3 min read.Updated: 08 Mar 2021, 02:35 PM ISTRahul Verma & Ankita Barthwal
Women voters are fast gaining influence in electoral politics. While presence in male-led spaces is still limited, surveys show women are making distinctive ideological and political choices even beyond polling booths
Rising participation of women in India’s political arena is one of the most significant stories of the last decade. Women voters are now playing a bigger role in elections than ever before. In Bihar, the most recent example, they tilted the balance in favour of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar despite palpable anti-incumbency. Popularity among women also helped J. Jayalalithaa retain power despite all odds in Tamil Nadu in 2016.
With five states due to vote in coming weeks, this voting influence could be on display once again, especially in high-profile West Bengal, currently India’s only state with a woman chief minister. But what is it that moves women voters most, and how are they shaping politics, policymaking, and the ideological divide?
First, the ballot. The gender gap in voting turnout not only closed, but reversed, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Male voters still outnumber female voters, but the reversal in turnout is in no way a small achievement, considering the huge gap a few decades ago. However, this has not yet translated into active interest in everyday politics and engagement in rallies and campaigns.
A YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey held last year showed that not only do women lag in participating in politically oriented public activities, they are also less likely to identify with a political party. While a similar share of women and men reported voting in an election, just 23% women had joined a protest, as opposed to 32% men. Only 17% women had campaigned for a political party, while the same was true for 29% of the male respondents.
One major reason is the male-dominated nature of election campaigning, which is a barrier to women’s participation beyond polling booths. Recently however, all-women spaces such as self-help groups have been found to foster far better political participation, and even ambition to contest for political office. Female politicians are also better at mobilizing women electors into campaigning activity on the ground, research has found.
All these factors, along with an increase in media-driven campaign strategies, are bound to boost participation rates in the future. Political parties that sense this have reaped electoral benefits by delivering women-targeted welfare schemes when in power. This is clear from the experience in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Bihar, where two aspects have been at the core of women’s support: party leaders, and welfare focus of their governments.
As a result, women were more likely than men to vote for incumbents such as Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Arvind Kejriwal, and J. Jayalalithaa. This trend was present at the central level too: it helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) overcome its gender disadvantage among women voters, with the gap all but disappearing in 2019. The Ujjwala scheme, Swachh Bharat toilets, endowments for girl child education, and emphasis on women’s financial inclusion signalled a clear recognition of the electoral salience of women voters.
There is no conclusive evidence on whether men and women vote differently on issues, but emerging research suggests significant divergence. Women are more likely to prioritize development in water, sanitation, and healthcare, while men prefer infrastructural investment.
This extends from policy issues to contemporary ideological divides as well. Data from Lokniti Youth Survey 2016 show that differences in conservative attitudes towards women are guided by both party preferences as well as gender. Women supporters of the Congress held views different from not only BJP supporters, but also from male supporters of the Congress itself.
Hence, the role of ideological norms in shaping women’s political choices cannot be discounted. Some of this appears true for elected women officials as well, who prioritize government spending differently. Emerging research also suggests that parties headed by women enjoy greater support among female voters.
Yet, challenges remain. Women politicians face different expectations to perform, despite better results than male leaders. Reservations in gram panchayats have not increased women’s candidature in assembly elections. Women are also less likely to be nominated from unreserved seats and to re-run for office.
It is no surprise then that most successful female politicians are those that represent political families: the path is much tougher for the rest.
We have earlier discussed in these columns an emerging new female voice in key aspects of personal, social, and political life.
At the core of this demand for greater equality are young, urban, educated women. But these demands have yet to find an echo in India’s politics. Successful leaders have taken a step by improving policy focus on women, but a lot more needs to be done to ease the barriers holding women back from political life.
The authors are based at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi.