It was once upon a time the most crucial vote bank that brought down governments and ushered in new ones which promised overall family welfare. It is also a vote bank that can be a major game changer in curbing alcoholism and other evil addictions, destroying society.
Recently, the Congress pledged to field women in 40% of the seats in the upcoming Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. At the outset, it could be seen as a way to boost the dismal representation of women in Indian politics.
But, the focus on female voters is unmistakable: the announcement came alongside other women-centred welfare promises such as free electric scooters and mobile phones. As women rise in influence in the political agenda, are more parties now seeing them as a game-changer vote bank?
Poll tickets and welfare promises are tools for political parties to attract women voters. This newfound love for women in Indian politics is welcome news, but the push has come from female voters themselves. In the newly democratic India, male voters were around 12% more likely to turn up to cast their votes than women. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, the gap was still around 9-10%. But in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, male voter turnout exceeded the female turnout only marginally. By 2019, the gap had almost closed.
This was not simply a national-level trend: women outnumbered men in voter turnout across most states. In 2014, this was true for 12 of 29 states, but the trend reversed in 2019, with women voter turnout exceeding men’s in 16 states. While exceptions such as Gujarat still witness the traditional pattern of voting, relatively smaller states witnessed significant strides: the gap in favour of women’s turnout was the biggest in Uttarakhand.
Women voters exceed men in smaller states
The changing pattern of increased women turnout should not be mistaken for a fluke in the last two parliamentary elections. There is a consistent trend of increasing turnout of women voters in the Assembly elections held in almost all the states during the past decade.
Smaller states have registered higher female voter turnouts compared to the bigger states. During the 2017 Uttarakhand Assembly elections, women’s voter turnout was 7.6 percentage points higher than men’s, the highest gender advantage in favour of women voters among all states.
Women voters in Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, and Goa also outnumbered men during the last Assembly elections held in these states. Here, too, women voters in Gujarat were the least enthusiastic about voting relative to male voters, with the state recording a gap of 4.4% in turnouts during the 2017 Assembly elections in favour of men.
Women are independent voters
Increasing female participation in elections may not be the only reason why India’s political class is trying to mobilize women voters. Parties are making a massive effort—from formulating policies even when in power to promising poll tickets to women —because women are increasingly becoming independent voters, many of them deciding their vote on their own.
In the early elections, a large number of women either did not go to vote or their vote was cast by male family members. Those who went to cast their votes were highly likely to consult male family members to make their choice.
The situation has changed significantly in the last few decades. Evidence from the surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) show that during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, 43% women voted without taking anyone’s advice. In 2019, this share rose to 81%. Just 16% of women said their choice was influenced by others, against 47% in 2009.
Not reflective on political participation?
However, increasing turnouts don’t mean women have emerged as a distinct voting block. Their vote is somewhat equally divided among parties, as indicated by Lokniti-CSDS survey data collected during various state polls.
There is no evidence of women voting en bloc as other socio-economic blocks often do. There are exceptions: women appear to prefer the Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttarakhand and Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir, the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kerala, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, and Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. But there is hardly any such trend in large parts of Hindi heartland states.
The Congress’ promise of tickets to women is a beginning, but winning could be a herculean task. Women’s representation in legislatures is still low: it’s just 10% in the outgoing Uttar Pradesh Assembly. However, with more women now voting independently, it could certainly prove a potent way to mobilize women voters.