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The Rise of Women Voters: A Key Element Behind India’s Electoral Outcomes

Omkar Poojari |
The astonishingly high levels of women voter turnout will be a common thread in the upcoming Assembly elections in four key states.
Women Voter.

In the 1962 Lok Sabha polls, for which the Election Commission for the first time presented separate numbers for male and female voter turnout, women constituted a measly 46.7%. But by 2019, the share had shot up exponentially by nearly 20 percentage points to 67.18%. During the same period, men’s turnout grew by only 5 percentage points—from 62.1% in 1962 to 67.08% in 2019. The differential growth rate in voter turnout resulted in a watershed moment in India’s electoral history in 2019; for the first time, women’s turnout percentage in Lok Sabha elections was marginally higher than men’s turnout.

But the inflection point in India’s electoral history came a couple of years before the 2019 general elections. Between 1962-2017/18, women’s turnout in Assembly elections increased by a staggering 27 percentage points, as per ECI data.

In 2016, for the first time ever, the women’s turnout share was higher than that of men in the state Assembly elections of Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, ECI data shows. Thus, it appears that the rise of women’s participation in the electoral process has been even more pronounced in state Assembly polls. However, the stunning rise in women’s turnout has not been uniform across the country. Some states have seen a worrying decline in women voters’ turnout. In Delhi, for instance, between 1962 and 2014, women’s turnout in Lok Sabha polls went down by -11%.

At the other end of the spectrum are states like Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which have shown stunning improvement in women’s participation in elections in recent years, according to the data published by ECI in its poll highlights for 2011 and 2016. Interestingly, in the north-eastern state of Assam, women’s turnout between 1962 to 2014 went up by a whopping +113%. In the last two Assembly elections in Bengal, women’s turnout has been higher than the men’s turnout.

Kerala and Tamil Nadu have fared even better than Assam and Bengal. More women voted than men in the 2011 and 2016 Assembly elections in both the southern states. In 2011 in Kerala, the turnout for women voters was 0.3 percentage points less than the turnout for men. But in terms of actual numbers, 6 lakh more women than men exercised their right to vote in the 2011 elections. In the next assembly elections, the women’s turnout percentage in the state exceeded the male turnout by 3 percentage points and the difference between the men and women voters increased further--from 6 lakhs to 10 lakhs. The neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu has witnessed a similar trend in the 2011 and 2016 assembly elections-women have outvoted men. Four out of these six states--Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala will go to polls in 2021.

While the political landscapes of these states are poles apart with barely anything in common, the astonishingly high levels of women voter turnout will be a common thread in the upcoming Assembly elections in these four states. Women voters and their turnout will be an important factor in the ensuing polls. But the question is whether women and women’s turnout would be the decisive ‘make or break’ factor which would determine the outcome of the Assembly polls in 2021.

Before answering this big question, several other questions need to be answered. Do women vote en masse? How does the woman voter’s behaviour differ from the male voter’s behaviour? In case of heavy anti-incumbency against (or pro-incumbency for) a government, will women vote differently from men in considerable proportions? Are some parties/ leaders better off when women’s turnout is high as they may have a stronger base among women voters?

Revisiting the verdict of the Bihar and Delhi Assembly elections held in 2020 could answer these questions.

Women Voters Influenced Bihar and Delhi Verdicts

In Bihar, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) garnered 37.26% of the votes polled and won a narrow victory with 125 seats. Interestingly, out of these 125 NDA wins, 99 came from Assembly seats where the women’s turnout exceeded the male turnout. In 166 constituencies where the women’s turnout was more than the men’s turnout, the BJP-JDU won 92 seats and other smaller constituents of the NDA, the Vikassheel Insaan Party and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha, won seven seats. The Rashtriya Janata Dal-led coalition could only clinch victory in 61 of the 166 constituencies where the women’s turnout was higher. A phase-wise analysis of the Bihar verdict gives us a better understanding of how the women’s turnout influenced the outcome.

chart 2

It becomes evident that after each phase, as the women’s turnout increased, the BJP-JD(U) went on consolidating their gains. In contrast, the RJD-led ‘Mahagathbandhan’ (MGB) that started the polls with a bang, saw its fortunes nosedive as the women’s turnout went on increasing after the first phase. But to conclude that the NDA was bailed out by women voters and Nitish Kumar could overcome anti-incumbency to win another term solely because of the higher women turnout will be erroneous. Closely contested elections like Bihar often lead to contrasting commentaries and explanations by political pundits. The NDA and MGB’s contrasting fortunes in the last two phases can also be linked to the invocation of ‘Jungle Raj’ and the emotional appeal made by Nitish Kumar ahead of the second and third phases of polling. In fact, the final outcome may have been shaped by the interconnection of various factors—Nitish’s pro-women policies like 50% reservation for women in Panchayats, the bicycle scheme, benefits for girl students till graduation, 35% reservation for women in government jobs, the state and Central government’s direct cash benefit schemes, liquor prohibition (despite flawed implementation) coupled with the fear of the return of ‘Jungle Raj’, and Nitish’s emotional pitch on this election being his ‘Antim Chunaav’.

