“The essential ingredient of politics is timing.” It might not be the best time to quote a Trudeau in India, but these words of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau aptly sum up the Modi government’s sudden and unexpected move of tabling and getting the Women’s Reservation Bill (Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, 2023) passed—a legislation which was in cold storage for close to three decades. The passage of the bill—reserving one-third of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies—once again reaffirms that the Modi-led BJP knows the importance of the essential ingredient of politics i.e. timing. It is serving the right dish at the right time to the right audience i.e. the women voters.
Women Vote Differently and Independently
Many observers have pointed out that one of the biggest stories of India’s democracy in recent times has been the steadily rising participation of women voters. Over the last six decades, the turnout of women voters has increased by about 20 percentage points. In fact, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the women’s turnout was marginally higher than the men’s turnout. But to be clear, this does not mean that more women are voting than men. The impact of India’s highly skewed population sex ratio can be clearly seen in the Sex Ratio of Voters (SRV) in India—number of women voters per thousand male voters who actually vote. However, impressive strides have been made on that front too. As demonstrated by Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi, India’s SRV has improved considerably from 793 in the 1970s to 928 in the 2010s.
But the bigger story is that women are not just voting in larger numbers, but they are voting independently. A 2014 survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, found that 70 per cent of Indian women are making voting decisions independently, debunking the long-held myth of women voters surrendering to the whims and fancies of their male family members while casting their ballot. Women voters have also shown different levels of voting intentions and motivations than their male counterparts. Considering how differently and independently women vote than men, they can shape the political fortunes of political parties. For instance, a given political party can witness significantly different levels of support among men and women voters. This difference in the levels of support among men and women for a given candidate, party or alliance is known as the “gender differential” or “gender gap” in vote share. Traditionally, the BJP has had a higher support among male voters and a comparatively lower support among female voters. The reverse has been the case for its rival Congress, which has enjoyed a gender advantage among women voters. A Hansa Research Group Post Poll Survey for the 2014 elections found that while the BJP and its allies led the Congress among male voters by 18 percentage points, their lead shrunk to nine percentage points among women voters. According to the CSDS NES 2014 data, while 40 per cent of men preferred to see Modi as the PM, Modi’s support was lower among women at 30 per cent.
However, the BJP has made significant improvements in its gender differential by garnering greater support among voters. In 2019, the percentage of women voters supporting Modi as the PM increased to 45 per cent—a sharp rise of 15 percentage points over 2014. Since coming to power in 2014, the BJP and the Prime Minister have invested heavily in improving their support among women voters. These investments paid off as seen by the BJP’s performance in the 2019 polls and a series of state assembly polls where women powered the BJP’s victory. The reversal of the saffron party’s gender disadvantage among women has been so dramatic that women voters have now become an integral ingredient of the BJP’s formula for electoral success.
Regaining Control of the Narrative
Central to the BJP’s rising electoral stocks among women voters in recent years has been its ability to establish its issue ownership over a motley of issues concerning women—often loosely put under a common bracket of “women’s issues”. Parties can establish issue ownership or “own” an issue or set of issues when they develop a reputation of attention and competition on those issue(s). In other words, voters perceive the party to be the best and the most competent party on the given issue. The BJP under Modi has established its issue ownership over “women’s issues” by following a two-pronged strategy. By constantly talking about issues of women’s menstrual health, access to toilets in rural areas and social evils like female infanticide, Modi has been able to establish an emotive connection with women voters. More importantly, the PM’s consistent engagement with these issues which were usually considered taboo and hence left unaddressed by most political leaders has meant that the BJP was able to create a reputation of engaging with and paying attention to these issues that mattered to women. Complementing this are a slew of women-centric welfare measures—like the Ujjwala Yojana—which have helped the party display its competence on women’s issues.
But over the last few months with the wrestler’s protest against the self-styled strongman, BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who faces serious charges of sexual assault and a series of heinous acts of violence against women in Manipur, the BJP’s ownership of women’s issues has been weakening. Always the first to set the agenda forcing rivals to respond and forever playing on the front foot, the BJP had found itself on the backfoot and losing the narrative and the perception battle. Furthermore, in Karnataka it found itself bested in its own game of women focused welfare schemes by the Congress and its guarantees. The formation of the INDIA front made things even more complicated for the party. The alliance has in its ranks chief ministers (CMs) like Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee, and Nitish Kumar CMs with a strong reputation of credibility among women voters. In fact, women played a major role in their re-election verdicts. It is in this context that the timing of the ruling dispensation’s move to bring in the Women’s Reservation Bill only in its ninth year in office assumes greater significance. The long-term political benefits of the bill remain to be seen and chances are that it would not influence voting decisions of a large section of the female electorate who are more likely to be driven by a “What’s-in-it-for-me” rationale, and hence vote based on issues that directly affect and concern them in their daily lives. But the short-term benefits are beyond doubt. It has already helped the BJP firmly regain control of the narrative on the issue of women’s welfare. Manipur and the wrestler’s protest have already receded to the background in news bulletins, on social media and in daily conversations.
While there is no doubt that the passage of the women’s reservation bill is a landmark movement for India’s democracy, it would do a great disservice to democracy and democratic ethos, if one fails to ask pertinent questions regarding the manner in which the bill was passed and some valid concerns with bill’s current provisions.
While opposition parties have raised the issue of having a sub-quota for OBC women—a case that seems very worthy of being considered, why was a sub-quota for SC-ST women who face a “double” or often “triple burden” of caste atrocities, gender-based discrimination and economic hardships not included within the 33 per cent women’s quota? Is 15 years of reservation enough to undo the deeply entrenched and systemic inequalities and hurdles that prevent women from getting a fair share in the political processes? Why was the agenda of the special session of Parliament shrouded in secrecy and kept under wraps till PM Modi finally confirmed the cabinet’s passage of the bill and his government’s decision to table the bill only in his speech on September 20? The announcement of the special session came on August 31—the same day when INDIA constituents were meeting in Mumbai. But as the announcement of the special session was made, all the focus shifted away from the INDIA meeting in Mumbai. Was that a pure coincidence or just another instance of Narendra Modi—the ultimate showman doing what he seems to like the most—pulling off a grand spectacle and keeping his opponents and the whole country guessing about his next move? Was the Modi government so consumed by political motivations that it had no time to get into the more demanding nitty-gritty concerning the implementation of the legislation?
The answer(s), my friend, is blowin’ in the wind!
(Views expressed are personal)
Omkar Poojari is a political researcher and columnist