Who Will Women Vote For in 2024?

As the 2024 Lok Sabha elections draw near, the spotlight is firmly on women voters, who are increasingly recognized as a decisive force in Indian politics. With their growing participation and influence, political parties are crafting strategies to win their allegiance through targeted policies and outreach efforts
By Rashme Sehgal
  • Gender politics and women-centric welfare dominate, with BJP’s messaging prowess unrivaled. Modi stands as  most credible leader today
  • Women, now a distinct electoral group, exhibit higher voting rates. In 2019, female turnout exceeded male turnout in Lok Sabha
  • All major Indian parties, not just the BJP, have targeted women voters for electoral gains
  • One pro-women scheme can sway elections, as seen in Bihar in 2016 when Nitish Kumar’s prohibition policy secured 43 seats in 2020

THE 2024 Lok Sabha elections are going to be one of the most tightly contested elections in our country. Prime Minister Modi is leaving no weapon in his armoury to return to power. Of the 96 crore people eligible to cast their vote for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, 47 crore will be women and these women voters will have a decisive say in who will emerge as the winning team.

THE SANDESHKHALI FACTOR

Consider BJP’s carpet bombing of the Sandeshkhali episode. During the West Bengal assembly elections in 2019, BJP had tried its best to win over the voters of this state by painting West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as being pro-Muslim and therefore by default ‘anti-national’. Since this strategy failed miserably, now the party is targeting the women voters of this state by accusing Mamata of being blatantly anti-woman. It is for this reason that the BJP is playing the Sandeshkhali card to the hilt. And what could be more convenient for the government than that one of the kingpins in this exploitation racket is a Muslim. 

The poor purchasing power can be directly linked to the decline in India’s Female Labor Participation Rate during the last nine years. As per the World Bank data, reported LFPR in 2012 was observed to be at 27% which dropped to 22.9% in 2021 and then rose one percent to 23.9 percent with more women joining the agricultural sector where they receive poor wages

The fact that Modi and the national media have extended so much support for these women is bound to impact the woman voters of this state. In the 2019 national elections, BJP succeeded in giving a tough fight to the TMC having managed to wrest 18 of the 42 seats while the TMC won 22 seats.  Following this close contest, Mamata went on to initiate as many as 250 women-oriented welfare schemes, having realised only too well that 48.5 percent of the electorate in this election had comprised female voters. This paid off and in the West Bengal state elections held in 2021, women voters played a decisive role in ensuring Mamata romped home to a resounding victory. 

WOMEN-CENTRIC POLITICS

The BJP learnt from this defeat. And in the more recent Madhya Pradesh state elections, the then Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan six months before the state elections, went on to introduce the Ladli Behna Yojana which ensured  Rs 1250 in the bank accounts of over 1.32 crore underprivileged women six months before the date of polling. Chauhan had also promised to extend the Ladli Behna Yojana to all the underprivileged women in the state if they returned to power.  Women’s power worked and they won the elections with a thumping majority.

No wonder, this time around for the Lok Sabha elections, all political parties are focusing on the women’s vote.  The Prime Minister in several speeches has repeated how he is confident the women voters will make him win once again. 

He has backed his rhetoric with several women-centric schemes that focus on women’s empowerment. Triple talaq has been banned, he has built the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the state of Uttarakhand has passed the key Uniform Civil Code bill which is now expected to be implemented in the coming months in both Gujarat and Assam. More importantly, he claims, 27 years after the Women’s Reservation Bill was first introduced in Parliament, the bill to amend the Constitution and provide one-third reservation to women in both the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies was passed in the Lok Sabha on September 20 2023.

This focus on women is not just limited to the BJP, all political parties, including the Congress, the JD(U), the DMK and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), have tried to woo women for electoral success.

Earlier political parties focused on a specific community or a particular caste but now they are now tapping women and trying to win their votes en bloc. Women have become a constituency in their own right.

One of the main reasons for this is that more women voters are now participating in the electoral process. For the first time in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, more women, than men, exercised their right to vote. The participation of women voters stood at an all-time high of 67.2%. Contrast this with just 46.6 percent of women voting in the 1962 Lok Sabha election against 62 percent of male voters.

In the three years to 2022, the number of women voters increased by 5.1%. In the same period, the number of male voters grew by 3.6%.

