Women Must Vote
In 1967, the female voter turnout was lower than the male turnout by a whopping 11.3 percentage points. This gap remained intact through the subsequent decades, dropping only marginally to 8.4 percentage points in 2004. That gap dramatically fell to 4.4 percentage points by 2009. By 2014, it dropped even further to 1.8 percentage points. In parts of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and in all of Pondicherry, women voters outnumbered men, despite being lower in numbers. In the last four decades, the female vote has increased by 19 per cent, while the male vote has increased by only 3.8 per cent.
Women are voting in larger numbers than ever before. And 2019 could be the first year when a larger percentage of women would vote as compared to men. The primary question that arises from these vital statistics is: do women vote differently from men and how will this variation in voting patterns impact the 2019 polls.
The interest in the influence of the women voters on election outcomes has soared ever since their numbers have swelled. This has been due to many reasons: polls are now increasingly peaceful, awareness among women is increasing rapidly, more women are participating in panchayati raj and Self Help Groups etc.
In their latest book, ‘The Verdict’, Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala claim that the BJP would have won 376 parliamentary seats in the 2014 parliament elections if only men had voted for them. On the contrary, if only women had voted, then the BJP would have got 265 seats -- 7 short of majority. The manner in which the BJP government has claimed to provide welfare schemes, with special focus on women, makes it apparent that the ruling party is taking woman voters seriously. Perhaps, they would have drawn lessons from the fact that many non-BJP ruled states that have so far resisted the BJP juggernaut have declared schemes that give incentives to Self Help Groups. Deepak Mishra, professor of social sciences in JNU, postulates, “Deepening of democracy, mass media, female literacy and increased participation in the workforce are responsible for this increase in share of women voters.”
It is impossible to say who women will vote for, because this is a wildly diverse and complex demographic, with immense variation in beliefs and choices. No two opinions on the government’s policy-making are the same, nor any two motivations to vote.
That the female voter has increased in significance is evident from the fact that the states have increasingly been declaring schemes and incentives for women. Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s government in MP had announced numerous populist schemes, such as cash incentives for girls who marry after an eligible age, go to school etc. On top of this there were additional sops such as cycles for girls who score high in examinations. Nitish Kumar’s government in Bihar has reserved seats for women in the panchayati raj system and banned alcohol in Bihar, factors that are said to have significantly contributed to his electoral victory in 2015. The TDP government in Andhra Pradesh gave Rs 10,000 in cash along with smart phones to 94 lakh Self Help Groups, at a cost of Rs 9,400 crore to the exchequer. They even wrote off loans taken by women worth Rs 1,500 crore.
In Mizoram, to attract women voters, polling booths were coloured pink. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee has proudly claimed that 50 lakh girls have benefitted from the “highly successful” Kanyashree programme launched by her government. Sanjay Kumar, Director at Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, says that “safety, though a matter of concern for women, is not an electoral issue. Women vote for roads, jobs, drinking water and schemes”.
On the corner of Lazar Road, where Bengaluru’s up-market Cooke Town ends and the Dalit colony begins, men sit on marble slabs and read newspapers, enjoying the afternoon sun. A few stand in groups and discuss politics. As far as the eye can see, Ratna Kumar is the only woman in sight. She sits on the ground and washes goat intestines in water, and then begins chopping up some onions. Behind her stands a life-size hoarding of a young man laughing that says, ‘Rest in Peace Vinod Kumar (1984-2014)’.
Vinod Kumar was Ratna’s brother who died 5 years ago. He was survived by two children and a wife, and no means to support them.
In the days following his death, the Congress party (led by KJ George, two-time MLA of the Sarvagnanagar constituency in Karnataka) gave the bereaved family permission to set up a food stall on the corner of Lazar Road. Ratna runs it with the help of her father, and serves food to residents of the Ambedkar Colony. Three photographs sit on the aluminum wall behind the cash counter -- one of a mosque, one of a Hindu idol and one of Jesus Christ. Ratna says in fluent English that by permitting the food stall, it is KJ George who helps provide Vinod’s family, and her own, sustenance. “They have done everything for us, how can we vote for anyone else?”
