Soon after it became clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party would form the government in four of the five election-bound States, including its prize catch Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed party workers at the BJP headquarters in Delhi and acknowledged women’s contribution in ensuring the party’s victory. He said he would like to thank all the “sisters, daughters and mothers” for their big role in the BJP’s victory. “They have given the BJP their blessings. Wherever they have voted more than men, the BJP has won by bumper votes,” he said. They trusted the BJP, he said, as they knew it would look after their most basic needs. He recalled how as Gujarat Chief Minister, he told those who feared for his safety that he had the protective armour of thousands of sisters and daughters of the State.
It is unknown whether the BJP’s bumper margins were because of female or male voters, but what is known is that the voting percentage of women had decreased from that in the 2017 Assembly elections. According to media reports citing the Election Commission of India, in 2022, the overall turnout in Uttar Pradesh was 60.8 per cent, down from 61.11 per cent in 2017. This time 62.24 per cent of women and 59.15 per cent of men voted; the corresponding figures were 63.38 per cent and 59.21 for 2017, indicating a decrease in the voting percentage.
Male electors (those on the voters’ list) in Uttar Pradesh have always outnumbered their female counterparts. In 2022, women made up only 46.38 per cent of the electorate. This means that even if the voting percentage was higher among women, the absolute number of female votes cast would be significantly lower than the number of male votes cast. The Table shows that a big jump in female voting percentage happened in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, in which the BJP received just 15 per cent of the votes. It was also in that election that the female voting percentage crossed that of men. This trend continued in the 2017 election. However, in 2022, the female voting percentage was lower than in 2017, while the male voting percentage increased. In other words, the gap that had increased in 2017 has reduced in 2022. Thus, it is far from clear that the BJP’s electoral success in Uttar Pradesh is related to women’s increasing assertion of their independent political choices.
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The figures do not imply that women voters overwhelmingly turned out to vote or that they voted mainly for the BJP. The voting percentage among men, on the other hand, had risen from 59.15 in 2017 to 59.56 per cent in 2022. In the majority of the seven phases of polling this time, the number of women who voted were fewer than in 2017. As the total number of male voters is far higher than that of female voters, the votes polled by each gender as a percentage of their respective electorates cannot be ideally compared as the denominators are different and smaller in the case of the women electorate. In 2022, as many as 111 men voted for every 100 women who voted.
Voting percentage by gender
The percentage gap between male and female voters has reduced, but this is a phenomenon seen all over India, including in other spheres such as higher education. In Punjab, the male and female voting percentages were close, at 71.99 and 71.91 per cent respectively. In the 2017 Assembly election, at 78.16 per cent, the female vote share in the State was higher than the male vote share of 76.73 per cent.
In Uttarakhand, women voters outnumbered their male counterparts by close to 7 per cent. While the voting percentage among men remained more or less the same in 2022 and 2017, there was a 2.1 per cent decline among women voters this time. The relatively higher percentage of women voting in Uttarakhand is mostly attributed to male migration.
In Goa, there was an increase in both male and female voting percentages this time, with women polling more, but both categories declined significantly compared with the 2017 election. In Manipur, male voting percentage registered a 4.5 per cent increase from 83.6 per cent in 2017 to 87.2 per cent in 2022; the corresponding figures for women are 87.99 and 89.94. Significantly, the voting percentage among men was lower than that of women in both 2017 and 2022.
The woman voter
It cannot therefore be said that there was a large turnout of women or that women contributed decisively to the victory of BJP candidates. This is not to say that the BJP did not try to woo the woman voter. It constantly reminded voters of the additional 1 kilogram of gram dal, salt and oil, and 5 kg of wheat or rice per person per household (with images of Chief Minister Adityanath and Prime Minister Modi printed on the packets) distributed under the Prime Minister’s Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, which was launched during the pandemic in April 2020. It is supposed to last until March 2022.
In fact, in one of his rallies at Hardoi, Modi stated that women had told him that they had eaten Modi ka namak (Modi’s salt), implying that they would not turn against him. In the Hindi-speaking belt, “namak khaya” denotes a kind of feudal patron-beneficiary relationship which expects undying loyalty from the recipient. In interviews to television channels, Hema Malini, the Member of Parliament from Mathura, said that women were getting all the benefits without doing anything. “Ghar baithe baithe sab mil raha hai unko [They get everything at home] ,” she said.
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The BJP got several women campaigners from other States to mobilise female voters. In his Mann Ki Baat address on February 27, Modi said that women were leading the change in society. Listing women-centric schemes and laws, he said the triple talaq practice had ended, women had got freedom from open defecation under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India programme), maternity leave had been increased and the percentage of girls going to school had improved. He also boasted about raising the age of marriage, which incidentally the women’s wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh has not taken kindly to. The party’s manifesto also promised free gas cylinders and scooters for female toppers in class.
