More women are voting, but not many in the House - Hindustan Times
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More women are voting, but not many in the House

Dec 07, 2023 10:12 PM IST

Women may get into boardrooms and space missions, but women-led development can become a reality only when they are integrated as voters and candidates

Women in Rajasthan scored a no-fuss hattrick in the just-concluded assembly polls by turning out in higher numbers than men after achieving the same feat in the 2013 and 2018 elections. In the 1993 assembly elections, the gender gap in turnout (in favour of men) was over eight per cent. Other states in the ongoing series of five polls have not lagged either. In Telangana, Chhattisgarh, and Mizoram, women went past men; and in Madhya Pradesh, women bettered their earlier record. This is quite a journey from the first general elections in 1951 when lakhs of women opted out of suffrage as they insisted on being counted as someone’s daughter or someone’s wife rather than by their own names. Coming to registration as electors, women’s enrolment has been higher than men in Chhattisgarh and Mizoram; in Telangana, they were equally placed.

Women voters stand in queue to cast their votes (PTI) PREMIUM
Women voters stand in queue to cast their votes (PTI)

Women in Rajasthan scored a no-fuss hattrick in the just-concluded assembly polls by turning out in higher numbers than men after achieving the same feat in the 2013 and 2018 elections. In the 1993 assembly elections, the gender gap in turnout (in favour of men) was over eight per cent. Other states in the ongoing series of five polls have not lagged either. In Telangana, Chhattisgarh, and Mizoram, women went past men; and in Madhya Pradesh, women bettered their earlier record. This is quite a journey from the first general elections in 1951 when lakhs of women opted out of suffrage as they insisted on being counted as someone’s daughter or someone’s wife rather than by their own names. Coming to registration as electors, women’s enrolment has been higher than men in Chhattisgarh and Mizoram; in Telangana, they were equally placed.

In 1962, owing to a plethora of social, educational, and economic barriers, women lagged behind men by 17 percentage points in voting. The 2014 national election was a watershed when the gap in turnout was reduced to less than 1.5 percentage points, building on which women surpassed men in 2019 for the first time. Women voters led in as many as 23 states and UTs. In India’s overall list of electors, women make for 460 million today, almost equal to men. Since 1971, there has been a 236% increase in their registration.

Political parties have inevitably followed the trend both in promise and implementation, in terms of provisioning of tap water, toilets, housing, free transport, cash transfers, special guarantees and customised health and education. Pink manifestos are being flaunted as a gainful investment. Cheaper gas supply to kitchens assumed the level of competitive bidding in the current polls. The stunning victory of the incumbent party in Madhya Pradesh is attributed to the Ladli Behna scheme, preceded by other women support initiatives like Ladli Laxmi, Gaon Ki Beti, and Kanya Vivah. In Chhattisgarh, the new government ushers in with a promise of 12,000 annual assistance to each married woman. Awakened understanding among women and their bargaining power are now acknowledged and women beneficiaries are trusted to reciprocate at polling stations.

Political and electoral activism of women is more visible among local communities and governments. The Prime Minister proudly told the United States Congress that 1.5 million elected women led at various levels in India. The self-help group movement has picked up pace with vast numbers of women congregating around financially empowering small enterprises, often graduating to potential collectives for political negotiations.

An outstanding example of this evolution is Mission Shakti of Odisha, which boasts seven million members spread over six hundred thousand groups. It was started by chief minister Naveen Patnaik in the early days of his almost quarter-century tenure in office. Later his government brought the Mamata scheme of cash support for pregnant and lactating mothers which further strengthened its bond with women. The electoral success of regimes in other states and at the Centre is attributed in varied measures to similar adoption of women-centric agenda. Patnaik’s decision to give 33% of Lok Sabha tickets, in his party, to women in 2019 looked like a bold adventure but was anchored on the socio-political capital accrued through the ground presence of the Shakti sisterhood. All except two women candidates won; reaffirming the regional party’s connection with women voters. This decision can make a rightful claim to be the precursor of the women’s reservation law enacted by Parliament earlier this year.

Election managers on their part are vigorously catalysing the case of women in the electoral landscape. One witnesses more women-friendly conditions at polling booths and women-centric motivational campaigns. Some of the polling stations have come to be managed fully by women staff. The Raipur North assembly constituency in Chhattisgarh made history last month as all its 201 polling booths were managed completely by over one thousand women staffers.

The ensuing five state elections reflect the changed times. Through voluminous, almost revolutionary participation as electors, especially in the last decade, Indian women presented an irrepressible claim for one-third share in legislative houses and have wrested a higher slice of the agenda of all political parties, competing with historic categories like the poor and the farmers.

Women may get into boardrooms, services, and space missions, but women-led development can become a reality only when they are meaningfully integrated as voters and as candidates. The stark fact is that from 24 women MPs elected in the first general election, the number had increased to only 78 by 2019. The good news is women’s identity in Indian elections has finally arrived with assertiveness and effect. Unlike the ever-debated caste or religious identity, this one is an agreed national good.

Akshay Rout is former director general, the Election Commission of India. The views expressed are personal

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