Indian elections are always measured in terms of different social coalitions and the relative percentages of voting by caste and religious groupings. For instance, minority voting (a euphemism for the Muslim vote) is possibly one of the most analyzed voting pattern in the history of Indian elections (so is possibly the Dalit vote). This slicing and dicing gives us a clearer measure to understand the electoral landscape, but unlike in western democracies, there has always been a reluctance on our part in India to divide electoral blocks along gender lines. Thus all our electoral groupings are gender neutral – for instance, when we speak of the Muslim vote or the Dalit vote or the OBC vote, it is understood that we are speaking for both the genders collectively and no gender based discrepancies are expected or incorporated into our electoral models.
The patriarchal nature of Indian society has always provided us with very little incentive to invest our electoral studies with gender differentiation and it is far easier for us to assume that men make all the important decisions, including that of exercising the democratic franchise. Another factor that helped sustain this view for long was the lower participation of women voters in the electoral process. All of this has quietly changed in the last decade or so and we are left with our archaic election analysis systems which are hugely error prone because of such gaps in our understanding. This is an attempt here at 5Forty3 to rectify this anomaly and contribute to our understanding of the women vote.
Rajasthan election of this month something unique happened for the first time in the state when the women voter turnout was higher than that of men by more than one percentage point. Let us try and put this in a historic perspective; in 1998, the male voter turnout was a good 6 percentage higher than that of females. Going back a decade further in time, in the 1985 elections marred by the assassination of Indira Gandhi, when Congress swept back to power in the state, men voters outvoted women voters by a solid 12 percentage! Even in the last election of 2008, men had a gap of two percentage points over women. From being perennially behind, suddenly Rajasthani women seem to have decided to jump the queue and defeat their male counterparts in the race to democracy. A whopping 33 lakh 14 thousand extra women voted in this election as compared to 2008 (a 29% increase), contributing substantially to the 37 lakh votes overall lead of the BJP over Congress. This is a story that has been largely missed by a vast number of political commentators in India.
turnout story is not limited to Rajasthan alone, for this happened even in other states, including the tribal dominated, Naxal affected state of Chhattisgarh. In Chhattisgarh too, women voters covered a 2.5% gap of 2008 to vote almost as much as the men in percentage terms. What is interesting is that they actually out-voted the men in absolute terms in the Bastar division, which is quite commendable because of the looming Maoist fear. It is indeed no small achievement for the women voters to outvote their male counterparts by casting 12 thousand extra votes in a region where there was a clear threat of violence by Naxalites.
How did this miracle of women outvoting the men happen? Or rather, why did this happen? To answer that question, I will first narrate an incident that happened in the month of August, when I was in a small town near Jaipur, where the then Rajasthan CM, Ashok Gehlot was addressing a small public durbar. As soon as he finished his speech, the male members among the crowd walked out of the venue, while the women formed a neat semi-circular queue and started chatting excitedly. A group of three officials of the Rajasthan government then set up an impromptu counter and started distributing 100 rupee bills to the women. This exercise was apparently part of the state government’s direct cash transfer (DCT) scheme which was then recently introduced.
After the DCT exercise, we conducted a straw poll of some 18 women and were surprised to note that 50% of them very frankly asserted that they would vote for Vasundhara Raje’s party in the upcoming election – while only 30% wanted to vote for Congress and 20% were yet to decide. This enthusiasm to throw out the incumbent government, despite the immediate memory of the state largesse was quite extraordinary irrespective of our sample size or the randomization process. On probing further, many women told us that they would use the 100 rupees to buy milk for their children, but most asked the question as to what would they do after 3 days when the money would have all been used up?
What is common between Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh? Or to be more specific, between Rajasthan and Bastar? In both the states, there were massive government dole-schemes especially centred around the women members of the family unit, thus classically we would have expected the women to go and vote for the sitting governments for their largesse. What happened is quite the opposite, women went out to vote in large numbers no doubt, but they went out to vote out the dole-serving governments. In Bastar, where the women clearly outvoted the men, the ruling BJP lost a massive 7 seats as compared to the previous election by winning only 4 out of 12 assembly segments, whereas the opposition Congress won 8 out of 12 seats while it had won only 1 seat in 2008. Raman Singh government literally survived this election by the scruff of the neck due to a huge helping hand of Narendra Modi. In Rajasthan where the women voters again went out to vote in unprecedented numbers, the Congress government was literally and totally wiped out of the electoral landscape despite spending 3000 crore rupees on various dole-schemes ranging from free medicines to free clothing to free food and free money in the last one year.
