New Delhi: In the recently concluded Gujarat assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) commanded slightly higher support among women voters compared to men, according to a post-poll survey conducted by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). The share of women voters who cast their ballot in favour of the BJP was 2 percentage points higher than the share among men—the BJP’s vote share was 50% among women and 48% among men. This is a significant development for the party, which has generally witnessed a relatively lower support among women voters in other parts of the country.

Data from the National Election Studies (NES) conducted by CSDS indicates that the BJP’s vote share has been marginally lower among women compared to men in the last few Lok Sabha elections.

The gender gap seems to be sharper among educated women. In the 2014 election, for instance, the BJP’s vote share among college-educated women was 4 percentage points lower than men. Among other categories, men and women voted almost similarly. As per NES 2014, the party faced an acute gender gap in many major states such as Assam, Karnataka, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand. However, in Delhi and Madhya Pradesh support was marginally higher among women.

It remains to be seen if the Modi government’s focus on the gender dimension of schemes such as Ujjwala Yojana and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao would be enough to overcome BJP’s gender gap problem. The party would also hope for some positive impact of women leaders holding key portfolios such as external affairs and defence in the Union government. The relatively better performance among women voters in the recent Gujarat elections is an encouraging sign for the party.

However, the BJP is not the only party eyeing women’s votes. Other parties too have made attempts to reach out to women voters in the last few weeks. Nitish Kumar has advocated for a nationwide extension of prohibition; Congress president Rahul Gandhi, in his first address to the Mahila Congress, promised to actively pursue the women’s reservation Bill.

The reason why political parties are focusing on women’s vote is not difficult to understand. Even minute differences in voting patterns of men and women can significantly impact the overall results. Also, with a considerable contraction in the gender gap in turnout (decreased to merely 1.5 percentage points in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections), female influence in Indian elections is likely to grow further.

In the 2016 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, women voters played a big role in determining the verdict. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) could manage to reverse the anti-incumbency trend in Tamil Nadu partly due to the strong support it enjoyed among women voters. The party’s vote share among women was 10 percentage points higher as compared to men. In West Bengal, the vote share of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) increased significantly among women voters as compared to men.

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.

The gradual emergence of women as an electoral constituency is an encouraging development for Indian democracy. It is likely to ensure greater focus on women-centric issues and bring more women to the fore in electoral politics.

Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of CSDS, and Pranav Gupta is a researcher with Lokniti-CSDS.

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