Why political parties are breaking the bank to win over women voters

A voter in the Khagaria Lok Sabha constituency, Bihar.
A voter in the Khagaria Lok Sabha constituency, Bihar.


  • Lok Sabha Election 2024: The BJP, Congress, and many regional parties have gone overboard when it comes to wooing women voters. Forget caste and sub-caste politics; women are now the sunrise segment. And 2029 will be a monumental year. We tell you why.

Kolkata: As they huddled over a game of cards at a popular eating joint in Bhowanipore, Kolkata, a motley group of cabbies from Bihar, Punjab and Bengal turned to discussing politics. One of them, from Chhapra in Bihar, complained, “My wife no longer listens to me. She has ears only for (Narendra) Modi. Because Modi gives her money." The others nodded in agreement, noting that wives, daughters and sisters had become impudent with family patriarchs.

The blame for this state of affairs, in the cabbies’ minds, lies with various women-centric welfare schemes. Thanks to receiving cash from these schemes, both from the Centre and the states, women in rural and semi-urban India have become economically independent, empowered and emancipated. And that has emboldened them to stand up for themselves.

In other words, women have become the sunrise segment in Indian politics. The days of caste and sub-caste politics are passe. Gender is the new kid on the block. Naturally, political players are excited about tapping this cohort. And they are ready to invest in women because they see huge returns ahead—the numbers make that clear.

What the Numbers Say

Women make up 48.9% of India’s total electorate of 969 million, and political parties have been vying with each other to tap this vast base with all kinds of goodies.

The number of female voters per 1,000 males is seeing a steady rise. Out of the 263 million new voters aged between 18-29 years, 141 million are women.

Indeed, according to a projection by SBI’s economic research team, the number of women voters is projected to surpass men from 2029 onwards. After a decade or so, the ratio of female to male voters is expected to be 55% to 45%.

According to the SBI economic research wing, the first four phases of the 2024 election have already seen a growth in the turnout of women voters.

“For every 100 incremental male voters there are 110 incremental female voters voting at any point of time in the first four phases. The net incremental share of women voters comes to 9.36 million, way above the 8.47 million increase in their male counterparts, hinting at the cementing of women as the new centre of gravity for Indian politics," the SBI report observed. Out of 373 constituencies, 270 saw increased participation, it added.

Loyalty Factor

Supporters gather at an election rally addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, on 21 May.
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Supporters gather at an election rally addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, on 21 May. (AP)

The other reason for politicians betting big on women is their discipline in exercising their franchise and perceived loyalty to their benefactors.

An analysis of the 2019 general election results by CSDS Lokniti revealed that women held the key for the huge mandate in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2019. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the central government’s three women-centric schemes—Ujjwala (free gas connection and LPG cylinder subsidy), Matru Vandana Yojana (a maternity support scheme for pregnant and lactating mothers) and PM Awas Yojana (house ownership in the name of female members)—have been a runaway hit among women, helping the saffron party win by securing 46% of the female vote, against 44% of the male vote share.

Women held the key for the huge mandate in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2019.

While the Centre has budgeted 12,000 crore for the more than 102 million beneficiaries of the Ujjwala scheme in 2024-25, the budget for Matru Vandana, which caters to 32 million pregnant women, stood at 14,427 crore.

This apart, the SBI report points out that women have significant shares in some Central schemes, such as MUDRA (68%), Atal Pension Yojana for workers in unorganized sectors (44%), and Stand-Up India (81%).

BJP, Congress Promises

Buoyed by the impact of such schemes, both BJP and Congress have gone overboard in their 2024 election manifesto, either by introducing new schemes for women or expanding the purview of old ones. While BJP has plans for financial empowerment of women, Congress is talking of direct doles and ensuring an equitable work environment.

Bharatiya Janata Party’s supporters during an election campaign rally in New Delhi on 22 May.
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Bharatiya Janata Party’s supporters during an election campaign rally in New Delhi on 22 May. (AP)

The BJP manifesto talks of expansion of the government’s Lakhpati Didi Self Help Group initiative, building more toilets for women in public areas, health services for reduction of breast and cervical cancer, integrating self help groups with the service sector, market-linked access, and creating hostels and creches to enable more women to participate in the workforce.

The Lakhpati Didi scheme, which was introduced in December 2023, offers an interest-free loan of 5 lakh to women, to help them upgrade skills and earn at least a lakh per household annually. It aims to benefit 30 million women, as per the party manifesto.

In contrast, Congress’s Mahalaxmi scheme is looking for an unconditional annual cash transfer of 1 lakh to every poor Indian family. Beside this, the party has promised reservation for women in 50% of Central government jobs.