Further inside this Dalit colony live a mishmash of Hindus, Christians and Muslims who speak Marathi, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu. There is a temple, and a few feet from it, the office of the Welfare Association of Ambedkar Colony, and one building ahead, a church. I ask a woman who is standing with her friends if she would vote, and if so, who she will vote for. “You see, we are not very much interested in this sort of thing,” one sheepishly responds. “Yes, I have never voted,” another laughs. Her friends laugh and agree.
‘We are squeezed dry paying multiple taxes. We pay interest, chalaans. Banks ask us for one thousand papers before we can get a small loan. What about the big shots? This Mallya and these diamond merchants? They take our money and they are absconding, and nobody stops them. If Modi wanted, in two minutes he could have stopped Mallya. He didn’t.
This attitude is changing rapidly. A National Election Study shows that in 2014, 61 per cent women in the general population were exposed to the news media -- up from 35 per cent in 2009.
Inside the colony a few women sit on the steps outside their homes. One is giving her son an oil massage. The others are here for a quick chat between neighbours. These women, in contrast, have strong opinions about who they will vote for.
Vijay Lakshmi, 55, says, “For state elections we vote for Congress and JDS. But for the central government we will vote for BJP.”
Her neighbour Nithya Kumar, interjects. “Zero Balance accounts”. She is referring to the Jan Dhan Yojana, by which one can set up a zero balance account, which will charge no transaction fees.
“Our ration has increased now,” Vijay Lakshmi adds. “And I got back Rs 300 from my gas payment.” The women are confident of and pleased with Narendra Modi’s populist schemes.
Shifa Alam, the only Muslim sitting among the women disagrees. “I will vote for the Congress because it is the lesser of the two evils. I simply cannot vote for Modi.”
Meena, another Muslim, agrees. “These politicians keep creating problems between the Hindus and Muslims. First, he used to say every Muslim will have Koran in one hand and a laptop in another. Now we know it is all rubbish.”
I ask her about the law banning Triple Talaq, and she says it does not matter to her. Her entire family votes for the Congress and will continue to do so.
A few hundred meters away, sitting with her husband on the corner selling milk packets, is Jyothi, 58. At first, her husband says she is too busy to talk, and asks me to go away, but she winks and signals for me to come back when he is gone. A few minutes later, I return.
She begins in fluent English. “See, I will not tell you whom I will vote for. But I will tell you this. We are squeezed dry paying multiple taxes. We pay interest. We pay our chalaans. Banks ask us for one thousand papers before we can get a small loan. But, what about the big shots? This Mallya and these diamond merchants? They take our money and they are absconding, and nobody stops them. If Modi wanted, in two minutes he could have stopped Mallya. He didn’t. And here we are, paying the price for their sins.” Angrily, she continues. “They think they are very smart, making a fool of us. But they can’t make a fool of me. I am very knowledgeable.”
Chamrajpet is a neighbourhood in Bengaluru populated largely with upper-caste Hindus. The head office of RSS is located here. Rani, 42, mans a grocery store in one of the by-lanes of the Chamrajpet market. She only speaks Kannada, and her 18-year old son helps us communicate.
“I will not vote at all this election,” she says, and throws her palms up in the air. As they fall, she says breathlessly, “Why should we vote? What good has ever come out of voting?” Rani had helped vote the BJP into power in 2014, but GST and demonetisation struck immense blows to her business. “I don’t want anyone to come to power. There is simply no point.”
Further down the road is a Mother Dairy shop. Nandini, 22, sits at its counter and she is more optimistic. She is a student, and though the shop is ordinarily managed by her father, on weekends she takes charge.
Nandini is a big admirer of Modi. She says, simply, “He is the best.” She believes demonetisation was a good move. (Her father’s store did not bear any costs because, being a government shop, they could accept old notes for weeks after). She also commends the increase in the non-taxable income bracket from Rs 3 to 5 lakh. “If we give him one more chance, he will be even better.”
I ask her if her family agrees.
“My father loves the Congress. When we talk about politics, he goes on and on, on his own trip talking about how great the Congress is,” she says, and rolls her eyes.
Sujata, 29, is an investment banker. Her primary sources of news are Bloomberg and an application called Flipboard, that aggregates news from a variety of websites. She insists that she does not support any particular political party, but she does believe that India needs a strong centralised leadership, with a vibrant democracy, and that to this end, the Modi government gets points for trying.
