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Why Aren’t Women a Bigger Force in Indian Elections?

For the first time, female voters are set to outnumber male voters in the world's largest national election.

Biju Boro/AFP/Getty Images

It is the largest election in the world, with 900 million registered voters. Initiated on April 11, India’s national elections will continue until May 23. And for the first time, pollsters suggest that the number of female voters is set to outnumber male voters. According to the Times of India, there was only a 1.79 percent disparity between male and female voters in the last election. This time around, that disparity will likely be eliminated, or even reversed. All-female polling booths, female poll officers, and other measures that have been introduced in the past few decades seem to have encouraged Indian women to turn out for the country’s elections.

India’s 397 million women voters obviously have tremendous potential clout. In 2014, The Times of India has calculated, the total number of women voters exceeded the total number of votes obtained by any of India’s major political parties, meaning that if Indian women decided to vote as a bloc they would control the election, transforming India’s future and its present simply by going to the polls and voting together.

Yet a “women’s vote” in India has yet to materialize: Women do not vote as a bloc, coalescing to support a party that places women, their security, their education, and their economic future at the top of their electoral agenda. And while Indian women make up 48 percent of the Indian electorate, they account for only 8 percent of the total 1,271 candidates running for India’s lower house of parliament—the Lok Sabha. The number is even lower than in 2014 when, despite the enormous women’s vote, only 12.6 percent of the 545 seats in the House were occupied by Indian women. (That number was about half of the world average of 24.3 percent.) Indian women are voting largely for men. And a lot of that is down to deliberate policy by India’s current ruling party, which has set itself up as the party of traditionalism—including when that comes to relatively regressive gender roles. 

Of the 545 candidates Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has fielded for this election, only 24 are women. One of the female candidates being fronted by BJP in the Indian state of Bhopal is Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a right-wing Hindu activist who was arrested in 2008 after evidence emerged linking her to bomb attacks by Hindu extremists in Western India, charges that are still pending today. (Her candidacy has proceeded over the protests of victims’ families.) Pragya has also given a television interview in which she claimed she had been cured of breast cancer by ingesting cow urine and cow dung—cows being sacred in orthodox Hinduism.

Her candidacy is emblematic of the way the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, given to revitalizing “traditional Hindu values,” approaches gender, women being important to their vote tally but only worthy of leadership if they have shown sufficiently extremist convictions. The party’s main mobilization force has been a right-wing group called Sangh Parivar, which has existed since the 1920s and was started by members of the right-wing Hindu paramilitary and nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a conglomerate of various Hindu nationalist organizations. Sangh Parivar (which includes Modi’s BJP) has historically defined itself in part as a movement of hyper-masculine Hindu men struggling against what they perceived to be hyper-masculine Muslim men who conquered them centuries ago, dominating the subcontinent’s ruling classes leading up to British rule and even beyond.  For women, the group emphasizes wifely obedience and spiritualized modesty. 

Sangh Parivar’s picture of idealized Indian womanhood has become the model preached to its female supporter, with the simple message that good Hindu women vote for good Hindu men. In positioning Hindu identity as superior and emphasizing caste and religious differences, Sangh Parivar and hence the BJP have also implicitly discouraged women from voting as a bloc based on their gender identity. Their voters are unlikely to rise up and demand better physical security (the rape conviction rate in India for instance is a dismal 24 percent and as low as 2 percent in the case of lower caste Dalits), or toss the restrictive role imposed on them in the name of tradition. The BJP, as it happens, has the highest number of politicians implicated in cases of crimes against women of any electoral party.

Another tactic in the BJP playbook is to present itself as the champion of Muslim women even as it continues to demonize Muslim men. In India, minorities are still governed by religious law when it comes to matters like divorce and inheritance. The BJP has therefore championed the transformation of such religious laws, portraying their reforms as rescuing Muslim women from Muslim men. A bill that banned triple talaq (a means of divorce via which a Muslim man could divorce his wife simply by saying “I divorce you” three times) was passed by the current Lok Sabha in December 2018. The legally questionable provisions of the proposal, tritely termed “The Muslim Woman Protections of Rights of Marriage,” would impose jail terms on men whom the state deems to have violated the rule. The bill, which did not have enough votes to pass India’s upper house of parliament, is unlikely to become law.

The tactic did not win them Muslim women’s votes. “I personally don’t know a single woman who was divorced through instant triple talaq,” one Muslim woman told an Indian journalism nonprofit IndiaSpend. “It does not happen in our village.” Others interviewed by the publication questioned how they could vote for the BJP given the persecution of Muslim men who have in recent years faced barbaric attacks and even been lynched by Hindu extremist mobs. “How can we vote for them if our community is under threat from them?” Ultimately, the bill came across less as an attempt to win over the hearts of Muslim women, and more as yet another element of the party’s social transformation of Hindu identity, set up in opposition to a Muslim “other.”

It is not only the BJP that is failing to address gender inequality. While the Indian National Congress party outdid the BJP’s 8 percent grant of electoral tickets to women, by selecting women to run on 12 percent of the electoral constituencies where it is contesting elections, that number is similarly dismal. In fact, only two of India’s political parties, Biju Janata Dal of Orissa and the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal, have reserved 33 percent of all their party tickets for women. These, however, are small regional parties running in very few constituencies.

The Indian National Congress, meanwhile, has pledged in its manifesto that if elected it will pass the Women’s Reservation Bill, which would reserve 33 percent of all seats in parliament for women. The bill was not able to get enough votes when it was introduced in 2008. Its revival by the INC is likely geared toward getting a chunk of India’s 397 million women to look to the INC as the party for a better future. (The Indian National Congress has other feminist credentials, as well, being the party that gave India its first female Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.)

In the meantime, elections continue apace in India and Modi’s BJP and the Indian National Congress continue to trade allegations and counter allegations. On May 1, 2019, the Election Commission of India ruled that Prime Minister Modi would not be censured for an election rally in which he jingoistically asked first-time voters to “dedicate” their votes to the “veer jawans [valiant soldiers] who carried out the air strike on Pakistan,” even though the state government where the rally was held had forbidden all parties from mentioning the armed forces in their electioneering. The Election Commission did censure Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, however, for an incendiary speech in which she asserted that the counter-terrorism official who had been investigating the terrorism charges she faces had died because she had cursed him.

The back and forth between the two major parties, and the BJP’s tactic of stoking religious divides, while claiming to be the defenders of traditional Hindu values, will continue until later this month when the polling finally stops. Identity politics, as many other countries have learned in past years, can cut many ways, not always adding up to the results one might predict. But in the midst of all of this are Indian women whose votes will decide the country’s future.