Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

Why women voters matter

Political parties have failed to cater to women voters despite their increasing turnout in elections

If Survey data is to be believed, there has hardly been a women’s vote in Indian elections. Women hardly vote like women; they hardly show any specific preference for any political party, not even for parties which are headed by women leaders. Neither J. Jayalalithaa, nor Mamata Banerjee nor Mayawati have been able to attract women voters in large numbers. In the 2009 Lok Sabha Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) with its allies polled 37% of the vote in Tamil Nadu. Amongst men it polled 37% votes, among women 38%. Similarly, in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress in alliance with the Congress polled an overall 45% of the votes. It bagged 46% of the male vote and 43% of the women’s vote. In Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) under Mayawati secured 27% votes in the 2009 Lok Sabha. Its vote share was 28% among men and 27% among women.

In the state assembly elections held last year, specific preferences among women voters were not discernible. This trend, however, seems to be changing. Recent surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) show women voters have a greater inclination in favour of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu and Mayawati in UP.

Not only is there an emerging trend of greater preference among women voters for parties headed by women, but assembly elections held in recent years also witnessed greater electoral participation by women. The turnout of women has been lower than men in all Lok Sabha elections—especially in the 1950s and 1960s—by more than 10%. Elections in most states have seen a similar trend. But this pattern, too, is changing.

Not only has women’s turnout risen in almost all states, it is important to note that women have also outnumbered men in voting in various states in recent times. In the 2010 assembly election in Bihar, turnout among women was 3.4% higher than men. The differences, with women outvoting men, were salient in Uttarakhand, Goa and Himachal Pradesh in 2012. This trend was seen in many other states too, including Karnataka, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, Puducherry, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, UP and West Bengal.

While political parties are making a strong effort to mobilize the youth for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it is sad to note that they hardly make any comparable effort for women voters. If the size of the youth vote in 2014 is what attracts parties, there are compelling reasons for them to do the same for women voters who number 50% or just a tad less in most constituencies. If the level of participation is an issue, turnout among women is much higher than that among young voters. More than the youth, it is women voters who can play a vital role in the electoral success of a political party. So it is ironic that when political parties should be making a greater effort to mobilize women voters they have chosen to ignore them while distributing party tickets.

While parties are still finalizing their candidates for the Lok Sabha election, the past pattern of ticket distribution makes it clear women candidates have not received a fair deal from any political party. Very few women getting nominated is not unique to the 2014 Lok Sabha election—parties have displayed such conservatism even in past elections.

Of the various reasons cited by political parties for their reluctance to nominate women candidates, the most common excuse is their alleged lack of winnability. But this may not be the case on the ground, as the results of 2009 and 2004 Lok Sabha elections indicate that women have a higher winning ability than men. But the main reason for the reluctance to nominate women candidates is that parties do not see women as a vote bank and believe women candidates may not be able to mobilize women’s vote in favour of their party. One can’t be sure if women voters will vote for women candidates in bigger numbers in a particular constituency if there is a woman candidate at hand. But there is sufficient indication of change in voting preferences among women in favour of parties that are headed by women. Who knows, they may be willing to vote in bigger numbers for women candidates as well.

Higher turnout in recently held assembly elections indicate that women seem to have become more active in elections and electoral politics. Now it is time for political parties to initiate a change.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

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