Rima Pramanik, 18, a first year student of Mathematics honours from North 24 Parganas district, will cast her vote for the first time in 2019. She is one of 60 million first-time women voters who will exercise their right in this fiercely contested general election.
Pramanik is also a beneficiary of the West Bengal chief minister’s Kanyashree scheme (stipend of Rs 1,000 per year for girl students of Class IX to XII and a Rs 25,000 one-time grant for continuing their higher studies after school). On her voting choices, she is clear that she will vote for the candidate who has enabled her.
“Whoever is helping us, has been with us at every bend in our life, will get my vote,” she said. She’s also got a bicycle from the state to go to school and financial support for her father’s operation. She knows she is a clear beneficiary of the schemes rolled out by the Mamata Banerjee government.
Nilima Mondal, 31, is from Bodai village, also in North 24 Parganas. She has used the chullah (a hearth which burns wood) to cook for nearly all her life, and has developed bronchial problems for her pains. All that changed after she became a beneficiary of the Prime Minister’s Ujjwala scheme and got a free LPG connection. The gas connection has improved her health, and while her daughter is a beneficiary of the state’s Kanyashree scheme, she says she will plump for the prime minister who has “brought a smile to my home”.
Like many other women, Rima and Nilima find themselves at the centre of a high-pitched election where the stakes are high for both, those in power and in the opposition. The non-committal woman voter with no loyalties, but an independent mind is the one the parties are targeting most determinedly. And in recent years, women have been coming out to vote in greater numbers than ever before, well-informed and independent in her choices.
Milan Vaishnav, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, whose research focus is the political economy of India, believes the woman voter’s moment has arrived: “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.”
WHY IS SHE IMPORTANT?
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.
“Our country is moving from women’s development to women-led development,” said the prime minister in a recent speech. Interim finance minister Piyush Goyal evoked “mothers and sisters” while trumpeting every flagship scheme of the Modi government. “I want to give 10 crore toilets to my sisters and mothers so that they get dignity of life,” Goyal said in a post-budget interview to India Today, invoking women to justify the government’s massive off-balance sheet borrowings. “That programme cannot wait even if it means I have to borrow a little more.”
The Opposition too is not far behind. 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.
The gender gap in male and female voter turnouts is at a historic low. So, if earlier it was three women to every 10 male voters, now the numbers are up to seven women voters for every 10 men. Women’s participation reached an all-time high in the 2014 Lok Sabha election (260 million with a 65.63 per cent voter turnout). The difference in turnout was down to below 2 per cent in the 2014 general election.
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 per cent following the revision of electoral rolls in 2018.
CHANGE IS IN THE AIR
All political parties are following the data to pitch their political messaging and campaign strategies to appeal to women voters since there is enough empirical evidence now to suggest that women voters can swing elections. In December 2018, the Congress carried out a survey of about 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 per cent respondents said they get information independently of the men and are independent in their political choices, a near complete reversal of their responses in 2009 (after the 2008 assembly election) when most said they vote for whoever the family voted. Karauli, incidentally, has a lower literacy rate than the national average and is classified as an under-developed district.
A lot of this also has to do with access to information. With over a billion mobile connections cutting across social sectors, access to information has become easier than ever before and women are consuming it fervently. Praveen Chakravarty, chairman, data analytics department of the Congress party, explains that the concept of a ‘household vote’ has turned on its head. “I think in a household now, there could be four different votes,” he says. “The year 2019 will be an information election. There’s been a dramatic change in the way political parties are viewing this election.”
Shamika Ravi, director of research at Brookings India, cites 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 happening eight months later in October-November. Ravi’s comparative analysis of electoral outcomes for the 243 constituencies showed that the winning party changed in 87 constituencies. In other words, 36 per cent of the previous winners were voted out.
“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.” Nitish Kumar, who took over as chief minister, instantly recognised it and “has been very sensitive and responsive to the preference of female voters”. 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 this ‘vote bank’.
Ravi explains another facet of her study-the results 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 the society. A far cry from the time when universal suffrage was being debated, when the 19th century political theorist and economist, James Mill, had argued that to keep the expenses of a representative system down, women need not have separate voting rights because their interests were included within those of their husbands and fathers.
Traditionally, the BJP’s appeal to women voters has lagged slightly behind its acceptance by men. In a 2014 post-election survey, the party found that 33 per cent men and 29 per cent women had voted for the BJP, according to a party document accessed by INDIA TODAY. Fast forward to 2017, and a party research paper showed that the party had made big gains amongst women voters in Haryana, Odisha and West Bengal while the growth among the men was moderate.