The Aam Aadmi Party’s landslide victory in the 2020 Assembly elections was driven by the overwhelming support it received from Delhi’s women voters. A Lokniti-CSDS survey revealed that women were more likely to have voted for AAP than their male counterparts-60% and 49% respectively. It was this massive gender gap that gave the party an almost unassailable lead of 25 percentage points over the BJP among the women voters. The AAP’s lead over the BJP among men was merely 6 percentage points. This remarkably contrasting voting pattern of men and women was seen across all castes, classes and age groups. It can be even argued that if women had not voted en bloc for the AAP, the party would have only managed a very narrow victory. The AAP government had gone hammer and tongs with its strategy to woo the female electorate. Delhi under the Kejriwal dispensation had become one of the earliest states to implement the central government’s 2012-13 guidelines on gender budgeting. Delhi’s gender budget in 2018-19 at 8.6% (of total budget) remained significantly higher than the Union government’s 5.1%. But the game changer was the much publicised free bus ride for women scheme announced just months before the elections. The CSDS survey showed that women from households that had availed the scheme were 42 percentage points more likely to vote for the AAP than BJP. On the contrary, the AAP was trailing by 3 percentage points among women from households that had not benefited from the scheme. The water/electricity bill subsidies, other freebies for women, the BJP’s pugnacious stand on the CAA-NRC protests in the capital made the AAP the go-to party for Delhi’s women.

Independence of Choice and Rise of Rural Women Voters

A CSDS survey in 2014 debunked a long-standing shibboleth about the women voters in India. As many as 70% of women surveyed said that they never consulted their husbands on who to vote for. Given how differently and independently men and women vote, different levels of voting intentions between men and women are seen. This differential can be as high as 15 to 20 percentage points for a party like it was for the AAP in the 2020 elections. 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 percentage points among men and just 9 percentage points among women, Prannoy Roy and Dorab S Sopariwala highlight in their book 'The Verdict'. To understand how differently men and women voted, consider this—if only women and no men had voted in the 2014 polls, the NDA would have fallen short of the majority mark and won 265 seats instead of 336. Conversely, if only men and no women had voted, the NDA would have won an even bigger mandate by clinching 376 seats.

The biggest driver behind the rise of women’s participation in the electoral process has been the spike among rural women voters- up by 13 percentage points between 1971 and 2014. During the same period, the turnout of women in urban areas dipped by 1 percentage point. Given the rise and rise of the women voters, especially rural women, political parties and governments have been forced to cater to the needs and demands of women to win over their votes. The rise in the rural women’s voting has been recent, sharp and has had far-reaching consequences. Parties and incumbents are increasingly focusing on women voters. For instance, the distribution of free gas cylinders under the Ujjwala scheme was a calculated move by the NDA to increase its support among rural women voters. Almost all post poll surveys and studies hinted that the BJP and allies were able to improve their performance among women in 2019 as against 2014 by the implementation of schemes like Ujjwala, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Jan Dhan, and Swachh Bharat toilets. It goes without saying that though these schemes were far from flawless in terms of implementation on the ground, they did translate into votes for the ruling alliance.

Given recent trends, the forthcoming Assembly elections will see political speeches, campaigns, schemes and manifestos directed at women more than ever before in the history of Indian elections. Incumbents (as well as opposition parties) are already coming up with tailor-made strategies to woo the women voters. Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam are among the top states in terms of women’s participation. A caveat must be issued here—for any issue to affect any group’s voting behaviour, it is not enough for it to be just another issue, one condition must be met-- one side, one party or leader must be seen to be better at solving the issue than its rivals. No matter how important an issue is, if all political parties are seen as equally bad/useless at fixing it, the issue does not impact voting behaviour. As Cho Ramswamy once quipped, ‘How does one choose between a pickpocket and a thief?’

