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    View | Women and their vote: Policies are what matters

    View | Women and their vote: Policies are what matters

    View | Women and their vote: Policies are what matters
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    By CNBCTV18.com Contributor  IST (Published)

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    Political leaders have a lot to learn from the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh examples—don’t ignore the woman voter, instead target them directly to secure a win!

    There has also always been a gender bias in politics. Around the world, politics is considered a world for men. It is not an occupation that women typically choose, with only 24 percent of the world legislators being women.
    When we think about women voters, the picture is more mixed. There are many countries in which women vote more than men and many in which the contrary is true. For the longest time in India's democratic journey, women voters have been neglected by all political parties. There are two reasons why about half the voters get such little attention.
    The first is that women very infrequently went out to vote. This has now changed. More and more women are casting their vote. The gap between turnout for women and men is now down to less that 2 percent, with at least 65 percent of all women voters casting their vote. In the Indian Lok Sabha Elections in 2019, more women voted than men (as a percentage of voters). This is a dramatic improvement from the early 1990s, where the gap was more than 10 percent with only half the women casting their vote.
    However, the more important reason politicians have not focused on their vote is that historically women have not voted based on their own views. Even today, surveys in both rural and urban India reveal how many women cast their vote based on the recommendations of the men in the family. However, even this is changing now and women seem to be emerging as a separate political entity.
    So why are women stepping out to vote and also asserting their choices when they vote? Do they want more women to be represented, who will then have their interests in mind? Or are they voting based on policies that help improve their lives, with less regard for the gender of the candidate? The recently concluded state elections give us some insights.
    Manipur, a state known for women empowerment in general, has seen poor electoral representation by women, but this time has recorded the highest number of women MLAs. On the other hand, in Uttar Pradesh (UP), one of the opposition parties announced a "pink" manifesto promising to reserve 40 percent seats for female candidates and also promising job quotas to attract female voters. This was an encouraging beginning, but the dismal performance of this particular party in the elections, has made this point somewhat moot this time. However, the last few UP elections, for the first time, have seen women cast their vote independent of the men in their families. Election pundits have highlighted how such a win would not have been possible for the incumbent party without an increasing number of women votes in their favour. Numbers by some of the leading agencies show that the incumbent party in UP has got more women votes than the other parties.
    Did this party have more women candidates? Not necessarily, but what they had was a demonstrated record of women centric policies—both at the center and state level. Be it the Ujjwala scheme, smoothing out of PDS distribution, or the promise of safer public spaces, they seem to have touched the right chords with women voters. They are at least making the correct noises. Thus, the last few elections have shown us that women are voting on policies.
    This is not the first time that women have voted based on policies. Young and first time women voters in Bihar in the 2020 state election emerged as the new core voter base, bonded together by the benefits, freedom, empowerment and safety experienced due to the Mukhyamantri cycle program. The program was a powerful tool to empower girls and now the incumbent government is reaping the fruits of the labour they sowed in 2005-2010. Realising the importance of this strong voter base, the state government also announced reservation for women in jobs at the state level, encouraging female labour force participation.
    Women voters are no longer seen as the silent lot, lacking in independence and simply following the male lead. This vote base demands progress and empowerment and political parties are waking up to this new reality. It is of little surprise that major parties are pushing agendas that speak to this base and projecting female candidates in the hope that women will vote for women in solidarity and with a sense of oneness.
    This new party focus is making women a stronger force in politics. Reservation for women is present at the panchayat level in India and the bill for it to be introduced in assembly and Lok Sabha elections is pending in the house. The success with the reservation at the panchayat level has been mixed. In some states, it has led to more active participation by women in the local matter. However, it has also shown another side. Just mandating women to stand for elections does not always work, and has created pseudo governments, creating new terms like "Pradhan-pati" for political scientists to grapple with.
    Women voters simply need to find that voice through their vote. If they discover the power of their vote, then the reservation would become redundant since women are a large enough part of the electorate. While the effect of such reservations is uncertain, it may not harm in the long run. But the key question still remains—when affirmative action is used, will women use their agency? Affirmative action without women centric public policy for their empowerment may run the risk of creating an illusion of female participation and leadership.
    What is clear is that women will respond positively when they see the government is committed to doing more for them. If the new electorate of women is empowered, they will decide independently of the men creating their separate political identity, and eventually pushing agendas that speaks to their needs.
    Political leaders have a lot to learn from the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh examples—don’t ignore the woman voter, instead target them directly to secure a win!
    —The author, Shabana Mitra, is Assistant Professor, Economics, Shiv Nadar University. Views expressed are personal
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