It is sad that we are eyeing short-term gains through distribution of freebies & social welfare schemes. —Swapnendu Bandyopadhyay

The choices are many. “Women are not only feeling pampered but for the first time they are feeling blessed to have been born as women. While the UP government is paying 25,000 on the birth of a baby girl to end discrimination between sons and daughters, the Centre is paying 6,000 to stop female foeticide," said social scientist Prasanta Ray of Presidency University. “Both the UP and Bengal governments are paying a lumpsum to women for their marriage. Rural households celebrate and do not mourn their advent (any longer)."

But economists aren’t impressed. “It is very sad that we are looking at short-term gains through distribution of freebies and social welfare schemes. Forget about long-term development, asset creation and infrastructural development is worst hit," said Swapnendu Bandyopadhyay, professor of economics, Jadavpur University. “What is scary is that this culture is causing a huge impact on the human psyche. It is giving rise to a parasitic mentality, living off another. There’s no employment generation and the political parties are aiming to mitigate anger and frustration by giving people allowances. It’s a vicious chain for governments, because these schemes and doles will need enhancement from time to time."

State-level Courting

At the state level, too, ruling parties have been going all out to capitalize on women voters. “It’s a good thing that women are being seen as individuals and entities, with a mind of their own. In the age of competitive populism, having exhausted all existing constituencies, it is only natural that new areas will be tapped," said Kingshuk Chatterjee, professor of history at Calcutta University.

In assembly elections, female voters largely prefer the party that has been able to create a credible base of beneficiaries among them. Odisha began empowering women through its Mission Shakti Self Help Groups back in 2001, immediately after Naveen Patnaik became chief minister. Over the years, Mission Shakti has empowered 7 million women by providing them seed money, credit linkages, market linkages and other benefits such as interest subsections.

In 2023-24, Mission Shakti received a hefty allocation of 41.57% from the state’s gender budget. Interestingly, Odisha stands out, with 43% of its startups being led by women. The seats that have gone to the polls so far in Odisha have shown a 76% turnout by women and 75% by men. A Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leader declared that BJP would come nowhere close to BJD’s electoral prospects unless it breaks into Patnaik’s women cheerleaders.

In Uttar Pradesh, a Hindi heartland state known for celebrating machismo, the government is politically sympathetic to the cause of women and chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s popularity is on the ascent. This is because he is perceived as a protector and saviour. The abolition of Triple Talaq and reining in of roadside eve teasers won wide appreciation.

The CSDS Lokniti post-poll survey in Uttar Pradesh after the 2022 Assembly poll attributed BJP’s comfortable majority to women voters. BJP’s women’s vote share was 13 percentage points higher than Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP). As for the male vote share, the difference between BJP and SP was only 5%.

Yogi’s success lies not just in women-related schemes but also in creating a women-friendly environment, infrastructure and work culture.

For instance, the Mission Shakti scheme is training women in self-defence, besides sensitising them to crime and atrocities. Under the Mukhyamantri Samuhik Vivaah Yojana, the Uttar Pradesh government spends 51,000 per wedding, with 35,000 going straight to the bride’s account and the rest being used for a gift and arranging the ceremony. This helps explain why the percentage of women voters increased from 63.31% in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly to 67.18% in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll.

Bengal’s Lakshmir Bhandar

Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s basket of a dozen schemes for women, taking care of everything from the birth of a girl child to education, empowerment, marriage, pocket money and widow pension, fetched her 50% of the women’s vote both in the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2021 Assembly elections—13 percentage points more than its principal rival BJP.

The biggest cash incentive for the women of Bengal is Lakhshmir Bhandar, a basic monthly allowance scheme, which started out with a payout of 500 and 1,000 for general caste and SC/ST women, respectively. It was launched a few months before the 2021 state Assembly election to blunt the rising tide of anti-incumbency and allegations of corruption. The scheme turned out to be a game changer as it covered 21 million women out of the total 37 million female electorate.

According to Pratichi Trust, founded by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, the Lakshmir Bhandar cash incentive had empowered 85.6% of the women surveyed, with 61.1% admitting that the cash had enhanced their position in the household and given them financial security. As many as 75.9% said they were supplementing the family income and meeting the expenses of their child’s education, buying medicines and also taking care of personal needs.

The rich dividends in the 2021 Assembly results, which saw Trinamool Congress slightly increase its seat count in the state Assembly, made the government double the allowance components for the general caste just before election dates were announced.

