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TBA Exclusive: Why every political party is vying for women votes desperately

The right to equality in voting is a basic human right in liberal democracy. The fact that more women are voluntarily exercising their constitutional right of adult suffrage across all states in India is testimony to the rise of self-empowerment of women to secure their fundamental right to freedom of expression. This is an extraordinary achievement in the world’s largest democracy with 717 million voters of which 342 million voters are women.
 
But why is every political party now targeting women voters? Well, the more the better is something that works in every way for any political party. The decline in gender gap in voting over the years is solely driven by the dramatic increase in women participation in the elections since the 1990s, while men participation has remained unchanged. 
 
There is evidence that women voters are agents of change — they vote differently from men and have a remarkable effect on re-election outcomes. Women’s turnout can impact a party’s prospects in myriad ways. 
 
For instance, the BJP’s support among women has been lower than among men. In 2014, the NDA’s lead over the UPA was 19% among men and just 9% among women, Prannoy Roy and Dorab S. Sopariwala highlight in their book “The Verdict”. Surveys indicate that women are becoming politically more aware and active and their vote had a large impact on Tamil Nadu and West Bengal elections in 2016.
 
The results of Delhi and Bihar assembly elections held in 2020 reinforced the view that with rising turnout of women’s voters, no political party or leader can choose to ignore them. Women voters have emerged as a potent electoral force. In Bihar, the NDA managed to scrape through, winning a wafer-thin majority, courtesy the women voters who voted decisively for the Nitish Kumar-led alliance.
 
The emergence of gender voting in national and state elections seems to be a culmination of larger structural changes taking place in the country. 
 
Expansion in female literacy coupled with greater access to information has arguably led to increased political awareness among women. NES survey data showed that around six out of 10 (61%) female respondents in 2014 were exposed to news media, up from a little over one-third (35%) in 2009. Apart from awareness, participation in political activities has also increased, amid reservation for women in local elections.
 
Interestingly, it seems that both men and women continue to focus on similar issues in elections. In NES 2014, there were only minor differences between men and women on the most important issue while voting. Bijli-Sadak-Pani (Electricity, roads and water) and overall development was the most important issue for both men and women. Women were marginally more likely to mention price rise and less likely to mention corruption as compared to men. Also, only 3% of the female respondents mentioned women-centric issues, including crime against women.
 
Even different doles, schemes, freebies are designed by politicians and policymakers to woo this “new vote-bank”, a pertinent question needs to be asked: More women are exercising their right to vote but are more of them also becoming members of our law-making bodies at the state and national level?
 
Women’s representation in the law making bodies — both at the state level and in the Lok Sabha can only be described as a ‘national shame’. Despite the emergence of women voters as agents of change with the potential to swing elections, the representation of women in the lower house of the parliament, the Lok Sabha as well as the state legislative assemblies has been abysmally low.
 
By comparison, India’s neighbours–China at 86, Pakistan at 116, Bangladesh at 111 and Afghanistan at 71–rank fare better than India which occupies the 148th position as of January 2021.
 
The hesitancy of political parties who miss no opportunity to harangue on women’s empowerment during campaigns is baffling because data contradicts the popular perception of women being “weak” candidates with low winning strike-rates. 
Historically, across the three different phases of India’s elections, women have had a proven higher winning strike-rate than their male counterparts–in the Lok Sabha as well as state assembly elections.
 
The success stories and the lessons learnt from the implementation of reservation for women in our local bodies in the last few decades makes a strong case for reviving the Women’s Reservation Bill, 2008. For the record, both the Congress and the BJP had promised in their 2019 (and 2014) manifestos to pass the bill, paving the way for women’s reservation in the parliament and state assemblies. 
 
It is high time the political class reads the writing on the wall and walks the talk–ensuring better women’s participation in Indian politics.

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