New Delhi: One thing was clear throughout the campaign for the Delhi elections and results that followed on Tuesday: By now, all political parties know that they cannot afford to ignore women anymore. Every party had a gamut of women’s issues quite boldly put up in their manifestos that they promised to deal with, and everyone sold the dream of a safe Delhi. But women, yet again, voted for change.

While all the parties vouched for women’s safety, activists say after trying the Congress for 15 consecutive years in the national capital and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for almost nine months at the centre, women have given the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) a chance, hoping to have a government that moves beyond “symbolic gestures". Interestingly, 471,000 more women voted in 2015 than in 2013.

“In the general elections, women came out in large numbers to vote Narendra Modi to power. But except for symbolic gestures, BJP hasn’t been seen doing anything concrete. When there is no rebuttal to anti-women statements like women should have four children (referring to MP Sakshi Maharaj’s statement), it gives an impression that you are tacitly, silently approving these culturally explicit remarks that are strengthening deep-rooted patriarchy in the society," says Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research. “Comparing with what others have to offer, AAP’s seems more convincing."

On his maiden Independence Day speech, Modi’s “correct your sons, don’t question daughters" statement resonated well with women’s rights activists who said the Prime Minister had struck the right chord. Adding to that was the much talked-about launch of the Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao (save and educate the girl child) programme in Haryana. And just a few days after that, for the first time ever, the three wings of India’s Armed Forces—the Army, Navy and Air Force—had an all-woman contingent each marching down Rajpath on Republic Day. But activists say even though the BJP is saying the “right things", “enough action" is what the public hasn’t seen yet.

“All the parties talk about women’s safety but the larger question of women’s rights is still missing from the debate. People voting for the AAP means they want a government which keeps women’s safety as an important agenda and delivers on what it promises. The BJP has been saying the right things, but we haven’t seen enough action," says Kalpana Viswanath of Jagori, a Delhi-based non-governmental organization that has worked extensively in the field of public spaces.

Despite similarities in the election manifestos of all parties, the AAP’s approach was more towards a woman’s right to be safe in public places than the need for her protection. The key highlights of the BJP’s manifesto were self-defence classes for women in schools, dedicated police stations for women in each district, fast-track courts, CCTVs and more ladies’ buses. The Congress had promised gender-sensitive training of police and government workforce, better policing and stricter punishment for crimes against women.

The AAP, which won the elections, promised to set up a Mahila Suraksha Dal or Women’s Security Force, a Suraksha/SOS button on every mobile phone, CCTV cameras in Delhi Transport Corp. buses and a 100% coverage with street lighting across the city.

“The AAP is not a political party in a conventional sense... it is like a platform for political discourse. The AAP seems to be open to listening to various voices that have been critical to the safety and security discourse around women. Rather than a protectionist discourse, the AAP seems to be open to the idea that women have a right to be safe in public spaces," says Nivedita Menon, professor at the centre for comparative politics and political theory, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

A national poll conducted by the Pew Research Center between 7 December 2013 and 12 January 2014 shows that nine out of 10 Indians agree that the crime of rape is a “very big problem" in the country. Further, roughly eight out of them (82%) say the problem is growing. Nearly three out of four Indians (74%) say that the laws in the country are too lax when it comes to punishing cases of rape. About as many (78%) fault the country’s police for not being strict enough in investigating such cases.

There is a national consensus on the need to address the issue of rising crimes against women. The seed of this debate was sown in 2012 after the Delhi gangrape shook the nation. Reacting to the public outrage, the then government had appointed a committee headed by former chief justice of India J.S. Verma to suggest changes in the legal regime to deal with crimes against women. A new Act introduced offences like stalking, and also made changes to make the criminal justice system more accessible to women. The definition of rape was broadened to include acts beyond peno-vaginal penetration.

However, a recent safety audit conducted by a collective of women’s groups has found that women in Delhi continue to feel unsafe while using public transport and are denied freedom of mobility in public spaces. Also, according to Delhi Police, the number of rape cases rose from 1,571 in 2013 to 2,069 in 2014, a jump of 31.7% while cases of molestation grew from 3,345 to 4,179, up 25%.

In 2014, Delhi Police registered almost 14,700 cases of crime against women.

The election results have also brought to the fore the fact that the AAP’s promises sync with the aspirations of the youth and middle class of the country. There has been a significant increase in voters in the 18-19 age group—2.27 lakh have registered in this election; in April 2014, there were 132,000. The BJP fielding Kiran Bedi as its chief ministerial candidate and Modi’s appeal urging young voters to vote in large numbers did not seem to have enthused the public, which once again preferred to give the AAP a chance to prove it can deliver what it has promised.

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