As expected, the move has created waves of excitement and interest among women. Such has been the craze for Lakshmir Bhandar that BJP’s top leadership, including Modi and Amit Shah, had to take a leaf out of Banerjee’s book and promise an enhanced alternative, Annapurnar Bhandar, on similar lines, if voted to power.

“Mamata didi says that if BJP comes to power, it will stop the programme. BJP is not going to stop any scheme. We will increase the benefit of Lakshmir Bhandar," Shah assured the audience at an election campaign in Uluberia.

TMC supporters take part in a rally in Kolkata on 15 May.
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TMC supporters take part in a rally in Kolkata on 15 May. (PTI)

The budgeted estimate for the Lakshmir Bhandar scheme for 2024-25 was 14,400 crore and the promised hike will cause an additional burden of 12,000 crore. But the government is determined to see it through even at the expense of some of its not-so-populist schemes, such as old-age pensions and some educational scholarships.

Maharashtra, too, has a bountiful basket for women, including the Manodhairya scheme, which provides financial assistance from 1 lakh to 10 lakh to rape victims, and the Majhi Kanya Bhagyashree Scheme, which has an annual grant of 50,000 for a girl child up to 18 years. These and several other schemes, including Matrutva Sahayog Scheme, Kishori Shakti Scheme, financial assistance for marriage of girls in orphanages, among others, which were responsible for an expenditure of 3,000 crore from the 9,000 crore budget of the Women and Child department’s budget, said a senior secretary of the department, requesting anonymity.

This is not assistance but your right. —M.K. Stalin

Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin, who touts himself as the custodian of the Dravidian model of social reform, has rolled out a slew of projects to help women get financial assistance and have a better standard of living. “This is not assistance but your right," he declared last year while announcing a monthly assistance scheme of 1,000 for women. In addition, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government in the state subsidizes free bus travel for all women, a widow remarriage assistance scheme and marriage assistance for daughters of poor widows.

In Andhra Pradesh, chief minister Jaganmohan Reddy, too, has launched multiple welfare schemes, of which some key initiatives are targeted at women. They include Amma Vodi, under which 15,000 is paid to mothers of schoolgoing children to encourage education, and YSR Cheyutha, which supports women aged 45–60 from weaker socio-economic backgrounds by providing 75,000 over four years.

The dividends

Madhya Pradesh’s Ladli Behna Scheme, which provides 1,000 per month to women aged between 23 and 60, bleeds the state of 8,000 crore annually, but has earned rich dividends for BJP.

Anti-incumbency will soon become a thing of the past, feel party leaders, because women will ensure continuity of a government in order to enjoy continuity of benefits. A glimpse of this loyalty is visible in Bengal. “My son is sitting at the Esplanade dharna in protest against the school recruitment scam, which gave jobs to many ineligible candidates. My son had passed his Master’s with a good percentage and believes he had done well in the job entrance exam, but somehow he couldn’t make it to the merit list," said T. Jana of Kanthi in East Midnapore. “However, my wife thinks we should vote for Didi (Mamata Banerjee) because in the absence of a job, my household is getting the benefits of Lakshmir Bhandar for my two unemployed daughters and Kanyashree ( 2,000 a year) for my school going girl."

Indeed, women in Bengal attend chief minister Banerjee’s rallies in huge numbers, filling the front rows to signal their support for her. In a reciprocal gesture, Banerjee begins her speech by singing paeans to women and how they form the backbone of family, society and country.

It has to be seen if West Bengal becomes an aberration to the national trends. —Pratim Ranjan Bose

But according to political analyst Pratim Ranjan Bose of Iravati Research and Communication Centre, such a simplistic correlation of freebies and support doesn’t always hold. “Congress lost Rajasthan and Chattisgarh despite offering huge freebies. It has to be seen if West Bengal becomes an aberration to the national trends," said Bose. “One must remember that disbursement under MNREGA has been suspended in West Bengal for two years. This, coupled with the scam in school recruitment, has impacted both men and women."

However, Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP Jawhar Sircar has a different take. He thinks Banerjee is a feminist in letter and spirit and understands and feels for women in a way no other chief minister did or can possibly do. “She has single-handedly led the empowerment of women with innovative and out-of-the box schemes, which have really helped in establishing women’s space in politics and the economy. She has ensured 35-45% representation of women in numerous decision making bodies, far ahead of others," he said.

But could the showering of such boundless bounties lead to friction within families? Professor Chatterjee doesn’t think so. “Maybe a particular generation, say, the patriarchy of 60-plus, might feel threatened about losing their social control. But I am optimistic about the slightly younger age group. They’ll adjust to the idea of women bringing in resources and having a say in the household."

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