In today’s podcast, we will examine the role that women are expected to play in this year’s lok sabha election - as voters, and as the leaders.
Rakesh Sharma | Harish Puppala
As the latest, greatest election in the world rolls along, we have now completed 5 out of 7 phases, I think. We’re almost at the playoff stage where teams...wait, that’s the IPL. They’ve both been on for so long that I’ve lost track.
Anyway, the 2019 election. Protracted as it is, this year’s election allows us the opportunity to examine our political landscape in a bit more detail. In today’s podcast, we will examine the role that women are expected to play in this year’s lok sabha election - as voters, and as the leaders.
Okay, I’ll admit that the phrase “women voters” is more than a little ungainly. Because women don’t vote en masse. In fact, they average over 65% in voting percentage for parliamentary elections, compared to 67% for men. Almost neck-and-neck there. If the recurring promises by politicians to declare prohibition in their states are any indication, women voters are even addressed directly by leaders across the spectrum. One gentleman by the name Nitish Kumar did so not too long ago. What I’m getting at is, women tend to vote differently than men. And in 2019, estimates claim that around 430 million women are eligible to vote in India. Women voters have, over the course of years, taken an increasingly active part in the electoral process.
Women in India were granted voting rights in 1950 by universal suffrage, which is enshrined in Article 326 of the Indian constitution. Remarkably, women in the United States had been allowed to vote for just 30 years at the time, following a landmark ruling that granted women citizens of the US the right to vote in 1920, after a gap of 113 years. Given the literacy levels in India in the 50s and 60s, it’s probably doesn’t come as a surprise that there was a big gap in the voting percentages between the two genders. A Times of India report claimed that the gap in turnout between men and women was 16.7% in 1962, but that gap fell to around 4.4% in 2009, and just 1.79% in the 2014 lok sabha polls. According to the book The Verdict, which is written by India’s veteran news anchor, and head of NDTV, Prannoy Roy along with election researcher Dorab Sopariwala, “In 1962, women’s turnout was 15% lower than men’s turnout; but by 2014 women’s turnout had almost reached parity with men, short by only 1.5%.” In a rough estimate, if earlier it was three women to every 10 male voters, now the numbers are up to seven women voters for every 10 men.
That progress notwithstanding, Roy and Sopariwala speculate that 21 million women did not get to vote in 2014 because they were not registered. They said Jammu & Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar ranked the worst in terms of women turnout while West Bengal, Assam, and Odisha were among the best, as were smaller regions like Lakshadweep, Nagaland, and Dadra & Nagar Haveli.
An analysis in Scroll put forward an interesting conjecture, that is perhaps not unfounded - “There are a variety of reasons for women going out and exercising their franchise in bigger numbers than ever before...political fortunes can swing on the basis of just a single percentage point increase in vote share…(that) appears to have encouraged parties to focus more specifically on appealing to women voters and ensuring they make their way to the polling stations.” That analysis claims that in 2019, India’s female voting-age population is expected to be around 97.2% of the total male population. “One would expect the same proportion for voters, except women voters are just 92.7% of the male electorate. That is a 4.5% shortfall, or 21 million people.”
Roy and Sopariwala’s book claims that the 21 million number is equivalent to every single woman in any one of the states like Jharkhand, Haryana, Telangana, Kerala or Chhattisgarh not being allowed to vote at all. Alright, hyperbole aside, the NDTV analysts claim, “21 million missing women translates to 38,000 missing women voters in every constituency in India, on average. There are a large number of Lok Sabha constituencies – more than one in every five seats – that are won or lost by a margin of less than 38,000 votes.”
Kill your stereotypes
According to Business Insider, the proportion of women who stepped out to vote surpassed that of men in the assembly elections held in 2017 and 2018. It was as high as 70% for women in the last two years, compared to 43% among men. That data set addresses the six states that went to polls in the last two years - Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. In fact, several districts in Tamil Nadu, Nagaland and Sikkim have closed the gender gap and, in some of them, more women are voting than men. In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly poll, women voters outnumbered their male counterparts. About 63.26 per cent of women voters in the politically crucial state went to the polling booths as against 59.43 per cent of the men. In Karnataka, the number of women voters increased by 13% following the revision of electoral rolls in 2018. In Kerala, women voters outnumber the men and no political party can afford to ignore their preferences.