Political parties have woken up to this reality and they are busy trying to woo the women voter. Be it with allowances deposited in their bank accounts, subsidised cooking fuel, free bus rides or action against alcohol consumption. No wonder Modi announced on March 8 which is International Women’s Day that LPG cylinder prices were slashed by Rs 100 per cylinder.

 Just one pro-women scheme can swing an election as was the case in 2016 when Bihar Chief Minister and JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar brought in prohibition in the state. This scheme helped ensure Nitish’s JD(U) won 43 seats in the 2020 assembly polls. Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party had in 2019  also promised a series of sops for women, including free bus rides and mohalla clinics. This paid off and AAP was voted back to power in Delhi in 2020.

POWER OF THE FEMALE VOTE

In the South, the wooing of women voters started in a big way in 1982, when the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran upgraded the existing schoolchildren’s midday meal, calling it the “nutritious noonday meal”. This reached 68 lakh malnourished children. Taking a leaf out of his book, former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister NT Rama Rao also introduced several women empowerment schemes, thereby securing their votes.

Chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath has learnt from the experience of the South and has also wooed the women voter to good effect. This is not surprising given that UP has 150 million eligible voters of which 70 million are women. Yogi won the state election by batting on how he had made UP free from the Mafia raj unleashed by Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh Yadav.

The then Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan six months before the state elections, went on to introduce the Ladli Behna yojana which ensured  Rs 1250 in the bank accounts of over 1.32 crore underprivileged women six months before the date of polling.  Women’s power worked and they won the elections with a thumping majority

Prime Minister Modi acknowledged their contribution stating, “Wherever women voters have voted more than men, BJP has got a bumper victory.”

Modi has introduced a slew of schemes for women. The BJP has gone to town about how they have distributed the cooking gas Ujjwala Yojana to 9.6 crore women, have opened 27 crore Jan Dhan accounts, specialised fixed deposit schemes, disbursed over 27 crore MUDRA loans to women entrepreneurs, and Mission Poshan. The Swachh Bharat Mission has been pitched as a scheme to protect the dignity of women, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana was aimed at reducing kitchen pollution for women, and the Jal Jeevan Mission was aimed at providing piped water to women living in rural areas in their homes. Most of these schemes had been introduced by the earlier governments at the centre but these have been repackaged and `Modified’ to such an extent that the public believes these governments believe this is a direct result of Modi’s Munificence. 

The Communist Party of India-Marxist leader Subhashini Ali believes attributing the success of the BJP’s welfare measures as the reason for the party’s sweep in the state is incorrect. Ali’s own assessment is that “communal polarisation’ has played a key role in Modi’s success. Women are as much victims of this propaganda as men are. They believe Hindutva has everything to do with puja-paath and both Modi and Yogi have come to symbolise this sentiment. 

Ali believes the Bahujan Samaj Party factor also played a key role in the BJP’s win in 2022. “Jatav women were some of (BSP supremo) Mayawati’s biggest supporters. Her candidates lost. Their vote share — which is somewhere between eight to 16 percent — also has a large segment of women voters and this went to the BJP,” Ali points out. 

According to the National Multidimensional Poverty Index 2023 by Niti Aayog, multidimensional poverty in India has declined from 29.17% in 2013-14 to 11.28% in 2022-23. During this period, approximately 24.82 crore people have been lifted out of poverty. Uttar Pradesh has seen significant improvement, with 5.94 crore people escaping poverty, the highest among all states.

Dr Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, believes that rural India continues to vote in larger numbers as compared to urban India. “A majority of rural women look upon the elderly unmarried Modi ‘as a family elder’ who is working for their upliftment. Similarly, Yogi Adityanath is perceived as not being corrupt in personal life. They also believe, contrary to NCRB data, that he has helped improve law and order in the state of UP,” says Dr Kumari.

Political parties have woken up to this reality and they are busy trying to woo the women voter. Be it with allowances deposited in their bank accounts, subsidised cooking fuel, free bus rides or action against alcohol consumption

Dr Kumari went on to add, “Economic issues do not matter in an election. It is the emotional connection with the public that helps swing votes. The BJP had a host of organisations working for them under different nomenclatures at the grassroots level. No other party was as organised as they were.” It is this deep emotional connection that flies in the face of facts and figures that are provided by none other than the government.

UP is known to have the highest crime rate amongst Indian states, with the police recording over 50,000 crimes in 2020, several violent in nature. Yet, women in the state insist that ‘our Yogi’ has helped ensure the security of womenfolk.