How Parties Will Woo Women Voters in 2021

This cardinal rule of voting behaviour also applies to women voters and their issues. This explains why the JD(U) was able to battle massive anti-incumbency by invoking ‘Jungle Raj’. The perception of Nitish being ‘Sushan Babu’ coupled with the fear of ‘Jungle Raj’ returning if RJD was voted to power seems to have influenced the women voters’ behaviour in a decisive manner in Bihar. In Bengal, which has over 3.15 crore women voters, the TMC and the BJP are embroiled in a bitterly contested battle for the women votes. The BJP seems to be taking a leaf out of its Bihar election playbook by accusing the Mamta government of promoting political violence and failing to ensure women’s safety. While the saffron party aims to create a narrative of Bengal being under ‘Jungle Raj’, the TMC constituted the “Bongo Janani''- a non-political outfit to regain lost ground among the women voters of the state. The Bongo Janani was formed after the TMC’s women vote-bank was dented by the BJP in 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Through the Bongo Janani, the TMC has tried to highlight the atrocities (like Hathras) faced by women in BJP-ruled states of the Hindi heartland. The TMC has also tried to highlight the women-centric initiatives of the state government like Kanyashree, Rupashree direct cash transfer scheme (to prevent child marriage) and Swasthya Saathi schemes.

In the neighbouring state of Assam, an all-women regional political party ‘Mohilar Dal’ has been formed. The party which promises to give sufficient political space to the women of Assam has accused the mainstream parties of denying political space to them. A possible alliance of Mohilar Dal along with two other newly floated parties, Asom Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dal seems likely. If this non-Congress, non-BJP front does materialise, it may dent the prospects of the opposition's ;Mahagatbandhan’ consisting of the Congress, AIUDF and the left. The ruling BJP has launched its ‘Booth ki Baat’ campaign to select over a thousand women speakers through ‘Biya Naam’ (Marriage song singing) and debate competitions. Once selected, the party plans to use these speakers to reach out to the women of Assam and popularise the flagship schemes of the state and central governments in the run-up to the polls.

As per the draft electoral roll released by the EC in November 2020, Tamil Nadu has 6.10 crore voters—3.01 crore male and 3.09 crore female voters. Tamil Nadu has had a long history of the Dravidian parties using schemes and doles to woo the women voters. But the 2021 elections will be different; this will be the first assembly polls after the passing away of M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalitha, the two doyens of Dravidian politics. While Jayalalitha, who had famously implemented the cradle baby scheme to prevent female infanticide, was able to overcome the ‘Yo-Yo’ trend of Tamil politics by being voted back to power in 2016; she was the undisputed choice of the women voters of Tamil Nadu in the last decade. On the other hand, the DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi was the architect of SHGs (Self-help Groups) run by women in the state. Interestingly, after the dismal performance by his outfit Makkal Needhi Maiam superstar turned politician Kamal Hassan has promised pay for women homemakers if the MNM was voted to power.

It will be interesting to see if the AIADMK will be able to hold on to its women vote bank at a time when the state government has been under fire for various reasons--the closure of women run SHGs, the Polachi sexual abuse incident and the alleged involvement of a party member in the case, increasing crime against women and poor conviction rates in the state. Former Union Minister and head of DMK’s women’s wing, Kanimozhi went on to the extent of saying that the women of Tamil Nadu will vote out the incumbent government. The ruling AIADMK has been banking on its new scheme of providing medical benefits for hysterectomy up to Rs 45,000 to win over the women of Tamil Nadu.

Irrespective of the outcome, history will be made in the upcoming Kerala elections. If Pinarayi Vijayan manages to lead the Left Democratic Front (LDF) to a second consecutive term, it will become the first government to be voted back to power in four and a half decades. If the LDF fails to hold on to power, it will be the first time since 1977 that the CPI(M)/Left front will not be ruling any state across the country. The polls will be equally important for the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). Currently, in power in just three states, the grand old party will be desperate to add the southern state to its kitty. The laurels showered on the state’s health minister KK Shailaja by the national and international media, the appointment of 21-year-old Arya Rajendran as the Mayor of Thiruvananthapuram, the welfare schemes targeting woman and other weaker sections, the LDF’s promise of doubling the number of Kudumbashree-driven joint liability groups to provide 3 lakh jobs for women, the Left sweeping the local body polls despite being at the receiving end for its alleged involvement in the gold scam have tilted the scales slightly in favour of the LDF. The Congress, for a change, has launched a massive booth-level campaign to reach out to women voters of the state. For a party that gets a lot of flak for being lethargic in poll preparations, the outreach campaign seems like a welcome change. But will this translate into votes? Will women voters be the X-factor in the 2021 polls? Only time will tell.

But one thing can be said with certainty for now-a new vote-bank has emerged and one hopes that as the age-old theory of women meekly surrendering to the patriarchs of the family while voting gets a silent burial, more women voters’ participation also leads to more representation in the legislative bodies.

(The author is a freelancer based in Bombay and an alumnus of Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College. His interests vary from politics, psephology, and journalism to regional Indian cinema. He tweets @Omkarismunlimit)

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