India’s political parties have their eye on female voters this election.

Women are a growing political force, with 471 million to cast ballots this year, compared to 497 million men. It’s likely they will outnumber men at the next general election.

These statistics are focusing the minds of those running for the Lok Sabha, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, both trying to woo women voters with various policy promises.

The Mahalakshmi scheme of the Congress promises Rs 1 lakh (USD$1180) per year to every poor Indian family as an unconditional cash transfer directly to the bank account of the oldest woman of the household. The BJP’s Subhadra Yojana promises every woman a cash voucher of Rs 50,000 (USD$590) if they come to power.

Studies indicate that cash transfers and targeted programmes affect women’s voting choices, leading to a substantive increase in voter turnout, which usually favours a sitting member. 

It’s no surprise, then, that in recent state elections, parties have strategically leveraged welfare schemes targeting women to sway their voting preferences.

These schemes, such as the Ladli Behna scheme in Madhya Pradesh or the Gruha Lakshmi scheme in Karnataka, have resulted in increasing female voter turnout, and more votes for whichever party promises to implement them.

But questions linger about their long-term sustainability and impact on essential sectors like education and healthcare.

Some critics argue that many women-centred welfare initiatives prioritise short-term cash distribution offered as doles (entitlements) without addressing more fundamental issues such as high unemployment among the educated, poor tertiary education access, and safe delivery of healthcare.

In the 2019 general elections, a Lokniti-CSDS survey revealed that the BJP benefited from increased support from female voters. This surge was attributed to the growing popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the positive reception of welfare schemes.

It also explains why cash transfers offered to poorer people have worked well for the BJP in wooing women in some parts of India. 

However, this strategy has been less effective in the southern states, where higher levels of development mean that voters, including women, prioritise intergenerational mobility and economic opportunities over immediate cash benefits.

As a result, In the last three assembly elections in 2011, 2016 and 2021, the BJP won only one seat in Kerala in 2016 and four seats in Tamil Nadu in 2021.

During the BJP’s successful campaign in 2014, the party’s manifesto emphasised priorities such as reducing high rates of crimes against women, enhancing female education and employment levels, and proposing a constitutional amendment for 33 percent reservation in parliamentary and state assemblies.

However, these promises remain unfulfilled. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau indicates a rise in crimes against women, reaching approximately 445,250 cases in 2022, up from nearly 338,000 in 2014.

The government’s pledge to reserve 33 percent of parliamentary seats for women remains unimplemented. The delay in conducting the 2021 Decadal Census has made India the only G20 nation yet to complete such a census.

This delay is significant because the reservation for women in legislative bodies, as mandated by the Women’s Reservation Bill enacted in 2023, will only take effect after the census and subsequent delimitation exercise, scheduled for 2026. The postponement of the census directly impacts the timeline for implementing women’s reservation.

India allocates less than 1 percent of its GDP to healthcare, and there has been a reduction in spending on education. The extension of the free grain program to over 800 million individuals until 2028 is indicative of challenges in the rural economy.

Experts argue that cash transfers have become a convenient but short-term fix, leading to the neglect of essential long-term investments in agriculture, education and healthcare.

In the 2023 Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections, the BJP’s Ladli Behna scheme emerged as a major factor in the party’s win. This initiative centred on providing a monthly stipend of Rs1000 (USD$12) to eligible women between the age of 23 and 60 . If women under 60 received less than Rs. 1000 ($12) per month from any other pension scheme, they would also receive the Rs. 1000 ($12) payment.

In the Karnataka elections, the Congress party’s Gruha Lakshmi scheme, which pays women heads of families Rs 2,000 (USD$24) per month and offers free bus rides for women, was instrumental in its victory.

In Rajasthan, the Congress Party has guaranteed every woman head of family Rs 10,000 (USD$120) a year under the Grah Laxmi Guarantee scheme if voted back to power. Tamil Nadu, likewise, has recently implemented the Kalaignar Magalir Urimai Scheme which provides Rs 1,000 ($12) per month to all women above 21 with an annual household income of less than Rs 2.5 lakh ($2995).

While the gender disparity in political engagement may be gradually diminishing, Indian women still face stark challenges in economic participation and access to land and assets.

As of 2022, women’s workforce participation rate stood at approximately 24 percent, marking one of the lowest figures among emerging economies. Mens’ participation rate exceeded 73 percent. Another study by Azim Premji University conducted in 2023 revealed that 42 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were jobless.

Cautionary voices are raised against the perils of “competitive populism“, emphasising the burden imposed by an excess of welfare schemes on public funds. International Monetary Fund data records that India’s public debt, inclusive of both federal and state governments, exceeds 80 percent of the GDP which is much higher compared to Bangladesh (39.09) and Pakistan (75.75).

These schemes have evolved into permanent entitlements, and the consequences remain uncertain. The debate over whether “New Welfarism” is detrimental to the treasury continues. Additionally, experts caution that these initiatives alone cannot eradicate poverty. Investments in healthcare and education are equally imperative.

India’s electoral landscape therefore, reflects a dynamic interplay between the growing influence of female voters, the strategic deployment of welfare schemes by political parties, and the persistent socioeconomic challenges.

While initiatives targeting women have proven effective in mobilising support and increasing voter turnout, questions linger about their long-term sustainability and impact on essential sectors like education and healthcare.

As India approaches future elections, there’s a pressing need for a balanced, gender-sensitive approach to development that addresses both immediate needs (via entitlements) and underlying structural issues (for safeguarding economic opportunity and intergenerational mobility), while ensuring the empowerment and well-being of all women.

Deepanshu Mohan is Professor of Economics, Dean, IDEAS, Office of Interdisciplinary Studies, and Director, Centre for New Economics Studies (CNES), O.P. Jindal Global University. He is a Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, and a 2024 Fall Academic Visitor to the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Oxford.

Aditi Desai is a Senior Research Analyst with CNES, O.P. Jindal Global University and a Team Lead of its Infosphere Team.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.


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India’s politicians recognise the growing influence of women at the ballot box but their schemes to win their votes come with risks.
Female voters are a growing force and the parties know it