India’s pioneering psephologists Dr Prannoy Roy and Dorab R. Sopariwala provide some revelations in their latest book, The Verdict, and say that women might outvote men in 2019 despite millions being disenfranchised.
Outlook brings you Exclusive Extracts:
The Rise of Women Voters
In 1962, women’s turnout was 15 per cent lower than men’s turnout; but by 2014, women’s turnout had almost reached parity with men, short by only 1.5 per cent. This represents a remarkable, if belated, turnaround over the last half-century.
As an aside, this very strong statement by women on ensuring a greater say in the democratic process in India almost parallels the significant finding by Imperial College, London, that the height of women in India has grown significantly more than that of men: an average Indian woman’s height has gone up by 4.9 cm as against an increase of 2.9 cm in an average Indian man’s height over the past century. Of course, women are still, on average, not as tall as men: 152.4 cm (5 ft) vs 165 cm (5 ft 4.9 inches), but women are catching up!
The rise of women voter turnout is even more pronounced in state assembly elections. In fact, for the first time in India’s electoral history, women’s turnout was higher than that of men in the state assembly elections of 2017-18. From being well behind men for 55 years—in 1962, women’s turnout (in assembly elections) was as much as 20 per cent below that of men—they have finally overtaken men. This represents an inflection point when annual quantitative improvements have finally led to a qualitative change in the gender underpinning of India’s democracy. This speaks of social churn, and it is not surprising that today political parties focus much more on women’s issues during their campaigns than ever before.
For this turnaround to happen required a remarkable growth in women’s turnout compared with men. It shot up by almost 27 percentage points in assembly polls held between 1962 and 2018 as against men’s turnout, which increased by only 7 percentage points in the same five and a half decades till 2017–2018.
Even if, unlike state assembly elections, the overall women’s turnout in Lok Sabha elections is still slightly behind men, there are some states in which women’s turnout is noticeably higher than that of men. Interestingly, two states from the east of India, Bihar and Odisha, top this list. On the other hand, Madhya Pradesh is one of the two worst-performing states in which women’s turnout lags far behind men, by 10 per cent—and not far behind, further west, is Gujarat.
However, even for Lok Sabha elections, this impressive increase in women’s turnout has not been uniform across all states. In fact, it has seen a worrying decline in some states—the worst state is Delhi. At the other end of the spectrum are states in eastern India such as Assam—which have shown the most remarkable and encouraging rise in women’s participation in elections.
For those who believe that India is a ‘male-dominated’ society, the responses we got in our pilot surveys would be an eye-opener. Whenever we questioned women on whether they voted for the party that their husbands told them to vote for, the women’s responses were predominantly to laugh at us, and to treat the question with derision. They would often say: ‘He may think that I listen to him about who to vote for, that’s in his dreams—I vote for exactly who I want to vote for.’ We heard this clear statement of independence repeatedly in election after election, state after state at election time over the last decade or so. In a survey by the CSDS for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, 70 per cent of women voters said they did not consult their husbands on who to vote for. Our estimate is that the percentage of independent-minded women voters could be significantly higher than is publicly admitted to a fieldworker. Women voters who make up their own mind could now be at least as high as 80 per cent.
It’s not surprising, given how men and women usually vote independently of one another, that opinion polls always tend to show different levels of voting intentions between men and women respondents. The differential can be as high as 20 per cent for a particular party. It’s clear that in India, women are a distinct and independent ‘votebank’, on which political parties have already begun to focus in order to win elections. This involves meeting different demands and using different messages.
Women’s turnout also impacts political parties in different ways. For example, the BJP’s support amongst women has tended to be lower than among men. In the last Lok Sabha elections of 2014, the BJP + Allies (NDA) had a lead over the Congress + Allies (UPA) of 19 per cent amongst men and a much smaller lead of 9 per cent amongst women.
To emphasise how important the male vote is to the NDA: if no women, only men had voted in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the NDA would have won by an enormous landslide with 376 seats. However, if no men, only women had voted, the NDA would have won 265 seats—which would have been seven seats short of the majority mark.