The rise in women's voter turnout is generally evident in state elections. Trends of the 23-major states, where state assembly elections happened in the last five years, indicate that women's turnout was marginally higher than that of men in 18 states.
"I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved" — Babasaheb Ambedkar.
The assembly poll calendar for election-bound states has just been released and an estimated 25 lakh new voters including women voters are expected to enter the fray. Significantly, women voters have been the game-changers in the outcome of election results in recent times. However, what is oft overlooked is that way back in 1947, India adopted “Universal suffrage” to all its citizens supporting the right to vote, for all adults, regardless of race or gender.
With a total of 71.7 crore voters, the Indian electoral franchise now has over 34 crore women voters who are finally recognised as narrative influencers. Is this an indication of the engagement of women in the entire electoral process? Or is it even an expression of women empowerment
The right to equality, the principles of which were enunciated in the constitution especially in the casting of one's vote, is a basic human right, and a citizenry expectation in a democracy. A vote is democratic liberty to express one's choice of political ideology, policies, party, or political individual.
Suffrage around the globe
It was way back in 1893, that New Zealand became the first country to formally allow its women citizens to vote in national elections. The United States took 144 years after its independence to give equal voting rights to women. Ninteen other countries formally allowed equal voting rights to their women citizens, prior to the US passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920!
Even in what is seen as the most neutral of global nations — Switzerland — gave its women the right to vote and to stand for elections, only in the year 1971! ( that is 53 years after Germany did, 52 after Austria, 27 after France, and 26 after Italy). It is generally observed that this women suffrage got acceptance after a major governmental policy shift or a large-scale cultural event. Many nations adopted universal suffrage along with new governments and constitutions when they got their independence.
The Indian suffrage developments
The Government of India Act of 1919, brought in by the then British government, allowed the provincial council to decide whether women could vote provided they met stringent property, income or educational criteria. Between 1919 and 1929, all of the British provinces and the princely states granted women the right to vote, and in some cases, allowed them to contest elections at the local level. The Madras Presidency and the Bombay Presidency in 1921 and the Rajkot state-granted full suffrage in the year 1923, and in that year, elected two women to serve on the legislative council. In 1946, when the Constituent Assembly of India was elected, 15 women were also elected and they helped in drafting the new constitution.
The Constituent Assembly and Dr Ambedkar in particular envisioned an India where rights were universal, and inclusive, of women. As part of the Constituent Assembly debates, Ambedkar also ensured that universal adult franchise was an integral part of the republic, enabling voting rights (which was earlier reserved only for the privileged) for women and other minority groups. He wanted women to have higher participation in all walks of life, especially, in the political arena.
In 1947, the Parliament agreed in principal about universal suffrage. It is important to recognise that the Indian suffragette movement gathered momentum with the participation of more and more women in the freedom struggle.
After independence, the Gram Panchayat Act was passed which resulted in the setting up of gram panchayats at the village level on a mandatory basis. In an effort to further extend the political rights of women, the Indian Parliament passed the 73rd and 74th Amendment to the constitution in April and June 1992 making Panchayats and Municipalities ‘institutions of self government’. The most important feature of the Act is the reservation of at least 1/3rd of the total seats for women both at the membership level and at the level of functionaries. While in the initial years, this was almost an affirmative action, it has now become a trendsetter in ensuring women's participation in both participation and electoral leadership at local governance.
Studying the effect of having women policymakers, Chattopadhyay and Duflo (2004) showed that the gender of the village council president impacts the investments into different kinds of public goods. Duflo (2012) provides an excellent overview by reviewing the relationship between gender inequality and economic development.
Voting rights come a long way
Indian democracy has covered a remarkable distance since the first Lok Sabha polls and today seven decades and 17 general elections later, women's participation in exercising franchise has exceeded that of men. Women voters
are now playing a significantly bigger role in elections than ever before. In the 2019 General Lok Sabha elections, female voter turnout rates were higher than males. The gender gap, a crucial parameter, which was -16.71 percent in 1962, has not only closed but reversed to 0.17 percent in 2019. India has witnessed a 235.72 percent increase in female electors since the 1971 elections.
Indian women are steadily becoming more literate, more educated, and wealthier. They have also been taking part in collective-organising in larger numbers, usually through small local groups in which women encourage one another to save money and pool their resources to pay for emergency needs.
Women & state elections
The rise in women's voter turnout
is generally evident in State Assembly elections. Trends of the 23-major states, where state assembly elections happened in the last five years, indicate that women's turnout was marginally higher than that of men in 18 states. Out of these 18 states, the same government was re-elected in 10 states, where women turnout was more than men turnout. It is no wonder that political parties are focusing and addressing women’s issues during their electoral campaigning process.
While India has taken 7 decades of suffrage to have an impact on women voters' influence in the electoral process, it also shows that as a democracy, India is breaking the proverbial glass ceiling; slowly but surely. It has additionally seen the voting-impact-journey move from kitchen to kitchen cabinets, to (ministerial) cabinets. Even at the Union cabinet, we saw an increase in the number of women leaders as ministers.
Research has shown that women empowerment in the electoral process has a correlation to the economic development of the nation. In this endeavour, the Indian political parties have shown alacrity in wooing them. For instance, several schemes favour cash transfers to women or the decision to revoke Triple Talaq which directly impacted women. The Democratisation of Internet access and disintermediation of information has empowered women voters further. Do they follow the community voting pattern now that they are information-rich? We are not sure if it's necessarily only formal education that empowers women voters, as evidenced in non-urban India. Is it a fair hypothesis to ponder if keypad literacy (thanks to access to the satellite TV and Internet through the availability of cheaper data-access) has worked sharper impact than only literacy?
Here it is important to acknowledge the critical aspect of improved governance of the electoral process itself; especially after the institutional framework of the independent electoral commission was formed and its reforms-upgrades happened in the early '90s. It did bring about comfort about safety of voters and reining in violence and unfair means seen in erstwhile elections. Bringing in a tamper-proof electoral voting system was another game-changer. These measures ensured better and safer access to polling booths which in turn has an impact on the turnout of women voters. Further research and data analysis will corroborate these and any other hypothesis.
The larger question for all of us to answer with positivity: "Can we do more in bringing in more women to the electoral process?”
—The article is authored by Dakshita Das, Policy expert & former civil servant, and Srinath Sridharan, Corporate advisor & independent markets commentator.
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)