Odisha: Empowered women voters will play a critical role in the state’s Lok Sabha and assembly polls - Hindustan Times

Odisha: Empowered women voters will play a critical role in the state’s Lok Sabha and assembly polls

ByDebabrata Mohanty
May 19, 2024 12:41 AM IST

Over the years, the Patnaik government has recognised the electoral prowess of the women-led self-help groups by giving them a bigger share of tickets in polls.

As Odisha votes for the simultaneous polls to the 147-member Assembly and 21 Lok Sabha seats in four phases that began on May 13, a key question that pollsters have been unable to answer is, which way the state’s women voters will turn.

Going the by 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha and Assembly election trends, the participation of women voters is likely to go up more compared to men this time as well. (Representative Image)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Going the by 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha and Assembly election trends, the participation of women voters is likely to go up more compared to men this time as well. (Representative Image)(HT_PRINT)

Beginning in 2004, when 63.63 % of the total women electorate turned out to cast their votes, the numbers went up to 74.2 % in the 2019 election. In contrast, the rise in the percentage of male voters has been less over the same period compared to women- from 66.06 % in 2004 to 71.8 % in 2019.

Of the 3.36 crore eligible voters of Odisha in the 2024 election, 49.3 % are women; of the 147 Assembly segments in Odisha, women voters outnumber men in 43 seats while in Lok Sabha constituencies, they outnumber men in five of the 21 seats.

Past trends

Going the by 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha and Assembly election trends, the participation of women voters is likely to go up more compared to men this time as well. In the 2014 election, 74.5% women cast their votes compared to 73.2% men while in the 2019 election, 74.2% of the women voters participated compared to 71.8% men voters.

The Axis My India exit poll conducted in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll revealed that at least 50 % of the women voters in Odisha favoured BJD while BJP was the party of choice for 31 % of the voters. If assembly poll results are considered, the percentage of women voters casting their vote for BJD could be slightly higher as the total votes that the ruling BJD received was 1.4 % more than it received in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Buoyed by the seeming anti-incumbency against chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who is seeking a record sixth term, the main opposition BJP is working hard to maximise its tally in both elections.

On Saturday, Union home minister Amit Shah told a meeting in the steel city of Rourkela that the BJP would win more than 15 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats and 75 of the 147 assembly seats in the state.

The importance and influence of Odisha’s self-help groups

But for the BJP to breach the BJD fortress across the state, the first roadblock would be women voters who seem to be rallying behind Patnaik over the last three elections as the party has consistently secured at least 100 seats in the 147-member state Assembly. In the 2019 election, the party won 112 seats, just five seats less than it got in the 2014 election.

Women voters who are backing the BJD in elections are essentially members of women's self-help groups that were launched in 2001 to empower them.

Two decades later, the SHG movement has grown in number with more than 70 lakh women in the state now part of the movement through six lakh groups. With an annual Budget of 2761 crore, the SHG groups are not just training women in diverse skills, but providing them livelihood through loans, they have turned out to be a crucial factor in Patnaik's electoral success.

The SHGs take loans from commercial banks and provide loans to individual members to start and sustain their own enterprises, making it arguably the biggest microfinance enterprise in the world.

The government in turn pays the commercial banks the interest, eventually making the loans interest-free. Credit disbursement among women SHGs went up five times in the last seven years as the state government facilitated institutional finance to SHGs at 0% interest on loans up to 3 lakh. From a mere 1,036 crore credit provided to SHGs in 2016-17, disbursements touched 5763 crore by the end of September 2023.

Initiatives the SHGs are involved in include supplying packaged ready-to-eat fortified power food for children in anganwadi centres; looking after the mid-day meal schemes of state schools; preparing patient diets in government hospitals, managing city waste and faecal treatment plants and restoring and maintaining common urban spaces among a host of other jobs.

During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the women SHGs were instrumental in running kitchens and distributing food to migrant worker returnees as well as stitching facemasks.

These initiatives make the SGHs a critical network of women who are working on the ground and among the economically backward.

The success of the SHG movement in empowering women was proved in the National Family Health Survey-5(2019-21) that the percentage of married women who participated in household decisions has gone up to 90.3 % from 81.8 % recorded in the National Family Health Survey-4(2015-16). Besides, women having bank accounts they used went up significantly from 56.2 % in NFHS-4 to 86.5 % in NFHS-5.

The electoral influence of SHGs

Over the years, Patnaik has recognised the electoral prowess of the groups by giving them a bigger share of tickets in polls. In the current Lok Sabha and assembly polls, BJD gave tickets to 41 women, the highest such share the party has given so far.

In the 2022 panchayat polls, the BJD made women head of the 21 of the 30 zilla parishads. In 2022, Patnaik chose Abanti Das, who was leading a SHG group in Bhadrak district, to be the party candidate for the Dhamnagar by-election. In 2019, he chose to field Pramilla Bisoi, a septuagenarian SHG group member from Ganjam district for the Aska Lok Sabha constituency.

To break the stranglehold of BJD on women voters, BJP in its manifesto for the 2024 assembly polls promised to launch the Subhadra Yojana under which every woman in the age group between 23 and 59 years will receive a cash voucher of 50,000 that can be redeemed over two years.

The manifesto, which the party called "Modi ki guarantee" promised 2 lakh assurance certificate to each BPL girl student under ‘Mo Medhabi Jhia Yojana’ that can be redeemed at the age of 21 years. It also promised a one-day menstrual leave for women government employees. The manifesto said the party will try to create 25 lakh ‘Lakhpati Didis’ (helping women earn at least 1 lakh a year) in Odisha by 2027 and create industrial clusters for every 500 SHGs.

Modi is making every possible effort to endear BJP to the women, telling people that the women-related promises in the manifesto would be fulfilled as those are "Modi ki guarantee".

"The priority of the [government] is the welfare of mothers and sisters,” he said. In several public meetings, Modi and his ministers have frequently talked about the Subhadra Yojana as well as the Lakhpati Didi scheme at election rallies to match the BJD's women empowerment initiatives through the SHG scheme.

The party also put up hoardings across the state, advertising the water connections and LPG connections it has helped set up in other parts of the country, stressing how it freed women from drudgery and health-related crises.

The BJP has also talked of empowering women by making them owners or joint owners of ‘pucca’ houses built under ‘Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana’. In television and social media advertisements, the party is focussing on how the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ has had a profound impact on women's lives by ensuring access to clean and safe sanitation facilities.

Anecdotal evidence shows people in rural Odisha might not know the names of their local MLAs, but they are readily able to identify Modi and the slogan of "Modi ki guarantee".

\With three more phases to go, the fight for women's votes is getting intense as more and more central BJP leaders focus on the Modi government’s women-centric schemes while claiming that the SHG movement is funded by the Centre too.

BJD is not falling behind either as its manifesto promises interest-free loans of up to 15 lakh for women SHGs over the next 5 years, financial linkages worth 1.5 lakh crore to the SHGs and pension for Mission Shakti women workers. On June 4, it would be known if the women voters keep their faith in Patnaik or Modi.


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