In India, Political Parties Woo Women Voters

Haryana, India — After the morning chores of cooking, and milking buffaloes are completed in the narrow alleys of Mankrola village in India’s northern Haryana state, women gather in the house of Rekha Sabharwal, who heads a women’s community group. An animated discussion follows about the forthcoming general elections that begin April 19.

While Mankrola is still a largely patriarchal society, women have begun asserting their voice loudly in one place — at polling booths.

“In the village, the system was that women had to vote as their families told them to. But now we have freedom to vote as we choose,” said Sabharwal.

Women are not just making independent decisions; they also are turning out in huge numbers to cast ballots, closing a gender gap that had existed for decades.

Their emergence as an influential voting bloc has prompted political parties to woo women. From funding millions of concrete homes and household toilets for poor families in villages, to providing cooking gas and piped water connections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has targeted many of his welfare programs at women during his 10 years in power.

Such programs have helped his Bharatiya Janata party widen its support among female voters, especially in rural areas and in poor homes.

“These programs have had a cascading effect. Women are in favor of Modi by leaps and bounds because he is delivering these programs,” according to Yashwant Deshmukh, head of C-Voter polling agency.

The money Sushila Kumari in Mankrola got to build a concrete room and a toilet has eased her life — her earlier one-room home had a tin roof. “I don’t have to go into fields now because I now have a toilet. When my relatives visited, there was no place for them to sit. Now I have a room where they can relax,” said Kumari.

She also got $800 in aid for her daughter’s marriage, which helped her repay the loan she took for the wedding expenses. She said she will keep these in mind at voting time.

Such programs are likely to have weaned women voters away from the main opposition Congress Party, for which they voted in huge numbers before the BJP became India’s dominant political party after it registered a massive win in the 2014 elections.

“Our current data shows that for every one female voter that is going to the Congress Party, two women are going to the BJP,” said Deshmukh.

The Congress Party, which has fared poorly in the last two general elections, is also eyeing women voters. It has unveiled a “Women Justice” program promising financial aid of $1,200 per year to poor women, and a 50 percent reservation for them in new federal government jobs if voted into power.

In India’s vast rural outback, there also is a growing demand for more economic opportunities for women, especially as rural distress and inflation emerge as key concerns.

27-year-old Neha Sabharwal, a mother of two, knows what she wants – in a country where women make up only 37 percent of the workforce, she wants a chance to work. The sole option in the village is tilling the fields, but only those at the bottom of the economic ladder work as farm laborers.

“Women should also be able to earn money, so that they can spend on their children’s education and clothes, and plan their future,” she laments.

In this village, which lies close to a gleaming business hub, aspirations are rising. Women say they do not want just free gas connections and homes, but a government that can empower them with better education and more work opportunities.

Village resident Manju Ranga, who has struggled with financial problems, says she desperately wants her two daughters to acquire college degrees or diplomas that will open the door to better economic opportunities.

“I don’t want my two daughters to have the kind of life I have lived. The government should give them some support to study so that they can get good jobs,” said Ranga.

Sociologists say political consciousness is growing both because of better levels of education among girls, and a 1993 law that mandated reservation of up to half the seats in village councils for women. However, it remains a work in progress. Neha Sabharwal will vote as her family tells her to, otherwise, she says, they will be offended.

While gender inequality is still entrenched in the village, women are becoming more politically assertive. They weigh issues such as development, governance and women’s safety, rather than caste and community, which have long influenced electoral choices in India.

Pollster Deshmukh calls that a “seismic shift.” He pointed out that building toilets, for example, was a huge factor that prompted women to vote for the BJP in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh in state elections held in 2022.

“For them the important issue in getting toilets at home was not sanitation. It was an issue of safety because they were vulnerable to sexual assaults when they went into the fields early morning and late evening,” he noted.

Social activist Sunil Jaglan, who has been spearheading programs to raise the status of women and girls for nearly two decades in villages like Mankrola, has noticed a huge change.

“Younger women look at issues like education, safe transportation when they travel to colleges, and social security when they go to vote,” according to Jaglan. “Older women assess if their household expenses are reducing or increasing.”

Those choices will influence the poll outcome, especially in seats where victory margins are narrow.

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