Contrast this women voter behavior with that of Madhya Pradesh, where the women voters achieved a historic high of 70% turnout and the ruling BJP won a massive mandate for the third term. It was clearly a vote for development, for two of the biggest stories in Madhya Pradesh that have been mostly missed by the media narrative are Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s improvement of the power situation of the state (as most parts of the state now get 24 hours bijli) and the remarkable agricultural growth of the state. The almost consistent double digit agricultural growth in MP over the last few years has completely transformed not only the rural economy but also has metamorphosed the state from being a food grain dependent economy to a food grain surplus state – so much so that it is now competing against traditional agri-giants like Haryana and Punjab. Thus women voters have rewarded Shivraj Singh Chouhan with a third term, mostly because of his governance record than what the left-leaning news media touts as welfare schemes like Ladli Lakshmi or Kanyadaan Yojana. This has been the theme of women voters all across the heartland, from Uttar Pradesh to Himachal Pradesh to Rajasthan and even extending to Gujarat in the west – voting for progress and development.
On the first phase voting day in last year’s Gujarat elections, I was covering various polling booths in the Rajkot-Junagarh circuit of Saurashtra to just gauge the voters’ mood. Till about 2 PM in the noon, there was a discernible difference between rural voter’s interest in voting and the empty polling booths of urban pockets and towns. Saurashtra had witnessed a drought last year and also the presence of Keshubhai Patel’s GPP had queered the pitch in that part of the state. Around 2 PM in Jetpur town, when we had to literally wait for close to 20 minutes to interview about 3-4 voters (the voter turnout was so low), suddenly the tide started turning. At first it was a trickle, but in less than an hour it was almost like a hurricane, when large groups of women visited the polling booths of urban areas after finishing their daily chores. 70% women voted in Gujarat in last year’s election and it is an established fact that the women voters saved Narendra Modi from any anxious moments, especially in Saurashtra.
What exactly is this women voting pattern? Although by no means exhaustive, this blogger has conducted small field studies in the past and here are the findings, which are corroborated to a large extent by poll surveys conducted by other reputed organizations, like CSDS and AC Nielsen, in the past;
Our political class has been consistently reading the signals of empowered women voters wrongly. While women are voting for prosperity, policy makers are busy designing schemes of higher degree of state sponsored welfarism. In fact the situation in most parts of heartland is such that there are only different degrees of rights based economic packages, while the voters, especially women voters, equate state welfarism as merely a temporary patchwork for actual lack of governance. The Congress party, which has wrongly believed for almost 5 years that its stupendous victory of 2009 was only due to NREGA and farm loan waiver, has become a fulltime prisoner of rights based economic policies. Whereas on the other hand, when Narendra Modi talks of 24 hours power supply, or about skill development and women cooperative business models in his speeches, his message is attractive to even the rural and small town women voters. It is time now for Congress to acknowledge its mistake and change its messaging, if it wants to survive the 2014 hurricane.
Another classic example of how most of the political class is behind the learning curve of empowered women voter’s choices is seen in the state of Uttar Pradesh. In 2012, historic participation of female voters in the UP election gave an almost unprecedented mandate to the Samajwadi Party and its young new leader, Akhilesh Yadav. As per CSDS post-poll survey: 32% women voted for SP, while only 28% men voted for the party. In less than 2 years, it is one of the most anti-incumbent states in India today as various poll surveys and ground reports have started indicating. The vote of hope in 2012 UP may well turn into a vote of despair by 2014. The Samajwadis have read their 2012 mandate so wrongly that it is almost a crime against the voting public. A vote for better governance has been converted into a vote for unemployment doles and free laptops and a myriad other freebies combined with the usual goondaraj associated with SP.
In the Mahakumbh of February this year at Allahabad, I was witness to an interesting new phenomenon. Like all Kumbh Melas, this one too had a lost-and-found counter where loudspeaker announcements are made continuously, but the general traffic was almost 50% less this year as compared to the past according to many veterans because of mobile phone penetration. On an average, four out of ten women who did come to the lost and found counters at the Kumbh had their own mobile phones and wanted loud announcements of their cell numbers so that the missing family members or friends could call them. A vast majority of these women belonged to what is classically described as lower economic strata of the society. What does this tell you? These are mobile phone owning empowered women who are now aspiring for a better life despite their economic hardships. They would any day want 24 hour power supply and better education for their children than FSB or free cash doles; this is why Modi’s message is more popular among these women than say Rahul Gandhi’s or Akhilesh Yadav’s.
The electoral signal from women voters is clear – better governance is what they want, not welfare schemes or doles, at least not in isolation or as a compensation for lack of development. In Madhya Pradesh or Gujarat for instance, state welfarism goes hand in hand with better governance models and economic growth, so the vote is clearly pro-incumbent in nature. In Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh needs to reinvent himself beyond the ‘chawal wale baba’ epithet if he wants to continue to rule; a job that was made easier by the Congress this time because it had no alternate narrative and simply promised more of the same dole-nomics like free rice instead of BJP’s 1 rupee per kilo (competitive welfarism is now passé). The argument that voter enthusiasm would be much lesser in the 2014 national elections as compared to state assembly elections is outdated, for we have consistently seen how the voters, women in particular, differentially apportion inflationary blame on central government than state governments. For those who want to take on Modi in 2014, your time starts now, create an alternate message of governance instead of relying on doles, for the women of heartland are likely to turnout in the largest numbers ever for a parliamentary poll and their vote may totally surprise policy makers, leaders and intellectuals alike.