The ballot revolution led by women voters
The emergence of the woman voter has meant that there are new deals to be made between parties and potential voters
Let’s count what we do know. The first is that more women are voting, in some cases in larger numbers than men. There is evidence also that women are exercising their ballot independently, unmindful of family consideration or which way their husbands instruct them to vote.
The second fact. Despite the near unanimous passage of the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam bill that will set aside 33% of seats in Parliament and the state assemblies for women, political parties without exception remain plagued by an old problem: A reluctance to share power with women. These elections have been no different. Analysis by this newspaper finds that women accounted for less than 12% of the candidates fielded by the two major national parties, the BJP and the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram.
For 200 seats in the Rajasthan assembly, the BJP fielded just 20 women and the Congress 28. Women comprise a paltry 10% of the new assembly. In Barmer, Priyanka Chowdhary, a BJP rebel stood as an independent and won. “Male politicians don’t want women to succeed or come forward,” she told The Indian Express. “They find a dedicated, hard-working and strong woman politician a threat.” The Congress loss in the state is being attributed at least partly to rising crime against women with more women voting for the BJP than the Congress.
Yet, because the data tell us that more women are voting independently than ever before, political parties can no longer ignore the woman voter, and this is the third fact. From free bus fares to subsidised LPG cylinders, from cash handouts to fixed deposits, parties, otherwise so stingy about fielding women candidates, are extremely generous when it comes to these sort of promises.
Four-time incumbent chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s stunning victory in Madhya Pradesh is being put down to his women-oriented schemes including the Ladli Behna and Ladli Lakshmi yojana that makes direct cash transfers to woman. The Axis My India exit poll found a gender gap of 10 percentage points with more women backing the BJP, writes senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Neelanjan Sircar in this paper. But analysis by Lokniti-CSDS finds that women’s turnout surpassed that of men in only 34 of 230 assembly constituencies and that more men than women voted for the BJP.
In Telangana, with 1.63 crore women voters compared to 1.62 crore men, the Congress repeated some of the promises it had made in the run up to its Karnataka victory. These included free bus travel for women, subsidised LPG cylinders and monthly financial assistance to poor women. The Bharat Rashtra Samithi promised a higher amount and shaved off another ₹100 from the subsidized LPG cylinders, yet lost.
In Chhattisgarh, the Congress lost despite its promise of ₹15,000 a year to unmarried women being more than the BJP’s promise of ₹12,000. The bright spot is of course Mizoram that has elected three women—the most ever—in a region that has traditionally opposed the participation of women in politics.
Women can swing elections, which is why every party now offers sops. But since nobody knows quite what works, the results are varied. What works in one state, won’t in another. What works for one election, doesn’t become the template for all. The simple truth is there is no formula. Nor is there a monolithic “woman vote”. Women vote not just as women but as minorities, as Dalits, as farmers, as housewives. And this is the fourth evident fact. Nobody knows what women want.
But this much is clear. Voters in India have proved to be extremely canny and women voters are able to spot genuine commitment. In the end, there are no short cuts and it cannot be a coincidence that among metro cities, Kolkata with Mamata Banerjee as West Bengal chief minister records the lowest crime against women.
The assiduous cultivation of women’s self-help groups (SHG) has led to the growth of powerful collectives. Bihar’s longest-serving chief minister, Nitish Kumar has found not just a loyal vote bank. He’s returned the favour by keeping his promise of state-wide prohibition made to SHGs. His track record in fielding women candidates is as bad as any other party, but his government was the first to give free cycles to middle school girls so that they remain in school.
“Parties think of voters through a very transactional lens,” says Akshi Chawla, curator of #WomenLead, a platform that tracks the political representation of women globally. The emergence of the woman voter has meant that there are new deals to be made between parties and potential voters.
Meanwhile, Telangana’s new chief minister Revanth Reddy had promised to set aside four ministerial berths to women if voted to power. It was, said Chawla, “a refreshing change from the pure transactional nature of poll promises.” But at the swearing in, only two in the 12-member cabinet are women. It's early days yet, but nobody is holding their breath.
Namita Bhandare writes on gender. The views expressed are personal