What explains the focus on financial assistance to women in these polls?
In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK alliance, the DMK alliance and Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam have announced monthly monetary assistance to women heads of households.
Manifestos of different parties through this election cycle have had a special focus on financial assistance to women.
In Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) alliance, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) alliance and Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam have announced monthly monetary assistance to women heads of households.
The All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) has done this in West Bengal. The Congress has promised ₹2,000 per month to housewives in Assam and Kerala. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has similarly announced financial assistance of different kinds for girl students and a fixed deposit of ₹1 lakh for women from Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), Other Backward Class (OBC), and economically weaker sections at the time of marriage in West Bengal.
What explains this rush to give monetary assistance to women? An HT analysis shows that a mix of political, economic and systemic factors might explain this behaviour.
1) Women's participation in elections has increased
Men outnumber women in India. According to the 2011 census, there were 940 women for every 1,000 men in the country. This creates a systemic bias against women when it comes to elections.
However, women have been compensating for this gap by showing greater eagerness to vote. While the gender gap in voter turnout was very high in the first few decades after independence, it started coming down since the 1990s and has fallen sharply in the last decade.
Election Commission of India (ECI) data shows that the turnout among women voters exceeded that among men for the first time in 2019. This trend also holds for most state elections in the recent period.
An HT analysis of the latest state elections in 22 biggest states shows that in 14 of them, women’s turnout was higher than men’s. In nine of these, which includes poorer states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha, women’s turnout was more than two percentage points ahead of men’s. Of the eight states where women’s turnout was lower than men’s, the gap was less than half a percentage point in three. When read with this statistic, it is not surprising that political parties are focusing more on issues of women.
2) Women voters can turn the tide in an election
To be sure, as the above statistics show, women’s lead over men in turning up for elections was the least in West Bengal, Assam, and Tamil Nadu in the last assembly election. Does it make sense to tailor manifestos for them then in this election cycle?
Even if women’s turnout is marginally lower than men’s, a much higher support among women can turn an election around for a party.
According to an analysis by Rahul Verma and Ankita Barthwal published in Mint earlier this month, which used data from post-poll surveys conducted by CSDS-Lokniti, women’s support for the winning party vis-à-vis the losing party was much greater compared to men’s in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu during the last assembly elections.
The Mamata Banerjee-led TMC, for instance, was just two percentage points ahead of the Left-Congress alliance in West Bengal among men, but 12 percentage points ahead among women.
In Tamil Nadu, the DMK alliance would have won against Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK if only men had voted in 2016.
3) The pandemic might have hurt women more than men
While the harshest restrictions imposed to curb Covid-19 infections might have been lifted, the impact of the infection is still being felt by the economy.
There is good reason to believe that financial impact of the pandemic has been more for women than men in India. One of the most important indicators of that is a worsening of the gender gap in labour force participation rate (LFPR).
LFPR measures the share of women who are either working or looking for a job.
While the gender gap in India’s LFPR has always been high, it has further worsened in the post-pandemic period. In April 2020, the first full month after the imposition of lockdown, female LFPR was just 72.9% of what it was in April 2019.
The fall in male LPFR was lower: 84.9% of the April 2019 level. The recovery in women’s LFPR has also been much less than that for men.
Men’s LFPR has been around or above 95% of 2019-20 levels since July 2020. Women’s LFPR been lower than the 90% mark after July 2020.
A January 2021 HT article by Amit Basole and Rosa Abraham from Azim Premji University painted a grim picture of the gendered impact of the pandemic. Seventy-three percent of men who lost work in April came back to work in August and remained employed in December.
The number of such women was just 23%. A majority of women (56%) who lost work remained unemployed in August and December, compared to only 13% men.
It is, therefore, possible that the schemes promised for women are aiming to compensate households for the loss of income due to women staying at home.
4) JanDhan accounts could have made targeting easier
Perhaps the most crucial reason for financial promises to women in recent elections could be that they have increased access to bank accounts that they themselves use.
Between the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted in 2005-06 and 2015-16, the share of women with such accounts increased by 38 percentage points, likely due to the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana launched in 2014.
Tamil Nadu saw the highest increase; by 61.1 percentage points. The share of such women was also the highest in the state.
The NFHS survey conducted in 2019-20 shows that this trend is continuing. That more women now have accounts of their own makes it easier for political parties to make such promises and the potential beneficiaries to believe that they will actually be fulfilled.