PM Modi, the provider, and women labharthi - Hindustan Times
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PM Modi, the provider, and women labharthi

ByNeelanjan Sircar
Dec 03, 2023 10:36 PM IST

The BJP’s sweeping wins in the Hindi Belt are owed to the party’s support among women voters and branding of the PM as the deliverer of welfare benefits

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has scored a comprehensive victory in the three Hindi Belt states — Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan — that went to the polls in November, even outperforming some of the most optimistic exit polls. It is no secret that the BJP has built a solid base of support in these states: The party won 62 out of the 65 Lok Sabha seats in these states in both the 2014 and 2019 national elections. But the Congress remained optimistic while heading into the 2023 state elections, as it had won all three states in 2018.

Women display their voter's identity card sitting in the back of a truck in Chachiyawas, near Ajmer, India, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. (AP) PREMIUM
Women display their voter's identity card sitting in the back of a truck in Chachiyawas, near Ajmer, India, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023. (AP)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has scored a comprehensive victory in the three Hindi Belt states — Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan — that went to the polls in November, even outperforming some of the most optimistic exit polls. It is no secret that the BJP has built a solid base of support in these states: The party won 62 out of the 65 Lok Sabha seats in these states in both the 2014 and 2019 national elections. But the Congress remained optimistic while heading into the 2023 state elections, as it had won all three states in 2018.

The Congress had pinned its hopes on welfarism (particularly concerning women voters). This model of gender-based welfarism had yielded great benefits to Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal in 2021 and, arguably, was a factor in the Congress’s victory over the BJP in Karnataka. Given this assessment, one would have expected the Congress to perform particularly well among female voters. However, data and field observations show the exact opposite phenomenon.

In the Axis My India poll, one of the few exit polls to pick up the magnitude of the BJP’s victory in Madhya Pradesh this time, 50% of women supported the BJP as compared to just 40% of women for the Congress, a massive gap of 10 percentage points. In contrast, 44% of men supported the BJP while 41% (of men) backed the Congress — a gap of just 3 percentage points. In short, the scale of the BJP victory in MP was enhanced by the backing it received from female voters. Some of this is attributable to the popularity of the Ladli Behna scheme, a direct cash transfer to women in the 23-60 age group implemented by the incumbent chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, that reached a huge majority of MP’s households.

While I did not conduct election fieldwork in Madhya Pradesh, I noticed a similar phenomenon during my fieldwork in Rajasthan, namely, a significant gender gap with women being more supportive of the BJP than men. It is worth noting here that the vaunted Axis exit poll got the Rajasthan election wrong largely because it predicted that women would favour the Congress more than men (a similar misreading of female voters plagued the Axis poll in Bihar and West Bengal predictions). This only underlines the difficulty, but also the importance, of capturing the sentiments of female voters properly. The women’s vote, particularly among younger women, has turned into a discernible political identity. Simply assuming that women will vote like others in the household is bound to lead one astray.

Whereas the BJP was the incumbent in Madhya Pradesh, with a popular four-time chief minister in Chouhan and the successful Ladli Behna scheme, what explains a tilt among women voters in Rajasthan towards the BJP? After all, incumbent Congress chief minister Ashok Gehlot ran popular welfare schemes and also targeted female voters.

First, unlike Nitish Kumar or Mamata Banerjee, the Congress has not shown a long-term commitment to female voters. A sudden shift in priorities to female voters does not have the same impact. Second, and more importantly, the BJP, and Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi in particular, have assiduously built support among women. Political scientist Anirvan Chowdhury, for instance, has chronicled how the BJP has mobilised female voters through female party activists engaged in seva (service).

This impact is greatest in Hindi-speaking areas and Gujarat, where outreach can be combined with Modi directly communicating to the female voters. Indeed, an advantage for the BJP among female voters was also noticed in Chhattisgarh by the Axis poll, although it significantly underestimated the popularity of the BJP. This popularity of PM Modi in the Hindi Belt, particularly among women, makes the BJP a formidable party in any state election in the region — and impenetrable in national elections.

In office, PM Modi has focused on welfarism, creating the “labharthi” (beneficiary) voter. Much of this welfarism, like gas cylinders, has focused on women, and he has developed the image as a “provider”. All through the Hindi Belt, he is directly associated with free ration schemes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. This is more than delivery; it is branding Modi as the only person who can deliver. In my fieldwork and surveys, I often ask about the individual who is “most responsible” for delivering benefits to the citizen. In South India, I disproportionately hear about the respective chief minister or government officials/bureaucrats. But in North India, voters are far more likely to name the PM as the person responsible for the delivery of benefits.

Unlike states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which have long ago developed their unique models of delivery of benefits, the BJP and Modi have redefined the delivery of benefits through cash transfers and branded them in the image of the PM. This, more than anything, explains why a poll plank of welfarism has been so effective against the BJP outside of the Hindi Belt and so ineffective within it. Unfortunately for the Congress, it is in the Hindi Belt that the party tends to be in direct head-to-head contests against the BJP.

The new female voter upends traditional regional and caste-wise calculations. As the sun set in a village in Phulera constituency outside of Jaipur, a young woman sought us out: “I see you are here to cover the elections. My family always votes for the Congress, but this time I am too young to vote. But I will have a vote in 2024, and I will vote for Modi.”

Neelanjan Sircar is a senior fellow at Centre for Policy Research. The views expressed are personal

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