THE voting pattern in the recent elections has conveyed not so subtly a political mandate that puts the responsibility on the victorious parties to identify a judicious way forward. It is the women who are definite winners in the recent state elections. Coming out in large numbers, they have outnumbered men and exercised their political right, highlighting their collective strength in the fragmented complexity of electoral numbers. 63.26% women went to the voting booth and cast their votes as compared to 59.43% men in UP, a substantial lead of 4%. In Punjab, a state struggling with its adverse sex ration, percentage of women voting was higher than men – 78.14% against 76.69%. In all districts of Uttarakhand, there were more women voters and the gap between women and men voters increased by more than 7% as compared to 2012. Similarly, in Manipur, 89% women voters polled which is 5% more than their male counterparts.
Higher political participation by women is not an isolated phenomenon in the recent elections increasingly being repeated in Parliament and various state legislature elections. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections women outnumbered men voters in nine states which included large states like Orissa, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Andhra Pradesh. While in1962 general elections the gender gap among those voting was 16.7% overall, there was a remarkable closing of gap to 1.5% with 65.6% women voting as compared to 67.1% men in this national election. Thereafter women have continued to assert their political status in elections that followed in various states—Bihar, Assam, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.
According to McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), which tracks India Female Empowerment Index (Femdex) in states, there is a huge variation in gender equality among India’s 32 states. The bottom five states in this index are Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh and these account for as much as 32 per cent female working-age population. It is therefore significant that in four of these states – Bihar, Assam, Jharkhand and UP – women voters have outnumbered men in the state elections.
Significance of this change in voting pattern cannot be underestimated. It is reflective of high confidence in democracy and the advantage of choosing your candidate. Women evidently have understood that casting their vote will enhance their ability to participate in the political agenda and give them right to modify.
While exercising their mandate they are also stating clearly and vocally their priorities and demands. Nitesh Kumar in Bihar has had to impose prohibition conceding to the demand of women, which negated the influence of the powerful liquor lobby. Democratically elected women representatives in local bodies are slowly changing the development agenda. Their own health and the health of their children, education, water supply, electricity and financial inclusion are emerging as focal areas that governments are increasingly becoming cognizant of. To woo these voters, there is a shift in government policies and programmes. Mai-baap schemes for the welfare of women are gradually being replaced by those that ensure economic, personal and political empowerment. Beti Padhao, 50% women days under NREGP, opening of bank accounts, direct transfer of subsidies are aimed to increase economic participation of women and also enable them to have control over their earnings.
Though women today impact elections there are hardly any women in the state and central legislature. Against the 22.4% global average for women in Parliament, India has only 12% representation. It is the 73rd and 74th Amendment with 30% reservation for women at local level that has increased political empowerment through legitimate sharing, distribution and redistribution of power. Assessing political empowerment of women in India World Economic Forum in the gender gap report released in 2016 ranked the country 9th among 142 countries and overall 87 though Bill for reservation for women in the Parliament and state legislatures is still awaiting assent. It is almost certain that with this large turnout of women in recent elections, all parties will support this Bill and it would soon be enacted. Perhaps anticipating this, Parrikar has already stated that his party will have to groom women candidates in each constituency. For women this will signal a move towards equity. It will also enhance their confidence
in the power of the ballot and convince them that their walk to the polling booth, against all odds, is not futile.
Women today are prepared to defy restrictive norms and overcome social and security constraints to move forward. As these elections have shown, they have moved out of the political ghetto of caste and religion and are preparing themselves for the next leap of empowerment. They will need to be supported in taking this leap and this category of voters would expect much beyond manifestos or assurances from their political representatives. They would want to equitably reap the benefits of development and seek demonstrable evidence of outcomes. It would be sagacious for the victorious political parties to recognise their legitimate expectations. The voting pattern in these elections has conveyed not so subtly a political mandate that puts the responsibility on the victorious parties to identify a judicious way forward. It is women who have won and succeeded and all political parties will sooner than latter have to acknowledge this realty.
The author is a retired bureaucrat and Board Chair of CARE India.