When women shape political outcomes
In 1973, a woman, accompanied by her husband, approached Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi, seeking to contest an assembly election. Her confidence impressed the PM and she was given a Congress ticket for an assembly constituency in a backward district of Uttar Pradesh. At that time, the candidate did not know of the difficulties that lay ahead.
While on the campaign trail, she had to ensure that family elders were with her in the jeep. She had to return home before dusk due to family compulsions. She pressed on regardless, the only saving grace being that since she was a woman, she could enter any house and reach out to women.
On election day, the women voter turnout was considerably more than witnessed in previous assembly elections. The woman candidate did not win but the participation of women ensured that the Congress did not lose its deposit in the constituency for the first time since 1952. This was a small victory of sorts for women.
A lot has changed since then. Let us look at the results of the Bihar assembly elections last year. In this politically sensitive state, male turnout was 54.45%, whereas 59.69% of women voted. Though this was about 0.79% less than in the previous election, women played a significant role in determining the political arithmetic and, therefore, government formation.
This was, among other reasons, due to the women-oriented schemes implemented by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government since it assumed power in 2014. These include the Ujjwala scheme, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan which ensured a toilet in each house, bank accounts and free treatment during pregnancy. PM Narendra Modi’s image of being honest and hard-working contributed to women’s faith in these schemes. Women have proved to be loyal supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s in many elections so far.
However, the elections in West Bengal may prove an ordeal for the BJP. There are around 35 million women voters in Bengal who will play a significant role in this election. Chief minister (CM) Mamata Banerjee, who has been in power for the last 10 years, is aware of the power of women voters. The BJP won 18 seats in the 2019 general election. Banerjee gave 40% of the seats to women candidates. But since the Trinamool Congress (TMC) did not do well in that election, she launched a new wing of the party called the Bang Janani Vahini. Now, members of this women’s brigade go door-to-door to tell people about the CM’s policies as well as participate in street rallies.
The TMC has nine women Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha. They are given the freedom to express their opinions vocally. The speech of first-time MP Mahua Moitra on the Presidential address during the budget session of Parliament is a good example of this strategy. The TMC gave her precedence over a senior member such as Saugata Roy in such a crucial discussion. Banerjee has also encouraged women at the gram panchayat level. She has strived to strengthen the female vote by providing them maternity child care leave as well as by instituting schemes for them in educational institutions.
The TMC has consistently tried to prove that the BJP is anti-women by selectively cherry-picking and publicising alleged misogynistic statements by the BJP leaders. This explains why, while addressing a public meeting recently in Hooghly, the PM said, “Centre has provided water connections to over 3.6 crore households since the launch of the Jal Jiwan Mission, the number in Bengal has only gone up from two lakh to nine lakh. Out of 1-1.75 crore houses (in West Bengal), only nine lakh have a water pipeline. The way state government works, no wonder how many more years it’ll take to deliver water to the poor. This shows that TMC doing injustice to ‘Bengal Ki Beti’. Can they be forgiven?”
The BJP’s leaders are trying to prove, buttressed with data, that they have not lagged behind when it comes to development schemes for women. The aim is to convey to the public that women in the state are still insecure despite a woman CM in the saddle. It will be interesting to see what data set or which slogans will convince women voters. But as I see it, the efforts by both parties suggest empowerment of women which should not be looked at only in terms of electoral defeats or victories.
It is clear that since reservations given to women in panchayat elections, there has been an increase in political awareness among them. In 2019, Narendra Singh Tomar, then Union minister for rural development and panchayati raj, told the Lok Sabha that there were a total of 4.1 million public representatives in gram panchayats, of which 46% were women. But they still have to make a mark in the higher echelons of political power. Today, we have 78 women MPs, the highest-ever ratio of women in Parliament, but this is not enough.
It can only be hoped that the Bengal elections, like Bihar before, will strengthen political empowerment among women voters.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal