The answer to this question is rather simple: In recent years, women voters are turning out to vote in much bigger numbers compared to the past. Women voters constitute nearly half of the total voters with some variations across states, but political parties paid little attention to them mainly for two reasons:
* First, many of them did not turn out to vote on election day
* Second, even amongst those who turned out to vote, their voting choice was influenced by the advice and in some cases dictates of the male member of the family.
Changing Gender Dynamics
But the last one decade has resulted in changes to both these aspects. Women are turning out to vote in much bigger numbers now compared to the past. They, in fact, have outnumbered male voters in many states and secondly, now a large number of women voters take their own independent voting decision.
This has attracted the attention of political parties towards women voters as they realise that even a small tilt of women voters in favour of a particular party can bring huge electoral dividends for it as women constitute nearly half of total electorate.
Increased electoral participation of women during the last decade, both during the Lok Sabha and state assembly elections, is indeed the biggest revolution in Indian elections. Local body elections, especially panchayat elections, have also witnessed a high turnout of women voters. Data of turnout across gender released by the Election Commission of India provides clear evidence for that.
Narrowing Gender Gap
The gap in turnout of men and women voters used to be about 9-10 percent for a very long period during the 1980s and 1990s. The gap during the 1950s and 1960s was much wider – of about 15-16 percent. This has narrowed down significantly during the 2014 and further during the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
During the 2019 Lok Sabha election, turnout amongst men and women voters were in equal proportions. Certainly, women voters have travelled a long way in achieving this parity with their male counterparts, and which did not require any legal struggles either, as has been the case in many other arenas where women are fighting for parity with men.
It is also important to note that there are states where women turnout has surpassed men turnout, which is a big turnaround in Indian elections. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections there were just six states where women turnout was higher compared to men turnout. But during the 2019 Lok Sabha election the number of states in this list increased to an impressive 16.
Women As Swing Voters
This pattern of increased electoral participation of women is not only visible in the Lok Sabha elections, but could be noticed even during the assembly elections held in various states since 2014. In Himachal Pradesh, which recently had its elections, women’s turnout has been higher compared to men for the fourth assembly election in a row.
During the 2022 assembly polls, female turnout was 6 percent higher compared to male turnout in HP. All the states that went to polls in 2022 witnessed women voters outnumbering men with regard to turnout, except Gujarat, where the turnout amongst women voters was 5 percent lower compared to male turnout.
The reason why political parties are trying to woo the women voters is because they do not vote en bloc for any political party. Their vote remains divided between parties of their choice. A series of survey data collected during various assembly elections in different states by Lokniti-CSDS suggests that women voters seem to vote more in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttarakhand and the Jammu region of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, more in favour of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala, for AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, and for the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.
But in large parts of the Hindi heartland states, though the turnout has increased, there is hardly any indication of their showing any preference or voting for any specific party.
Mobilise Women Or Perish
This may be mainly because now a larger number of women voters are making their own voting choices compared to the past. Findings from the Lokniti-CSDS survey indicate that during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections 43 percent women voters indicated having made independent voting decisions which went up to 50 percent during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The 2019 Lok Sabha election witnessed significant increase in such women voters who took an independent voting decision, the numbers rising to 77 percent. We found exposure to social media has contributed to women taking their independent voting decision.
No wonder, these two factors of increasing women’s turnout and increasing tendency to take independent voting decisions have prompted political parties to chalk out a strategy to at least try and mobilise women voters.
Sanjay Kumar is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and a Political Analyst. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.