Wooing Muslim women
According to media reports, at the height of the hijab controversy in Karnataka, the BJP’s central leadership sent word to the State leadership to convey that the party was not anti-Muslim women. In election rallies, Modi claimed that there had been a drastic reduction in the number of triple talaq cases and that Muslim women had benefited a lot from the law that made the practice illegal. He accused Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav of ignoring Muslim women in order to gain votes.
In response to Akhilesh Yadav’s comment that only a person with a family could understand another’s pain, Modi said at a rally in Barabanki that “dynasts” with families did not understand the pain of Muslim women. He did not miss out on any opportunity to address women in his rallies, focussing on the “lawlessness” of the Samajwadi Party regime. According to media reports, the three-kilometre-long road show by Modi in his home constituency, Varanasi, included a lot of women; some segments of the road show were even led by women.
At a rally on February 22, Modi claimed that 80 per cent of the homes under the Prime Minister’s Awas Yojana, the Central housing scheme for the urban poor, were registered in the names of women. The 10 crore “sisters and daughters” (eligible and not registered voters), he said, played a huge role in increasing the capability of the State.
Perhaps taking a cue from the 2015 Bihar Assembly election in which women voters outnumbered male voters, all political parties wooed them assiduously. Every party made women’s safety and security an issue. The Congress took the lead by announcing 40 per cent of seats for women in the Uttar Pradesh elections. Congress vice president Priyanka Gandhi’s slogan, “Ladki hoon, Lad sakti hoon” (I am a girl, I can give a fight) was aimed at attracting the young woman voter. The safety and security of women was also a major theme in all her rallies, using the Hathras and Unnao rape cases as a reference point to illustrate the lawlessness in the Adityanath regime.
The party’s ‘Women’s Manifesto’, one of its kind, promised them free bus services, electric scooters, job quotas and smartphones if the Congress was elected to power. Akhilesh Yadav told mediapersons that MY (the Muslim-Yadav tag) stood for Mahila and Youth, sending a clear message to women and youth voters. The safety and security of “ Mataa, Behn and Betiyaan ” (mothers, sisters and daughters) was an important theme in his rallies. In 2017, 40 women were elected to the State Assembly, the highest thus far; in the 2012 elections, when the Samajwadi Party came to power, 35 women made it to the Assembly.
Silent “woman voter” myth
There has been a concerted effort to project that women voted silently for the BJP and that policies such as the ban on triple talaq, a tight law and order machinery, free ration, and oil and salt packets handed out during the pandemic had reaped good dividends. A lot was made out during election rallies of the breakdown of law and order during the Samajwadi Party regime, but then voting percentages of women do not indicate that women came out in large numbers to vote for the BJP.
There is little evidence to suggest that women felt “safer” in the BJP regime compared with previous regimes. A report by the news agency PTI citing the National Commission for Women stated that half of the 31,000 complaints of crimes against women in the country in 2021, the highest since 2014, were reported from Uttar Pradesh. The latest National Crimes Records Bureau data (2019) reported that Uttar Pradesh accounted for 14 per cent of the total crimes against women.
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The NITI Aayog’s poverty estimates also show that nearly 38 per cent of the population lived in “multi-dimensional poverty”. The BJP claimed to have given 18.6 million cooking gas connections under the Ujjwala scheme, but with the skyrocketing prices of gas cylinders (Rs.937.50 for a 14.2 kg LPG cylinder at subsidised rates), it was improbable that gas connections alone would have swayed women voters. The impact of the pandemic on women in the unorganised sector was felt in multiple ways. Data from the latest Periodic Labour Force Survey show that female labour force participation declined to 21.2 per cent from 21.9 per cent the previous year.
During the pandemic, most people who lost their livelihoods had to cut down on expenses, including on food. Even as the Central or the Uttar Pradesh government did little to compensate for the severe economic hardships, it went to town about the 1 kg ration, and salt and vegetable oil that were distributed during the pandemic in addition to the 35 kg foodgrain per ration card. The National Food Security Act, 2013, makes it obligatory on the government to disburse 35 kg foodgrain for Antyodaya and Priority Household cardholders. The government intends to capitalise on the “welfare vote” in the 2024 parliamentary elections too.
Despite the hype, close to 60 per cent of the electorate in Uttar Pradesh did not vote for the BJP. Who voted for whom is not something even psephologists are sure about. Therefore, for the BJP and a section of the media to assert that women had cast a “secular” vote overriding all other considerations in favour of the BJP for housing, gas, electricity, ration and other government payouts is, at best, a pie in the sky.