“The government has made efforts to reduce red tape for businesses. I also agreed with the intent of demonetisation, even if that intent was not eventually served. Sure, maybe it had zero impact on black money, but at least the government was willing to try. Also, the GDP figures for the first half of 2018 were encouraging.” She believes there were several positive (if unintended) outcomes from demonetisation. “My maid has started using a bank account. I transfer her salary electronically. More people have moved to electronic transactions than ever before.”
Asked about communalism and the growing Hindu-Muslim divide, she says, “Every political party is trying to pander to some group or another, whether majority, or minority. In this context, no party is better or worse.” She reiterates that she does not support any particular party, but would re-elect the current government for lack of alternatives. “I’d vote for anyone who at least makes an attempt to improve governance in the country.”
Shivangi, also 29, works as a consultant and has diametrically opposite views. “In 2014, the NDA was handed a good economy. Macro trends were supportive. Now everybody can sense that the economy is struggling, and nobody believes government statistics anymore.”
She does not believe demonetisation served any purpose. “The only way demonetisation makes any sense is if it was for garnering votes. Even then, in the rural heartland, people suffered too much. It may backfire politically.”
She has several other criticisms of the NDA. “They have destroyed the secular fabric of our country. They have undermined our institutions. They have declared that any dissent is sedition. They have conflated the government and State, and if you say anything about the government you are anti-national.” In terms of foreign policy too, she believes the government has been strong-arming our neighbours. “Our relationships with Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives are deteriorating. Our job should be to strengthen the political leadership in Pakistan, but we are not even entering into dialogue with them anymore. The less we cooperate with the political leadership there, the more we are strengthening the Pakistan army.”
Where Sujata and Shivangi agree is when we discuss the Women’s Reservation Bill, a bill to reserve 33 per cent of parliamentary seats for women, one that Rahul Gandhi has committed to passing in 2019, should his party come to power. Both believe it is the right move to make. Shivangi adds, “We should have reservation of seats for women. But it’s equally important that women rise through party ranks independently and of their own merit, unlike Priyanka Gandhi and Nirmala Sitharaman.”
Bhavika, also 29, and an aspiring writer, disagrees. “I do not support pandering to vote-banks in any form, be it communal, or genderbased. I believe in bottom-up empowerment and equal opportunity, rather than consolatory crumbs. The focus should be on improving the health and education of women across the country, rather than promoting the undeserving over the deserving.”
Bhavika’s primary source of news is the website, Nation With NaMo, that claims to be India’s ‘“Biggest Community of Volunteers’. She also watches The Republic, Times Now, WION and India Today. She pointedly mentions that she does not read Scroll, The Wire, The Print, The Quint, NDTV or HuffPost: all of them publications that have been critical of the Modi government from time to time.
Ratna runs the shop with the help of her father, and serves food to residents of the Ambedkar Colony. Three photographs sit on the aluminum wall behind the cash counter -- one of a mosque, one of a Hindu idol and one of Jesus Christ
When asked what she believes the Modi government has done well, she directs me to a government website, 48 Months, which lists, in infographic form, all the achievements of the government, such as Number of Houses Completed under PM Awas Yojana, (1,53,00,000) and Gram Panchayats Connected By Optical Fiber (123,854). I ask her about demonetisation, which she believes has achieved much good. “I did not face any inconveniences whatsoever. In a country like India, which common man would require a withdrawal of over Rs 2000 at one time, from an ATM? The honest taxpayer was never denied the use of a cheque for dealing in larger amounts. The honest citizen, I would expect, would smile and bear a slight hiccup for a larger good. Sources of fake currency have been squeezed dry, and thousands of crores of rupees have been brought into the banking system. Thousands of ghost companies have been closed, and the economy is more transparent.”
It is impossible to say who women will vote for, because this is a wildly diverse and complex demographic, with immense variation in beliefs and choices. No two opinions on the government’s policy-making are the same, nor any two motivations to vote. Political parties covet the women vote, but are unable to crack it because women do not vote as a bloc. The women’s vote is scattered and cannot be linked to a single issue or even a group.
What matters most for now is that women must vote.