How women are shaping political fortunes in India
The results of the recently concluded assembly elections have reaffirmed a phenomenon that has been increasingly discussed across the past few electoral seasons — the importance of women as a voting bloc in India.
From West Bengal to Kerala, commentators have attributed the Trinamool Congress’s and the Left Democratic Front’s victory to the high turnout among women. The political recognition of women’s power was also evident during the campaign, with most parties making promises to introduce or increase social welfare measures for them. The success of such poll promises has also been noted in Assam.
This tradition of offering direct benefits to women is not new. Leaders have been known to promise programmes that appeal to women, including, but not limited to, scholarships for girls, reservations for women in government jobs, better safety, subsidised water and electricity, a prohibition on alcohol sale and free bus rides.
There is a calculated math behind these. When India became independent, the Constituent Assembly agreed on the principle of universal suffrage. However, when electoral poll officers came calling to make independent India’s first electoral rolls, many women chose to be registered as the wife or daughter of someone. Sukumar Sen, the then chief election commissioner, noticed this gap and asked for a cleaning of the electoral rolls, so that women’s rights for suffrage could be identified as distinct from their families, and they could cast their independent ballot. Even so, the participation of women in voting remained limited. In the 1962 Lok Sabha elections, for example, only 47% of women came out to vote as opposed to 62% of men.
By 2014, this difference had reduced to a mere 1.5 percentage points, with some states such as Bihar and Odisha recording a higher female turnout on voting day than men. By 2019, women’s turnout across India exceeded that of men, largely on account of states such as Assam, Bihar, Odisha, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal where women outvoted men. In West Bengal, in this assembly election, the percentage of women voters crossed the 49% mark, while in Tamil Nadu, more women voted than men.
Interestingly, more women step out to vote in rural areas. Electoral participation among rural women has risen by nearly 13 percentage points between 1971 and 2014, in contrast to a slight dip in urban female turnout.
But here is the more fascinating fact. Not only are women stepping out more to vote, their voting preferences are no longer in line with those of their families or communities. Back in the 1990s, gender often intersected with other social markers such as caste or class. There was no significant difference in this trend, even in states where female political leaders were present.
This has changed. For one, younger women are joining the voter base. They are more educated than their mothers (on average) and do not usually follow the collective decisions of their village or social group to vote for a given candidate or party. In a survey carried out by Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in February 2019, on 5,000 first-time young female voters (between the ages of 18-22), a little more than three out of five women said they would vote without being influenced by their families, 68% believed that women should participate in politics just like men, and 65% rejected the idea that men make better political leaders than women.
Second, many women voters now believe that their vote matters in electing a new government. Praveen Rai of CSDS analysed voter-behaviour data and found that the perception that their vote matters is a significant predictor for women actually stepping out to vote. Apart from this, “interest in politics” is also an important predictor of women’s degree of participation in voting. This rising interest, more so in rural areas, has been attributed by many studies to the increasing presence of women leaders, who currently comprise nearly half the panchayat leadership positions in India. While they may have risen to such positions due to reservations, such leaders serve as role models for many women.
Finally, changes in the way the ballot is cast may have also strengthened women’s positions. They may have earlier lost out due to ghost paper ballots that were cast in their names. Frauds that took advantage of the fact that women voters would not traverse long distances or stand in queues are less likely now.
Political parties are taking cognisance of this changing trend. They recognise that women now vote for parties or candidates who they believe are likely to address issues that concern them.
Politics aside, for feminists, what is more heartening to see are the shifts recorded in female voter turnout over time, even in traditionally backward states. This, as economists, Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi argue, represents a silent movement towards women’s self-empowerment, one of the rare domains in which we see gender equality in India, more so out of women’s own volition and account, without any effort as such to push for it.
Having witnessed the role female voters have played in this round of assembly elections, one thing has become clear. They are a voting bloc in their own right, a far cry from the late 19th century, when philosophers such as James Mill argued that women need not have separate voting rights because their interests were in line with their families. This ignites hope that women’s concerns as distinct from men, especially in the light of one of the worst crises in India’s history, might be taken up by political parties.