Women voters emerge as a decisive force

Last-mile delivery of welfare schemes was a key determinant of how women voted in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh

At a polling booth in Jaipur during the Rajasthan assembly elections, 25 November 2023 (Photo: Getty)
At a polling booth in Jaipur during the Rajasthan assembly elections, 25 November 2023 (Photo: Getty)

Rashme Sehgal

Women can no longer be called silent voters. Coming out to vote in much larger numbers than ever before, women are quite literally deciding the fate of the nation. In Chhattisgarh, of the total of 15.50 million voters that cast their vote in all 90 constituencies, 7.8 million were women while 7.74 million were men. In more than 50 assembly seats, women voters outnumbered men, according to data provided by the Election Commission.

This is true in key tribal assemblies such as Bastar, Surguja, Jagdalpur and Dantewada, where tribal women who had cast their votes overwhelmingly for the Congress in the 2018 elections, swung the vote for the BJP to win 17 of the 29 ST seats.

Many factors caused this changeover. The saffron party’s decision to field a tribal woman leader, minister of state for tribal affairs Renuka Singh Saruta, from the Bharatpur Sonhat seat as part of their push to build a nationalistic tribal identity created an impact on the ground, as did the BJP’s decision to nominate 14 women candidates as against the Congress’s three.

The Congress mismanaged their outreach programmes for women by failing to take action against groups attacking Christian tribals in Bastar. A state with only a two per cent Muslim population saw Hindu–Muslim riots. Instead of combating this with a firm hand as was done by his counterpart in Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, Bhupesh Baghel stayed silent, thereby giving the BJP the upper hand.

Adivasi women voters were equally forceful in their criticism of how Baghel had failed to protect their jal, jangal, jameen (water, forest, land) against powerful corporate groups. His failure to address the problem of increasing alcoholism by curbing the sharp spike in alcohol sales also cost him dearly.

Madhya Pradesh, with its 230 assembly seats, also saw a sizeable turnout of women voters. Election Commission statistics show that while the men’s turnout was 78.21 per cent, the women voter turnout was 76.03 per cent, a 5.1 per cent increase from the 2018 election. Over 50 per cent of the new voters added this year were women. In fact, the number of women voters increased 2.79 per cent as against 2.30 per cent for men.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP had nominated 28 women candidates against the Congress’s 30. In 32 segments, the number of women casting their votes exceeded that of men. This included six out of seven segments in Satna district and seven out of eight segments in Rewa, to cite two examples. In tribal areas, too, women voters outnumbered men.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan understood this very early in his tenure as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. He cleverly came up with a slew of women-oriented ‘revdi’ schemes in order to hide shortcomings in governance and large-scale corruption. These transformed him from a ‘mama’ to a ‘bhaiya’.

Besides 50 per cent reservation for women in polling for local bodies, he introduced the Ladli Lakshmi scheme for the girl child and the Kanya Vivah scheme. But the turnaround in this election came about with the Ladli Behna scheme, which saw Rs 1,250 per month being transferred into 12 million women’s accounts from June, with the promise that if Chouhan gets elected, he would increase the amount to Rs 3,000 per month.

The Ladli Behna scheme created a strong resonance in tribal areas as well. Madhya Pradesh has 47 reserved seats for Scheduled Tribes, from which the Congress won 29 seats in the 2018 election. In 2023, the tables turned, and the Congress won 20 seats against the BJP’s 26.

It is a different matter that senior bureaucrats admit off-the-record that in order to raise money for the Ladli Behna scheme, they had to divert funds from all the existing schemes being doled out by the Chouhan government. It was a “huge headache”, but one that paid rich dividends.

The Congress in Rajasthan, led by the old warhorse Ashok Gehlot, entered the electoral arena extremely confident that his government would be rewarded because he had built a comprehensive social welfare scheme that offered insurance, free education for the poor girl child, a revival of the Old Pension Scheme for government employees, electricity and food subsidies, and smartphones for young women.

It also promised the guarantee of a Minimum Support Price (MSP) to farmers based on the Swaminathan Commission formula. In all, Gehlot had 34 schemes benefitting women and had promised to launch another 10 if re-elected.

Why did the competitive populism of Chouhan work and that of Gehlot fail? A Jaipur-based social activist pointed out, “Gehlot’s schemes were introduced at the tail-end of his tenure. He should have introduced them in 2018. The delivery system could not be compared to Madhya Pradesh, where the RSS cadre pitched in to ensure the ‘last-mile delivery’.”

There were other glitches. “To cite one example, the National Food Security portal remained closed for the last three years so no new names could be added to the government’s National Food Security programme. The average Rajasthani saw this as a major failing. The outreach of the BJP on social media was much better, and the public began to distrust many of Gehlot’s welfare programmes which did not show results on the ground,” she added.

Despite women voters remaining the focus of Gehlot’s welfare schemes, a correspondingly large number of women voters failed to rally around the Congress. The women’s vote percentage rose from 74.67 per cent in 2018 to 74.72 per cent in 2023. It is interesting to learn that the BJP led in 50 of the 88 seats where the women’s turnout was higher than that of the men.

Election Commission data shows that rural women from economically backward families voted in higher numbers than their urban counterparts. In rural areas, the women voter turnout was 76.11 per cent, while the men’s turnout was 75.27 per cent.

In urban areas, the turnout of women voters was 70.28 per cent and of men 72.18 per cent. Rural polling stations in Alwar, Barmer, Bharatpur, Bhilwara, Churu, Dausa, Jhunjhunu and Sikar witnessed 80 per cent polling by women as against 78 per cent by men.

Sadly, this increase in voter turnout does not translate into jobs. Data from the International Labour Organisation states that female participation in the work force has been steadily declining from 32 per cent in 2005 to 19 per cent in 2021. In the formal sector, women are now down to 11 per cent.

Dr Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research believes that measuring female labour is challenging, as much of it involves unpaid and unrecognised work. “Agriculture is getting more technology-driven and this has led to declining numbers in the female workforce. The contribution of domestic workers and other service providers is not being counted in any of the data that is being presently collated,” she added.

The Adivasi women’s vote was split primarily because the BJP went out of its way to highlight malnourishment and starvation deaths amongst tribal children in the state. Rajasthan has a 13.5 per cent tribal population; of the 25 reserved seats for Scheduled Tribes, the BJP succeeded in winning 12 this time around.

The problem with the Congress was that it could not match the organisational strength of the RSS cadre. Nor was it able to match the BJP’s outreach on social media.

The construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and the promise of a free darshan of Ram Lalla to millions of women voters has paid off handsomely. Soft Hindutva is not the answer to the hardcore indoctrination going on in these cow-belt states.

The Congress needs to come up with a strong alternative ideology that will help it at the hustings.

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