How women voted

Even with more women registering to vote, female voter turnout declined in 2024 compared to 2019, widening the gender gap in political participation.

Published : Jun 10, 2024 12:18 IST - 11 MINS READ

Women voters show their inked fingers after casting their votes in Purba Medinipur, West Bengal, on May 25.

Women voters show their inked fingers after casting their votes in Purba Medinipur, West Bengal, on May 25. | Photo Credit: ANI

In mid-April, the BJP unveiled its Sankalp Patra, or manifesto, with the acronym GYAN, with special focus on the youth, farmers, women, and the poor. These were the “Modi guarantees”.

For women, the party promised to increase the number of lakhpati didis by empowering women self-help groups (SHGs), developing infrastructure for working women such as hostels and creches, implementing the Women’s Reservation Act, and ensuring more help desks for women at police stations. Last year, some 15,000 women SHGs were provided drones. Thus, the Namo Drone Didis, titled after the Prime Minister, came into existence. These were women who would help in agricultural operations. A month before the election, 1,000 drones were distributed. One new addition was the promise to expand health services among women specifically for anaemia, osteoporosis, and cancer screening.

In 2014, the party coined the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao catchphrase, as well as promises to address price rise and unemployment, all of which were later put on the back burner. In 2019, its focus was on the rights of Muslim women and outlawing triple talaq, commitment to the Women’s Reservation Bill, and providing easy loans to women.

The Congress on its part promised Rs.8,500 to women from poor families from July 1 if the INDIA bloc came to power. It promised to implement the Women’s Reservation Act immediately; reserve 50 per cent of jobs for women in Central government services; appoint more women to high-position jobs such as police officers and judges; remove wage discrimination in similar forms of work; increase institutional credit to women SHGs; double the Central government’s contribution for scheme-based workers; guarantee equal rights in marriage, succession, and inheritance laws; and expand women’s participation in the workforce.

Women voters show their identity cards as they wait in a queue to cast their votes during the sixth phase of the Lok Sabha election, in Vaishali district, Bihar, on May 25.

Women voters show their identity cards as they wait in a queue to cast their votes during the sixth phase of the Lok Sabha election, in Vaishali district, Bihar, on May 25. | Photo Credit: PTI

While the Congress promised to transfer money directly into the accounts of women, the BJP stuck to “Modi’s guarantees”. Things took a different turn when, in a direct appeal to Hindu women in a rally in Rajasthan, Narendra Modi cautioned voters that the Congress would take away their mangalsutra (worn by married Hindu women) as well as their gold and give it away (to minorities). The BJP lost the seat in Banswara-Dungarpur from where this statement was made, exposing the limits of polarisation even among women voters.

Whether all these appeals and promises impacted the voting behaviour of women can only be revealed by large surveys based on proper sampling. The preliminary picture emerging from the statewise overall voting percentages across all seven phases of the 2024 general election, released by the Election Commission of India (ECI) at the end of the seventh phase of voting, is a mixed one. The data reveal that the all-India voting percentage dropped from 67.40 per cent in 2019 (67.10 per cent excluding postal ballots) to 65.79 in 2024.

Remarkably, this decline in voter turnout has been sharper among women than men. In 2019, the proportion of electors who voted was marginally higher for women than men. In 2024, however, it was marginally lower for women than men. According to the ECI, 31.2 crore women voted this time. The all-India voter turnout was 65.80 per cent for men and 65.78 per cent for women. Of 31 States and Union Territories, the voter turnout percentages of women exceeded that of men in 19 States. All States in the north-eastern region, barring Tripura and Sikkim, reported higher voter turnout percentages among women than men.

In at least 18 States or Union Territories, the turnout percentage of women was higher than the average turnout for the State. These included West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Puducherry, Kerala, Goa, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand, and Nagaland.

Also Read | Women voters of India: A force to be reckoned with

Women electors in India have always been outnumbered by their male counterparts, although this gap has reduced over time. The percentage of women voters in the total electorate increased from 48.1 per cent to 48.7 per cent between 2019 and 2024. This positive trend, one among several indicating the increasing significance of women in Indian elections, has however been somewhat neutralised by the decline in women’s voting percentages in 2024.

Women voters show their inked fingers after casting votes during the second phase of the Lok Sabha election, in Dudu district, Rajasthan, on April 26.

Women voters show their inked fingers after casting votes during the second phase of the Lok Sabha election, in Dudu district, Rajasthan, on April 26. | Photo Credit: PTI

In 2024, the proportion of women voters declined significantly compared with 2019 in several States, including Uttarakhand, Haryana, Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, and Manipur and several other north-eastern States. In Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh, voting ratios of women declined even as that of men increased, while Jharkhand was the only State where the opposite happened.

On the other hand, in the few States that saw a rise in overall voting percentages, it is only in a handful, such as Karnataka and Chhattisgarh, that this could be attributed to a rise in voter turnout by women. In others, such as Maharashtra, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh, men outdid women in raising the voting ratios.

There is no apparent correlation between higher turnout of women and the election of women in those constituencies. In at least 17 constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, more women than men voted, and in 33 constituencies, the percentage of women who voted was higher than that of men. In Uttar Pradesh, where the average voter turnout was the second lowest after Bihar, Smriti Irani, a high-profile BJP candidate in Amethi, lost to the Congress’ K.L. Sharma by over one lakh votes. While Amethi recorded an average voter turnout of 54.17 per cent, the turnout among women was 57.75 per cent, which was 6.49 percentage points more than the male turnout. The higher turnout among women did not translate into a victory for Irani; neither did it help Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti in Fatehpur, where the number of women voters surpassed that of men by almost three percentage points and the State average as well. She lost to Naresh Uttam Patel of the Samajwadi Party by over 30,000 votes.

