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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Opinion | Scandal of 21 mn missing women voters

Opinion | Scandal of 21 mn missing women voters

Psephologists say the electoral implications of the 4.5 percentage point difference in 2019 are ‘staggering’, translating to as many as 21 mn women who are denied their constitutional right to vote simply because their names are not registered in the voter lists

Photo: Hindustan TimesPremium
Photo: Hindustan Times

Know ye, civil death is a concept dating back to medieval Europe, where a person convicted for felony could be stripped of all their civil rights (oh, and you could also kill them with impunity). Is civil death dead? In contemporary US, all but two of 50 states—liberal-minded Maine and Vermont—deny those who have been convicted the right to vote in presidential and other elections, in one form or the other.

Back in 2004, when the incumbent George W. Bush narrowly defeated Democrat John Kerry, as many as 5.3 million Americans were reportedly unable to vote because of previous convictions.

The figure of ‘felony disenfranchisement’ rose to 6.1 million in 2016, when Donald Trump won, according to The Sentencing Project, a non-profit working for a fair and effective criminal justice system in the US. It is also widely acknowledged that this particular disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts African-American and Hispanic populations.

No such blanket disenfranchisement exists in India: only those who are in jail at the time of election are barred from voting (with some exceptions, such as detainees, i.e. those not convicted). Yet, some 21 million Indians will be denied the opportunity to vote in the general election that kicks off on 11 April—for no fault of theirs. Other than their gender that is.

They just happen to be women.

As the great Indian voting juggernaut rolls confidently into what is the biggest electoral exercise in the world, a shocking fact has emerged, courtesy two of the nation’s most respected psephologists.

There are 21 million women missing from India’s electoral rolls, say election experts and television presenters Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala in their new book, The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections.

India, in common with many other developing countries and China and South Korea, has a well-known problem of “missing women" in the wider society—a gap that the Nobel laureate economist, Amartya Sen, first drew our attention to.

The problem of missing female voters, although related, appears to be a bit different. The commonly-drawn conclusion from Sen’s research was that infanticide, ‘intentional injuries’, mistreatment and discrimination were responsible for there being fewer women in society.

But Roy and Sopariwala’s research points to adult women in the population who are missing in the voters’ list. They say the 2011 Census suggests that by 2019, the total population of women aged 18 and above will be 97.2% of the total men’s population.

Yet, Election Commission data for 2019 states that women are only 92.7% of male voters—a difference of 4.5 percentage points. In 2014, during the last general election, 23.4 million women were similarly missing from the electoral rolls.

The psephologists say the electoral implications of the 4.5 percentage point difference in 2019 are “staggering", translating to “as many as 21 million women who are denied their constitutional right to vote simply because their names are not registered in the voter lists around the country".

In one state alone, Uttar Pradesh, this translates to 85,000 votes per constituency, a jaw-dropping figure given the fact that election winning margins are steadily narrowing.

The problem is worse in the so-called Bimaru states of northern India—Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh—that have been historically associated with low development indicators, in particular anything to do girls and women.

Roy and Sopariwala stop short of ascribing definite reasons for this scandalous gender gap marring Indian democracy.

“The Election Commission cannot be blamed for this massive failure," they say. “On the contrary, it is in spite of the huge effort that they make year after year to enrol women voters, with a range of outreach programmes targeted specially at women. It is a result of a combination of social and political factors…"

Elsewhere, they speculate, “The disenfranchisement of women voters if hopefully not quite in the same league as the ‘dark arts’ of voter suppression around the world."

The problem of ‘felony disenfranchisement’ mentioned above is often cited as a form of voter suppression.

It is a problem that was highlighted back in February 2014 by economists Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi, who borrowed from the methodology and findings of the Amartya Sen. Looking at two sets of figures—women who are in the population but not on the voters’ lists and those who are not there because of a wider skewed sex ratio—they estimated that more than 65 million women (approximately 20% of the female electorate) were missing from voters’ lists. They concluded that the elections in 2014, therefore, “reveal the preferences (or the will) of a population that is artificially skewed against women."

Part of the problem may have to do with the way the voters are listed—Indians either register themselves online or wait for officials of the Election Commission to visit them.

It could have something to do with the fact that men in a highly patriarchal society are far more mobile, have greater access to online resources, are assertive about claiming their rights and are more likely to have political views and involvement in public.

“Public campaigns (for voter mobilization) are happening in India but, eventually, registration requires Election Commission involvement", Shamika Ravi told me.

I also asked the feminist publisher and writer, Urvashi Butalia, whether she knew what accounted for the mission millions.

“I am completely mystified by it. Do we know what age bracket they are in? If it is younger women, does it also hold true of younger men? Or are they older people? Hasn’t enough effort been made to get them on the list?"

Butalia said that before 1991, when census enumerators went about their job, they would usually talk to the men of the household. They would ask, ‘what does your wife do?’ And the men would reply, ‘nothing’. There was a sustained women’s movement, following which enumerators pitched up when women were there, and made sure they spoke to the women. They didn’t ask ‘what do you do?’—rather ‘describe your day from morning to night’.

“Up until then the woman didn’t really exist in people’s imagination when it came to the Census."

You could say the same about the voters’ lists, where too the act of counting is so important.

Ravi, likening the problem to a “market failure for democracy," points to a vicious cycle: Even female politicians are catering to the average voter, who is a man.

“Even if all women who are eligible to vote went out and voted, you’d still have the problem of missing female electorate," she added.

“It is therefore an election of survivors."

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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Published: 05 Apr 2019, 01:27 AM IST
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