The results to the elections to the five state legislative assemblies underscore how women play an increasingly important role in India’s parliamentary democracy


Cedit: Ajit Bajaj Cedit: Ajit Bajaj

Women are the new-found constituency of politicians for sure-shot victory. In a country where woman representatives are only a few, who too are accepted with contempt, they have become a force that is going to redefine electoral politics of the world’s largest democracy. And not without reasons.

More and more women are coming out to vote. Women voters outnumbered men in a significant number of constituencies in the December elections to the state assemblies of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram.

Among Chhattisgarh’s 90 constituencies, in 24, women voted more than men; the same was true in 51 of Madhya Pradesh’s 230 seats. In fact, in 24 seats the rate of women voting crossed 80 per cent. Mizoram, anyway, has 19,399 more woman voters than man.

Madhya Pradesh’s sex ratio has increased to 917 women per 1,000 men in 2018 from 898 in 2013. “While more women mean more voters, our special drive and rising awareness among women for their voting rights also resulted in such a huge turnover,” an elated Sandeep Yadav, additional chief electoral officer MP, says.

As part of the drive to get more women to vote, 3,034 women-managed booths were set up.

Similarly, as the country celebrated a huge turnout in Chhattisgarh elections as a rejection of Maoist threat in the Bastar region and adoption of development agenda, one should thank the state’s woman voters residing in conflict-ravaged districts. Communist Party of India (Maoist) called for a poll boycott.

But In the first phase of the state’s elections, there were more women voters than men. AMog the 18 seats that went to polls that day, 80 per cent were in Bastar. All of them reported more voting by women than men. A little over 51 per cent of the electorate in those seats were women. Like in MP, Chhattisgarh set up five all-women booths, three of them in Bastar.

The country is gearing up for its biggest festival of democracy—the general elections are due in just four months. The last election in 2014 registered a historic turnout of women voters: 66.4 per cent eligible voters cast their votes in the elections that brought in Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party to power. This was a significant jump from the participation levels seen in the 2004 and 2009 polls, when turnouts stagnated at around 58 per cent. Will there be a repeat next year?

It is a clear trend now that women are voting more, and even overtaking men. For example, in the 2013 Chhattisgarh assembly elections, women outnumbered men. According to Election Commission data, 77 per cent women voters voted, compared to 76 per cent men. Similar was the story in Rajasthan where the percentage of women using their voting power were more compared to men in 197 seats out of 199 that went to polls.

Not only in states but also in general elections woman voters are showing their strength. In India’s third general election (1962), women were far less interested in voting than in the 16th general elections (2014). Only 46.6 per cent women came out to vote in 1962 while the male participation was 63.3 per cent.

In the 56 years in between, men have increased their participation by 3.8 percentage point while women increased theirs by 19. The gap between male and female voters turnout reduced from 16.7 percentage point in 1962 to only 1.5 in 2014.

Praveen Rai, a researcher in Delhi who has tracked women’s participation in polls in the country, says the trend got into notice in the late 1990s.

Women in rural areas, in fact, are outrunning those in urban centres. In the 2004 general elections, rural women were ahead of their urban counterparts by five percentage points, according to Rai’s analysis. Also, around the same time overall turnout had come down: from 61.2 per cent in the first general elections in 1952 to 58.2 per cent in 2009.

So what triggered the swing? Experts suggest four reasons: peaceful polls, awareness among women, rise of the self-help groups (SHG) movement and the Panchayati Raj system that stimulated their electoral interests through reservations.

In Bihar and West Bengal, for example, violence-free election is the reason more women are coming out to vote. Deepak Mishra, professor of social sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, says reservation and participation of women in panchayat politics might have contributed to high women voters’ turnout.

The trend does not mean the “arrival of women”, cautions Rajeshwari Deshpande, professor of politics at Pune University. It could be because of factors like emergence of women as a new political constituency, error-free electoral rolls and women leaders, she adds.

Other experts attribute the high turnout to women-centric development programmes too. “Reportedly 10 per cent more women voted for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s party in the 2010 elections because of his programme to give bicycles to school-going girls and other cash incentives,” says Bidyut Mohanty, a social scientist in Delhi. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that offered more employment to women is also responsible for women voting in gratitude, she adds.

It may be a coincidence, but Tamil Nadu and Kerala have more women working under MGNREGA as well as a high turnout of women voters. “The feminisation of workforce, along with high literacy level, exposure to mass media and deepening of democracy through participation of marginalised sections has helped achieve this turnaround,” Mishra says.

Political scientist Zoya Hasan told DTE that the change is because of reservation for women in Panchayat elections and development programmes targeting women. In the last decades, several such programmes, including those with direct transfers of benefits, have led to awareness among women.

“This change can be attributed to an unprecedented increase in political participation by women, panchayat reservation and women-centric development programmes that have boosted women’s participation (in politics),” says Zoya. The change has also triggered designing of more schemes, mostly conditional cash transfer programmes, to gain women’s votes.

There are about 0.6 million elected women panchayat leaders in the country. Reservation for women in panchayats not only raised awareness, but also nurtured them to become leaders.

“Up to 50 per cent reservation for women in Bihar and further reservation of extremely backward castes has led the most dominant of the communities, mostly the Yadavs, to field women candidates in panchayat polls,” Soroor Ahmed, a senior journalist in Patna, says.

Across India, there is now up to 58 per cent reservation for women in Panchayatiraj institutions.

The rising political participation of women also finds its roots in the ever-increasing SHGs in the country. According to NABARD (the National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development), there are eight million SHGs in the country with about 97 million members.

SHGs have emerged as the most dynamic village-level institutions led by women and are involved in almost all development activities. Studies in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh show the self-help movement has led to larger electoral participation of women.

It is no surprise that states now overtly declare schemes and incentives to SHGs to get their political support. States such as Odisha, Karnataka, Bihar, Telengana and Chhattisgarh have given priority funding to SHGs.

Women as a targeted constituency have gained political weightage since the re-election of Nitish Kumar as CM of Bihar in 2010. He had launched a series of populist schemes and declared 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayats to nurture this constituency.

Schemes like cash incentives to girl students scoring high in examinations and cycles for high-school students created a captive vote bank. In MP, the BJP-ruled government also floated similar incentives. CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan launched several schemes for women and girl children, including cash benefits for education and marriage after eligible age. So is his focus on women-related schemes that he is popularly known as “mamu” (maternal uncle) among women.