They have not exactly been absent before. But two voting segments—women and the youth—have acquired a particularly high salience perhaps for the first time in a Lok Sabha election. They are being targeted through backroom strategies, statistics relating to them are being actively discussed in the chatrooms of election analysts, and publicity material is being specially crafted with these two blocs in mind.
Narendra Modi’s muscular national security-cum-foreign policy, as a central poll plank, surely keeps the BJP’s core Hindutva votebank upbeat, but it’s apparently also good enough to make the BJP look attractive to the millennials, rural and urban, high on computerised war games and new-age precision weaponry. The opposition, meanwhile, tailors its critiques in order to bring those same young voters back to bread-and-butter issues, reminding them of the stark unemployment figures, low education budgets, etc.
Will the youth get anything substantial from this lavish serving of rhetoric? It’s unclear how a demographic is useful if defined in such loose terms: A young Adivasi in Dantewada may have quite different concerns from a trader’s son in Surat or an IT kid in Bengaluru. Yes, betterment of life-chances is a common objective, but the political system’s resistance to change will be the biggest obstacle. The average age of candidates will remain 55-65 plus (even astrologers want Indians to believe only those born between 1950-1965 have a chance of doing well in the coming polls!), never mind the average age of voters.
However, a mini revolution of sorts seems afoot vis-a-vis the other segment, women. Not just in terms of promises of higher anganwadi budgets, or tax cuts, but increased representation. We even heard of the Women’s Reservation Bill after a long time. There’s a general churning for sure. Remember how, after the US congressional polls, it’s the election of a record number of women that got celebrated. Hillary Clinton has lamented that the parliamentary system (unlike the presidential one) allows more scope for women to get top jobs. Is that a chimera that hides reality, or are things changing at a deeper level too? There, indeed, has been no dearth of women leaders in India. On the scale of women’s representation in legislatures, though, India is among the bottom twenty. Reservations in panchayats and local bodies, touching 50 per cent in some states, never travelled up.
The picture suddenly changed with Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik’s decision to field 33 per cent women candidates in these elections: six-seven women candidates out of 21 in the state. The idea has not been carried to the Assembly polls, being held simultaneously. Nonetheless, a sign of maturation, if the trend holds. It certainly found a ricocheting effect in neighbouring West Bengal, where Mamata Banerjee declared 17 woman candidates in the 42 Lok Sabha seats her state has. Unlike Patnaik, she received criticism. Simply because her women candidates, mostly twenty-something starlets, were seen more as window-dressing. In a seat where Banerjee famously cut her political teeth by defeating then CPM stalwart Somnath Chatterjee, Banerjee has fielded a political novice. Even if she wins, which she very well may given TMC’s clout, her contribution to lawmaking remains doubtful. The BJD, on the other hand, claims to have been preparing the ground, grooming eligible woman candidates from the ground up.
The domino effect went beyond Bengal. Congress president Rahul Gandhi has now come out to promise the passage of the 33 per cent Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament, and 33 per cent reservation for women in government jobs, if brought to power. He made the announcement in response to a question posed to him at Stella Maris College, Chennai, almost as if he was waiting for the opportunity. It’s another matter that in 10 years of UPA rule, the Congress under Sonia Gandhi’s stewardship failed to get the bill passed. Even ‘progressive’ Kerala, where Rahul first dropped hints of reviving the women’s reservation debate, had no appetite for the bill.
Why then is women’s candidature an issue this time when representation debates rarely go beyond caste, creed, religion? Well, two reasons. Firstly, the steady rise of women voters. In 2014, as many as 65.63 per cent women (roughly 260 million) came to vote, as against 67.09 per cent of men. Not just in states like Manipur, Sikkim and Meghalaya, but also for the first time in Bihar, Rajasthan, Punjab, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand. Indeed, in 16 out of 29 states, women outvoted men.
Secondly, the political nature of that vote is a complicated story. Modi was seen to be a favourite of women voters in Gujarat, but the trend did not quite replicate itself all-India in 2014, barring in some states. Not that the Congress could consolidate them either; regional parties took away big slices of the pie, particularly in states with women leaders in power. Significantly, in 2014, in Odisha and West Bengal, the BJD and TMC were the recipients of the largest chunk of women votes. That partly explains why these two parties, both facing a serious challenge from the BJP, have leaned on women power. That’s also perhaps why Rahul chose Tamil Nadu to make his promise.
This is a votebank that may not get swayed by national security and foreign policy alone, even if both ministries are run by prominent women leaders. It has its own specificities, yet those are hard to generalise in a country of such variety. Women are yet to create a charter of demands, but influencing government formation is a start.
Political Editor, The New Indian Express