Like Lucknow and Varanasi, Amethi was among the high-profile constituencies with a turnout lower than that of the State average. In Rae Bareli, which voted Rahul Gandhi (Congress), the turnout was 57.85 per cent, higher than the State average. Among women it was 61.42 per cent, 6.33 percentage points more than that of men.

According to the Lokniti-CSDS post-election survey, it was the people’s assessment of their household’s financial condition rather than their perception of the national economy that may have determined their voting choices.

The total number of women elected to Parliament has come down from 78 in 2019 to 74 in 2024. N. Manimekalai, director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, said that there has been a positive trend in the turnout among women since 2009 though there are regional differences and fluctuations. The number of women registering as voters has been on the increase for the past one decade, she said. This would contribute to increased voting by women and a higher voter turnout in general, though this did not happen in 2024. Manimekalai added that the turnout of women voters from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was higher than those from the general categories, indicating that women from economically and socially vulnerable communities do come out to vote, which is a welcome trend.

Women voters on their way to cast their votes on a bullock cart, during the second phase of the Lok Sabha election in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, on April 26.

Women voters on their way to cast their votes on a bullock cart, during the second phase of the Lok Sabha election in Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, on April 26. | Photo Credit: PTI

The increase in the female voter turnout may be attributed to greater awareness about the importance of casting one’s vote; an increase in the registration of women voters in the past decade; and 50 per cent reservation in local body elections, which made women more conscious of the need to do their democratic duty. Another reason is grassroots mobilisation and to a certain extent the welfare schemes centred around women.

Manimekalai said that in the context of reservation for women in Parliament and Assemblies, to be implemented in the elections to be held from 2029 onwards, more women will be elected, and there is a need for more women to cast their votes. She believes that women at the grassroots level in rural and urban areas commit to voting irrespective of region, caste, or religion and that the decline in voting percentage may often be attributed to the middle classes, migrant workers, and the elderly and disabled. In the just-concluded election, the voting number among the disabled had shown a small increase.

Referring to Tamil Nadu in particular, which has a history of women-centric welfare schemes and where voting was held on April 19 in a single phase, Manimekalai said that the turnout among women was only marginally better: 0.27 percentage points more than men. Only in Dharmapuri, it was remarkably higher, with 81.3 percentage of women voting; here, the National Democratic Alliance fielded a woman. In the regional context, women-centric schemes did matter, she said, but it needs more study and evidence to conclude that women voted only because of these schemes.

In Tamil Nadu, the free bus rides, higher education support with a monthly stipend of Rs.1,000 for female students in government schools who continued higher education, the scheme for recognising unpaid care work, and Rs.1,000 a month for eligible women did matter to an extent, she said. Manimekalai believes this may be true for other States too.

Also Read | Women’s reservation: A law on paper, but a reality far away

In Karnataka, there are five guarantees for women: Shakti, Gruha Jyoti, Anna Bhagya, Gruha Lakshmi, and Yuva Nidhi. These were promised during the campaign for the Assembly election and implemented in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election.

According to Manimekalai: “Women voters are not voting passively; they analyse the initiatives of the State in terms of introducing schemes not as welfare but to recognise their agency and keenly look into the governance of the State; they are not emotional but rational while making their decision. Gone are the days when women blindly voted for the party that male members in the family pointed to. Women’s grassroots mobilisation; the type of schemes that impact their quality of life, including children and family; the kind of initiatives towards meeting strategic gender needs; and their perceived insights about a party—all contribute towards the women voters casting their vote.”

She added that there was a need for political parties to accommodate and sustain the trend of more women joining as voters by giving them more representation in their party administration, offering leadership roles in local body governance, and preparing them from local bodies to enter the Assembly and Parliament.

If political participation is a combination of increased voter registration, voting, and participating in elections as candidates, the gender gap is still pretty wide in India. With a dip in the number of women who have been elected to the Lok Sabha this time, the percentage of women representatives will also correspondingly decrease.

A “watershed” election?

In the second week of April, two days before the first phase of polling, a research paper by the Economic Research Department of the State Bank of India projected that if there had been an attempt to reach out to the untapped women voter base in some States, especially Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and Rajasthan, the 2024 elections would have been a game changer. It also posited that the outcome of the voting exercise was a function of three factors: economic outlook, social engineering, and political engineering.

Girls with their faces and hands painted to encourage people to vote ahead of the Lok Sabha election, in Amritsar on April 14.

Girls with their faces and hands painted to encourage people to vote ahead of the Lok Sabha election, in Amritsar on April 14. | Photo Credit: Shiva Sharma

The timing of the paper was curious as were some of its projections. Electoral participation of women, it revealed, had increased due to (Central) inclusion schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana and women Mudra loan accounts in Karnataka, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, and Telangana. This could be the antidote, the paper said, to freebies and promises by select dispensations.

The recently concluded State Assembly elections, the paper said, “pointed to a growing realism that voters do not prefer freebies but tangible development outcomes”. If this hypothesis by the authors had been true, then on the sheer basis of the Central inclusion schemes the BJP should have swept Karnataka, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, which it did not.

The 2024 election, according to the paper, was a “watershed” election, held against the backdrop of an improved literacy rate, higher female voter turnout ratio, a large cohort of fresh voters, higher macro-economic growth, and an overall reduction in the poverty ratio— all of which sounded like analysis conducted by a BJP think tank.

However, the Lokniti-CSDS Survey (published in The Hindu) indicates that the somewhat lower preference for the BJP among women voters in comparison to men voters has sustained in the 2024 election too.

Across the population, as the Lokniti-CSDS survey indicates, voting behaviour appears to have been influenced by perceptions of economic well-being at the household level rather than as a response to the overall performance of the economy, Women too, by and large, seem to have voted along those considerations.

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