Another pre-election intra-party survey in 2018, in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan this time, showed a slight bump in popularity among female voters, from 29 per cent to 31 per cent between 2014-2018. According to a senior party strategist, it was the ‘macho bachelor’ image of PM Modi that now appealed to them.
Women have been a key constituency for Modi since he entered electoral politics. He has always projected himself as a ‘protector’, especially among rural women. Even after the Gujarat riots in 2002, when there was a big question mark on his return to power, he had relied on the support of women who would often come to him to get their children blessed, say Modi watchers in Gujarat.
It was this image which prodded Modi to look at women as a crucial constituency. On taking charge again as CM, he took many female-centric decisions. The absence of separate toilets for girls was a major reason for parents to not send their daughters to school. He raised these issues in the 2014 election too, and they were at the centre of his campaign pitch.
The past five years have seen many schemes focused on making the lives of women easier. The Ujjwala gas kit, extension of maternity leave for government employees, the Rs 6,000 allowance for pregnant and lactating mothers, even Swachh Bharat-have all sought to engage the woman voter. “Our health cover for pregnant women under Mission Indradhanush and Poshan Abhiyan is unique in the Indian history, as it focuses on pre-natal care,” says BJP president Amit Shah. “It’ll will have a long-term effect, as it should drastically bring down malnutrient birth rates.”
Party sources say a game-changer for the Modi government in terms of women voters is the hike of Rs 1,000 to 1,200 in honorariums to 2.5 million anganwadi and ASHA workers (announced late last year after an agitation in which they demanded a considerably higher pay hike), besides the free annual accident insurance cover of Rs 4 lakh.
The party is hoping to make inroads into the Muslim women constituency through the triple talaq bill and performing Haj by unaccompanied Muslim women legal. Minister for minority affairs MA Naqvi feels “the two steps have made a deep impact even in orthodox sections of the Muslim community”.
Ravi believes that the schemes around maternal health and LPG are likely to impact electoral outcomes because respiratory ailments and indoor pollution are leading cause of death in the country’s north. So too Swachh Bharat and the open defecation-free campaign, as a leading cause of children’s deaths in poorer states is diarrhoea.
WHAT WOMEN WANT
As it turns out, women want and vote on very different issues as compared to men. While more men are likely to vote on the lines of caste, religion, nationalism and identity, women are most likely to focus on economic issues which have a direct bearing on the quality of their life. “For the female voter, it is about the present and future, while for the male voter it’s about identity,” says the Congress’s Chakravarty. The party has carried out several surveys which show that the woman voter cannot be wooed by clichés or headlines. Findings from Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra suggest that the woman voter is angry about demonetisation and, remarkably, the cow slaughter ban (here the concerns seem to be the livelihoods of their sons and husbands, and stray cattle overrunning their farms). Women are also likely to vote over job opportunities for themselves or their children. Other top concerns are safety and security.
In Kerala, for instance, women voters outnumber the men and no political party can afford to ignore their preferences. In the 2016 assembly poll, women voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Left Democratic Front. A major factor is this was the sexual abuse cases that came to light during the United Democratic Front regime. Even Congress MP Shashi Tharoor was nearly defeated in the 2014 Lok Sabha election after the suicide of his wife, Sunanda Pushkar.
A big impetus in mobilising the woman voter in recent years has been reservations in local body polls. The probability of a woman candidate winning is strongly correlated with their numbers in a constituency. Ravi says: “Women vote for women. When more women contest, there is a pipeline effect. It lowers the barriers of entry into these public institutions.”
But in terms of actual political leadership positions held by women, the number is abysmally low. The party that has women in strategic leadership positions, ironically, happens to be the BJP-at 27 per cent. Political parties like the Aam Aadmi Party, Trinamool Congress and the Communist parties have dismal ratios. That said, both the national parties, the BJP and Congress, have now fielded their strongest women leaders as party spokespersons to gather momentum among woman voters. As elections near, the role that leaders like Priyanka Gandhi in the Congress and Smriti Irani in the BJP play could see more scrutiny. They could emerge as the flag-bearers of the rising woman electorate this year. 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 the better for it.
with Amarnath K. Menon, Romita Datta, Rahul Noronha, Amitabh Srivastava, Rohit Parihar, Aravind Gowda, Ashish Misra, MG Arun, Jeemon Jacob and Kiran D Tare.