Veena Rana, who heads the NGO Dastak in Lucknow, which works with young women, believes other political parties must be able to match the BJP outreach.

Despite these promises, parties continue to provide women with negligible representation in the State Assembly. Take the example of the Himachal Pradesh state elections in 2022 where BJP had given six women candidates tickets in a legislature of 68 members, while the Congress nominated only three women candidates. This is when Himachal Pradesh has the second-highest literacy rate in the country and where the female voter turnout was 79%, as opposed to 70% for men. 

DICHOTOMY OF WOMEN-CENTRIC SCHEMES

While there is a great deal of hoopla about women-friendly schemes, the budgetary allocation across all sections of the social sector has substantially decreased. The budgetary allocation in 2014-15 comprised 4.6 percent of the overall budget but by 2023-24 had been slashed to 2.5 percent.

Neither the much touted ‘Beti Padhao Beti Bachao’ slogan is reflected in government budgetary allocations. If the government had been serious about the Beti Bachao program it would not have seen massive cuts from 0.73 percent to 0.25 percent of the overall budget in the ‘Mid-Day Meal Scheme’ now called ‘PM Poshan’. The ICDS has been merged with Saksham Anganwadi and is called PM Poshan. This new incarnation has resulted in a higher allotment. While the single ICDS had a financial outlay of Rs 18,691 crore, the combined PM Poshan has been given Rs 20,544 crore in the current budget. 

A similar situation has been witnessed in several other women and child-related schemes namely the National Creche Scheme and the Scheme for Adolescent Girls, despite knowing that we have the most malnourished women in the world, there has been a cut in the much-needed maternity benefits scheme as well. Skyrocketing prices of cylinders and decreasing subsidies have made this scheme out of reach for millions of families who continue to depend on them. 

In none of these highfalutin schemes does the reality match the rhetoric. Take, for instance, the much-publicized Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana scheme, which has reached 93.4 million beneficiaries by April 2022. But poorer families have not been able to go in for refills due to the high price of LPG cylinders which rose from Rs 410 in 2014 to Rs 1,060 in 2022. Rameshwar Teli, Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas told the Rajya Sabha on August 1 2022 that 9.2 million customers did not take any refill in 2021 while 20 million customers took only one refill.

Another example of the low purchasing power of the public at large is reflected in the fact that the government claims it has brought electricity to 18 lakh villages. However the Ministry of Power shows that power consumption has been growing at around five percent per annum despite an increase in connections. Poor households, even when they get a free connection, are not in a position to buy metered electricity. 

The wooing of women voters started in a big way in 1982, when the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran upgraded the existing school children’s midday meal, calling it the “nutritious noonday meal”. This reached 68 lakh, malnourished children. Taking a leaf out of his book, former Andhra Pradesh CM NT Rama Rao also introduced several women empowerment schemes, thereby securing their votes

The poor purchasing power can be directly linked to the decline in India’s Female Labor Participation Rate during the last nine years. As per the World Bank data, reported LFPR in 2012 was observed to be at 27% which dropped to 22.9% in 2021 and then rose one percent to 23.9 percent with more women joining the agricultural sector where they receive poor wages. The Centre for New Economics Studies has documented that post-Covid, women were forced to move out of salaried employment to casual and self-employment in the lowly paid unorganised sector.

But whatever the reality, women in the country continue to lend their support to Modi. He is seen as an individual who provides stability which is needed in the national context. In the 2019 elections, women overwhelmingly lend their support to him. The India Today-Axis My India post-poll study exit poll, which was the only one to get the results right, suggested that 46 percent of women had voted for the BJP and its allies, 27 percent for the Congress-led UPA and another 27 percent for other parties. Interestingly, the post-poll study showed 50 percent of women who mentioned their occupation as ‘housewives’ voted for the BJP, and 23 percent for the Congress.

Gender politics and women-centric welfarism have taken centre stage. And when it comes to messaging, it is very difficult to beat the BJP. Also, Modi remains the most credible face amongst our present-day leaders.

In January 2020, a video of PM Modi touching the feet of a woman, as a reciprocatory gesture during an award ceremony stage went viral. Will he and his BJP receive their blessings or will women voters give someone else a chance? That most likely will be the deciding factor in 2024.

Rashme Sehgal

Rashme sehgal began her career as a poet-cum-short story writer in 1970s. she then shifted to journalism and worked with several leading newspapers including The independent, The Telegraph and The Times of india

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