent of the 73rd Amendment. The paper therefore proposes electoral reforms.
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