BY KALPANA SHARMA, The Hindu, Dec 21

Consider the woman voter. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar
The HinduConsider the woman voter. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Gender plays a role in politics. Which is why women as candidates, and as voters, make the difference.

Even as Arvind Kejriwal cogitated about whether he should accept the challenge of forming a government in Delhi, I wondered whether he would consider adding another word to the name of his party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). How about renaming it the Aam Aurat Aadmi Party (AAAP)? I don’t mean to be facile or to brush aside the party’s spectacular performance in Delhi. But given the fact that AAP is projecting itself as a party with a difference, surely it should recognise that even something as mundane as the name of a party should reflect that difference.

Of course, people argue that just because AAP does not specifically mention “aurat” does not mean it is insensitive to gender. Possibly. Some also insist that the term “men” or “aadmi” includes all genders. That is questionable. If that were the case, the middle A in AAP could also be “aurat”. This can become a circular argument but the simple point is this: the words we use do matter. For centuries, the language we use has made women invisible, or at least taken for granted. That must change in visible ways, through our words and our actions.

Even if the AAP does not add another word to its name, we still have to see whether the women in its ranks are equal and relevant players as the male faces we see all the time in the media. Where are the women? We know they are in the party. But why do we not see them, with the exception of Shazia Ilmi (who seems to have temporarily disappeared after losing her election by a very narrow margin)?

It is not unreasonable to ask these questions of a fledgling party that is decidedly attempting to change the tone and content of Indian politics. Gender balance and sensitivity must be a crucial part of the difference and this must be visible. More so as women voters are now becoming a factor in elections. Although their decision to vote for a party like the AAP will not necessarily be affected by the number of women in leadership positions, it could make a critical difference.

In the recently concluded Assembly elections, there was a fractional difference between male and female voters in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In both states, the increase in the percentage of women voting has been remarkable. For instance, in Chhattisgarh, the percentage of women voters was 67.9 per cent in 2003. This year, just a decade later, it was 77.27 per cent. Similarly in Rajasthan in 1998, the percentage of women voters was 58.88 per cent, but this year it jumped to an impressive 75.33 per cent, marginally higher than the percentage of men voting, 75.03 per cent. In Delhi, the rise in women voters is even more dramatic — from a low 46.41 per cent in 1998 to 64.69 per cent in 2013.

Clearly, something is happening that is making more women step out and vote. This does not necessarily mean that there is something called a “women’s vote”. Women are not an undifferentiated mass. Apart from gender, they are also marked by class, caste and creed. These factors affect women’s voting choices as much as they do those of men. Also, there is little empirical evidence to indicate how women vote, whether they make up their own minds, whether they look at candidates or parties, and whether the response of political parties or individual candidates to their concerns affects their choice.

Yet, the very fact that more women are voting is something that needs to be noted. In my own experience as a reporter, I have found that, increasingly in urban areas, poor women are fairly articulate about their choice of candidate. It is possible that they are following the men in their families. But there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to the contrary, of women making up their own minds.

Often what dictates the choice is not so much the party as the individual. For instance, women living on the pavements of central Mumbai justified to me their choice of voting for a known criminal in the municipal elections because he had ensured that they got water. In another instance, Muslim women in a part of Dharavi decided to support a Shiv Sena candidate in the municipal elections after the 1992-93 communal riots because he was the only one who built a public toilet for them. These could be exceptions. But it is an aspect of politics and voting choices that require much closer scrutiny.

In the run-up to the 2014 general election, all political parties will be strategising how to persuade this growing number of women voters to vote for them. It will be interesting to watch how this gender angle of the election game is played out.