All political parties are paying attention to this change on the ground. They’re tweaking their political messaging campaign strategies to appeal to women voters since there is enough empirical evidence to suggest that women voters can swing elections. India Today claimed that In December 2018, the Congress carried out a survey of approximately 40,000 women in Karauli, Rajasthan, to understand their voting behaviour. The survey asked about their access to information, political choices (were they different from those of their husbands, brothers or fathers). The findings were striking - nearly 75% of the respondents said they get information independently of the men and are independent in their political choices, a near complete reversal of their responses after the 2008 assembly election, when most said they voted for whoever the family voted. Karauli, incidentally, has a lower literacy rate than the national average and is classified as an under-developed district.
Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, whose research focus is the political economy of India, believes this moment belongs to the ladies. He said, "For the first time in history, we are seeing the gender gap close. Women are coming out to exercise their franchise, which makes them swing voters. These are people you can convince to join your side. We have seen it in 2014, in places where women's turnout increased, the BJP benefitted more." Roy and Sopariwala claim the BJP-led NDA had a lead of 9% among women voters, compared to a lead of 19% among men.
An analysis in India Today claimed that women vote on very different issues compared to men. While more men are likely to vote on the lines of caste, religion, nationalism and identity, women are more likely to focus on economic issues which have a direct bearing on the quality of their life. A congress party analysts observed that "For the female voter, it is about the present and future, while for the male voter it's about identity." Women are likely to vote over job opportunities for themselves or their children, as well safety and security.
And politicians are paying close attention. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a speech recently, “Our country is moving from women's development to women-led development.” Interim finance minister Piyush Goyal said, “I want to give 10 crore toilets to my sisters and mothers so that they get dignity of life. That programme cannot wait even if it means I have to borrow a little more.” Platitudes aside, as per an analysis by India Today, “The importance of the Indian woman voter is reflected in the political rhetoric across parties. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's flagship schemes-whether it be Ujjwala or the sanitation campaign of building toilets or prioritising ASHA (centred around maternal health)-are all focussed on women as key beneficiaries. Politicians are also extolling the virtues of women as better money managers and homemakers.”
The opposition isn’t far behind. The India Today piece also noted that “Congress president Rahul Gandhi has made a fervent poll pitch, saying if voted to power his party would ensure the passage of the Women's Reservation Bill, which proposes to reserve 33 per cent of all seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies. Bringing Priyanka Gandhi to a crucial, strategic position in the party is also a move to directly reach out to women voters.” Praveen Chakravarty, chairman, data analytics department of the Congress party, explained that the old concept of a 'household vote' is all but gone. He said, "I think in a household now, there could be four different votes...The year 2019 will be an information election. There's been a dramatic change in the way political parties are viewing this election."
Much of this change is owed to the increasing ease of access to information. While we wince over what our mothers and fathers receive and forward on WhatsApp, the fact is that with over a billion mobile connections cutting across social sectors, access to information has become easier than ever before and Indian women are consume it fervently. Shamika Ravi, director of research at Brookings India, cited a study she conducted on Bihar's two assembly elections in 2005. With no clear winner in February, president's rule was declared, with re-elections eight months later in October-November. Her comparative analysis of electoral outcomes for the 243 constituencies showed that the winning party changed in 87 constituencies, meaning 36% of the previous winners were voted out. She explained, “That brought an end to the RJD rule of 15 years and led to the emergence of JD(U) as the single largest party. There were no new policies in these eight months. The explanation for the changed result was the voter turnout of women in Bihar. More women came out and voted against the previous winners the second time.” The beneficiary of that increased turnout by women voters, current CM Nitish Kumar, paid heed to the winds of change in his state. Ever since, many of his programmes, from the bicycle scheme to liquor prohibition in the state, seem to suggest that he recognises the power of those voters.
Here is another interesting observation by Shamika Ravi that I must include here. She explains that the results of her study indicated that a spurt in female voter turnout reduced the re-election chances of a party, while the rise in the number of male voters improved it. When women exercise their vote independently, they show that their interests are distinct from the other half of society.
