Everybody loves women. Especially when they’re out voting - Hindustan Times
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Everybody loves women. Especially when they’re out voting

Apr 28, 2024 06:13 PM IST

Women are now a force that no political party can afford to ignore. How did this come about and what are parties doing to win their vote? Read on…

At an election rally, Congress’s Rahul Gandhi is speaking about something rarely spoken about by Indian politicians. In academic papers, yes. By feminist economists, also yes. But women’s unpaid care work is not the usual stirring, vote-garnering speech you’d expect from a mainstream politician.

RAHUL GANDHI/FACEBOOK
RAHUL GANDHI/FACEBOOK

After working outside the house for eight hours, says Gandhi, women put in another eight hours of work inside the house, cooking, caring for kids, ensuring the future of the country. “But no government has ever paid you for your work at home.”

What must sound like sweet music to economists and academics who’ve been hammering away about women’s unpaid labour and how it impacts their workforce participation—Claudia Goldin won a Nobel prize last year for her work—is now a poll issue.

If Rahul Gandhi is talking to women about their unpaid labour, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also talking to women. In a direct, emotional and divisive warning that has earned him a notice from the Election Commission, he told women about the danger of their mangalsutras being snatched away by the Congress party. The reference was made in the larger context of his Congress-favours-Muslim refrain but as symbols go, there are few more sacrosanct than the mangalsutra to many Hindu women. The warning then covers both emotion and patriarchy.

The mangalsutra reference was repeated in Aligarh, but this time, Modi also addressed his Muslim ‘sisters’. It was his government that had ended triple talaq, he said. It was Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath who had enabled them to go for Haj minus a male guardian. (It was Saudi Arabia, actually, that in 2021 allowed women to register for Haj for the first time without a mehram, or male guardian.)

This direct outreach by both men, whether it’s about unpaid labour or their mangalsutras and triple talaq is a nod to the fact that women have emerged as a powerful constituency, one that star campaigners can no longer ignore.

Making women count

The 2019 general election marked the first time that women breached the gender gap in terms of voter turnout at 67.18%, higher than male voter participation at 67.01%.

Not only are women voting in increasing numbers, they are also exercising greater individual choice. In the 1996 general elections, 86% of women said they had voted in line with family diktat. In 2019, close to the same percentage, 81% actually said they had voted for a candidate of their own choosing.

[I wrote about women’s political participation in an earlier column here.]

“This is a numbers game—as increasing numbers of women turn out to vote in each election, and vote independently, all parties are trying to leverage this untapped vote bank,” says Akshi Chawla, curator of WomenLead, a publication that tracks the progress of women in politics globally.

Well before women had bridged the voting gap in 2019, savvy politicians were already alert to their power.

Back in 2006, Bihar’s Nitish Kumar, for instance, was the first to bump up women’s reservation in panchayats to 50% from the 33% mandated by law. In 2016, he even brought in prohibition, despite the financial loss to the state exchequer, in keeping with his promise to the powerful women’s self-help groups in the state.

It’s a gamble that has paid him rich dividends. In the 2020 assembly elections, 99 of the 125 seats won by the National Democratic Alliance, comprising chiefly of Nitish Kumar’s JD (U) and the BJP, were in constituencies where more women had voted than men, finds analysis by Anirvan Chowdhury, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University who studies how political parties mobilise women.

In West Bengal, undoubtedly rattled by a possible fall-out over sexual assault charges against her party’s strongman Sheikh Shahjahan (now arrested) Mamata Banerjee has hiked the salaries of ASHA and Anganwadi workers, India’s all-women force that implements its health and nutrition targets, from 8,250 to 9,000 a month.

Does the BJP have the gender edge?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being felicitated during a public meeting in support of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from Uttara Kannada seat Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri for the third phase of the Lok Sabha elections, in Uttara Kannada on Sunday. (ANI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi being felicitated during a public meeting in support of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from Uttara Kannada seat Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri for the third phase of the Lok Sabha elections, in Uttara Kannada on Sunday. (ANI)

While the emerging women constituency is not a monolith, there seems to be some evidence that the BJP has an edge in terms of gender.

For instance, data from assembly elections held in 2022 in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa, suggests that more women than men voted for the BJP, according to Axis-My India.

Axis-My India also shows a seven percentage point gender advantage to the BJP in the 2023 Madhya Pradesh assembly elections.

It is nobody’s case that the BJP with Modi at the helm is advocating for feminist concepts of empowerment. If anything, the mangalsutra jibe places him as a traditionalist who sees women in conventional roles. He often addresses women as sisters, placing himself as their son or brother—a protector who will ensure they are taken care of.

But Modi has been an early and canny learner who, through a slew of government schemes from piped water to electrification and sanitation to subsidised gas cylinders—and not to forget the Women’s Reservation Act piloted by the BJP—has pitched himself as someone who cares deeply for women’s welfare, or as he likes to term it, nari shakti.

The mobilisation of women volunteers dedicated to promoting the BJP’s core values has also helped, writes Anirvan Chowdhury. By pitching the idea of seva, or service, the BJP has been able to build a cadre of women who can, within the boundaries of social norms, reach out to other women in their homes.

No one can say with any certainty how the 470mn women registered voters will vote this election. In February, C-Voter told Reuters that 46% of women voters would choose the BJP-led alliance (39% would opt for the INDIA alliance), representing a massive jump from 36% of women who voted for the BJP in 2019 and certainly higher than the 43% of men expected to vote for the BJP alliance this election.

[A big shout out to Akshi Chawla who curates the excellent #WomenLead association for pointing me to a lot of the academic and other discussion around this topic.]

The following article is an excerpt from this week's HT Mind the Gap. Subscribe here.

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