The Election Commission of India presented separate numbers for male and female voter turnout for the first time in 1962, in which women’s turnout was a meagre 46.7%. This share has shot up by 20% in the last general election of 2019, with 67.18% of women voting. In the case of men’s share, it was 62.1% in 1962, which increased by 5% to reach 67.08% in 2019, making women’s share marginally higher than that of men.
‘The fact that more women are voluntarily exercising their constitutional right of adult suffrage across all states in India is testimony to the rise of self-empowerment of women to secure their fundamental right to freedom of expression’. According to Kapoor and Ravi, this is a significant development because this rise is not driven by any top-down policy intervention. Instead, it is an act of self-empowerment.
Political participation is crucial for a healthy democracy. It is a ‘citizen’s active involvement with public institutions, including voting, candidacy, campaigning, occupying political office and lobbying individually or through membership in a group’. The equal participation of women is necessary for an unbiased electoral democracy, the very fundamental.
Women’s engagement in electoral politics can be stratified using a pyramid model with four distinct layers. On the narrow top would be the women representatives of the centre and the state. In the second layer, we can situate the candidates of political parties competing in the elections. The third layer would constitute the active campaigners of the political parties who are large in number. In the broadest fourth layer are the women members of the electorate, who are now numerically on par with their male counterparts.
The rise in female voter turnout was first time observed in the 1990s. But this rise is not uniform. The phenomenon is more prevalent among rural women than urban women. With respect to state assembly elections, the most increase was seen in the states of Assam, Bihar, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, among others. Moreover, according to a CSDS survey, 70% of the women surveyed said they never consulted their husbands before casting a vote.
This rise is significant because it shows that women are increasingly asserting their citizenship rights to participate in processes that influence their lives.
Factors contributing to the Development
The first credit for this development should be attributed to the Election Commission of India for its voter awareness campaigns by initiatives like the systematic Voter Education & Electoral Participation (SVEEP) programme and providing women-friendly polling stations by increasing security. Some scholars also credit the strength of women’s movements in different parts of the country and government-related quotas. The socio-demographic factors like education, cultural norms and caste also impact a women’s participation, along with the location and spatial aspects. The rise in the number of women voters corresponds to the women’s literacy rate, which increased to 65.79% in 2018. The reason behind lower voter turnout among urban women is linked to their time and monetary constraints in reaching the booths.
Social media has contributed a lot to the politicisation of women. Another important reason is the sheer rise in women’s interest in politics has also played an essential role in women’s empowerment. All in all, this signifies the democratisation of the gender aspect of our society.
Impact of the Phenomenon
The rise in women voters has resulted in more excellent responsiveness from political parties to women voters.
For instance, Bihar elections were fought over policies like 50% reservation for women in panchayats, the bicycle scheme and liquor prohibition. The distribution of free gas cylinders under the Ujjwala scheme, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao and Swachh Bharat schemes were directly targeted toward women voters.
Earlier, booth management used to focus only on male voter turnout, assuming that women of the household would just follow. But it has changed now; party policies and campaigns are increasing their efforts towards attracting women voters.
The change can also be seen in the increasing space media is giving to women candidates and voters, especially online media. They are providing quality debates and debunking stereotypes and myths around women’s participation. This is becoming a feedback loop where more women’s participation is pushing more women out of the house.
One of the most important impacts of women’s voter turnout will be on the parties’ programmatic priorities. They will have to be more sensitive to women’s issues and filter out candidates based on their attitudes and behaviours towards women. This will ensure that candidates do not have a history of sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
Still a Long Way to Go
Even though the Indian constitution grants universal suffrage for both men and women, the ‘existing societal values system, the private-public divide in terms of domain identification and male preponderance in the political institutions’ become barriers before women exercise their rights.
The parties give tickets to candidates based on the conventional ‘winnability’, which means the under-representation of women in public offices and legislative bodies. This offsets the momentum of feminisation of electoral politics in India that has started from the grounds.
Many women still do not have the freedom to participate in political activities like attending a political rally, campaign activity or demonstration.
Moreover, women are still under-represented in the voter lists. For this, the Election Commission has endeavoured to improve voter registration.
‘Women’s active participation in electoral competitions is a valid indicator of the efficacious growth of democracy in any country today. One sure thing is the emergence of women as a vote bank which all the political parties are eager to woo. The image of Indian women is changing as they are coming out of the patriarchal fold to take decisions, bringing in the silent revolution. This trend will continue to rise. To strengthen it, political scientists suggest a women’s reservation bill to pull up this grassroots movement.