Women and political leadership
Women, who vote for different reasons, require representatives who reflect their own ideas and aspirations. But that change has been slow to come about. The current union cabinet has 9 ministers, the most in independent India’s history.
A recent analysis by Narayan Ramachandran of InKlude Labs in Mint explained that India ranks 153 out of 190 nations in the percentage of women in the lower house of world parliaments. India had 65 women out of 545 members of Parliament elected to the 16th Lok Sabha in May 2014, for a 12% representation. According to a list compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Rwanda ranks first with 61% of its lower house representatives being women. Nordic countries, as a region, are the leaders in this regard, with an average of about 40%. The UK and the US are relative laggards with 32% and 23%, respectively. Pakistan, with 20% participation from women, is also ahead of India. Prior to the 15th Lok Sabha, that number was stagnant at 9% for decades.
But the tide is turning. Women now account for 46% of elected representatives at the various levels of panchayati raj institutions, according to the Ministry of Panchayati Raj. Bidyut Mohanty, who heads the Women’s Studies division at Delhi-based Institute of Social Sciences, told Scroll, “Nearly a million women have gone through the panchayat system as elected leaders and another two million have contested the elections and lost. They are very aware voters, aware of development and other issues of their villages.”
This change at the grassroots is heading upwards as well. Two political parties - Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal in Odisha and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress in West Bengal - announced they will be fielding a significant number of women for the 2019 elections. That is a welcome change in a country where women comprise 48.1% of the population but hold only 12.1% of Lok Sabha seats. Patnaik famously announced he will earmark 33% (or 7 out of 21) of the BJD’s parliamentary election tickets for women. As of now, only 3 out of the 21 MPs representing Odisha are women. In the 147-strong state assembly, women account for just 8% of all legislators, less than the national average of 9%. Another surprise here: Haryana has the highest proportion of women MLAs at 15% of the total Assembly strength. In Kerala, women’s representation peaked at 9.3% in the 2001 election but has steadfastly remained below 6% ever since.
In Odisha’s neighbouring state West bengal, TMC’s firebrand chief Mamata Banerjee released a list of party candidates to Parliament for 2019. Of these, 41% are women, which is unprecedented for any election ever in the history of Indian democracy. Women’s voter turnout in Bengal exceeded that of men even in the 2011 assembly election - the election that saw Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress end 34 years of uninterrupted Marxist rule in a communist bastion. Scroll noted that In the next assembly election, while women’s voter turnout remained higher than that of men, more women also contested the election as candidates. The results were proof Mamata’s popularity was unparalleled in Bengal. The Communist Party of India-Marxist was relegated to number three in the state while the BJP emerged as the principal opposition, signalling a new era in the state’s politics.
However, the two national parties are yet to fully throw their weight behind this change. Of the 184 candidates announced in the first list by the BJP, only 23 were women, making that 12.5%. In the Congress’s list, 17 of 143 candidates, or 11.9%, were women. Shaina NC, party spokesperson and treasurer of the Maharashtra BJP, has been vocal about her disappointment with this state of affairs. She said, “The BJP has already earmarked 33% to women within the organisation. But that is not sufficient. Fighting elections is most important.” She also tweeted, “Upset and appalled to know that other than @MamataOfficial...and @Naveen_Odisha...all other parties only pay lip service to our cause...What is worrisome is that we are still having dialogues and discussions on the most basic rights that any human being should be entitled to. That's why a 33 per cent reservation must be a collective, concerted, conscious effort of all women in public life...Here on, I will champion the cause of reservation even if I have to fight the male chauvinistic mindset in my part(y)...(and) in all other parties too.”That said, let’s not forget that this is the year Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra enters the fray as a game changer, and Smriti Irani is expected to upset Rahul Gandhi in the constituency of Amethi. The final world on this subject goes to the trenchant analysis by India Today: “The 2019 election promises to be one in which the rules of engagement will change further as will the political discourse. As women come out in greater numbers, they will seek more accountability and are more likely to vote for development than caste and identity. If that happens, the country will be (so much) the better for it.”
Get Lok Sabha 2019 Live Election Results, constituency-wise tally, news, views and analysis
Follow our Lok Sabha Election Result Live Blog here.