The struggles of women to earn their space in politics haven’t changed much but what’s certainly shifting is the political pursuit of the women’s vote. Days after AIADMK’s manifesto promising Rs 1,500 monthly allowances for housewives comes TMC offering monthly income support of Rs 500-1,000 for female heads of households, expected to benefit 80% of Bengal households. Such schemes aren’t whimsical; many top Indian politicians have earned the loyalty of women voters by responding to their needs.
Bihar’s JD(U), Odisha’s BJD and Delhi’s AAP can also claim to run state governments that enjoy greater women’s support with a heavy emphasis on education, women’s safety and service delivery. Rising women voter turnouts and Lokniti-CSDS post-poll surveys pointing to greater women backing for the ultimate victors reveal why the women’s vote is becoming prized. Even the comprehensive 2019 BJP victory saw its women’s vote inch marginally closer to its male vote share. Schemes like Ujjwala offering free LPG cylinders to poor households would’ve helped here. BJP outreach to women has only intensified since then.
Women netas like Mamata Banerjee and late Jayalalithaa earned a special place among women voters by triumphing in an arena dominated entirely by men. But some like Naveen Patnaik and Mamata have also gone the extra mile. In the 2019 general election, both promised 33% tickets to women candidates and put it into practice too. In the upcoming polls, Mamata is fielding 50 women, far short of 33%, but far higher than every other party in the fray across five states.
Coming of age of DBTs is helping politicians target the woman voter better. But such political patronage is no recompense for other major losses. Women’s workforce participation rates have been falling since 2005. The pandemic showed just how vulnerable the women workforce was: A Delhi survey reveals their unemployment rate rose to 55% against 23% among men. Sharply declining fertility rates indicate greater female clout but sex ratio at birth has dipped in the past decade: Preference for fewer children is paradoxically reinforcing male preference too. In East Asian societies, women powered ahead thanks to industrialisation without requiring political handholding. Indian politicians recognising the power of the women’s vote should go beyond populist manifestos. What could be worse for women: All-round political failure to pursue growth oriented policies or the bipartisan propensity for misogynistic tropes?
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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