West Bengal to Assam, Kerala to Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, political parties are aware of the importance of the women's vote and are shaping their campaign promises keeping this silent vote bank in mind going into the elections.
With women playing an increasingly decisive role in determining the fate of elections in many key states recently, it is no surprise that promises for women constitute a major portion of the pre-poll promises across the five election-bound states. Three of Congress’ five big pre-poll promises for Assam have women at the centre. A major portion of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto for Assam and West Bengal is dedicated to women. Promises for women have similarly taken centre stage in the southern states too – be it the AIADMK, DMK in Tamil Nadu, or the Congress and Left in Kerala.
Recent political outcomes in several key states are what appear to be driving this visible effort by political parties across the spectrum to woo this silent, yet essential vote bank. The Bihar Assembly elections, which recently saw Nitish Kumar return to power in Bihar despite a sense of severe anti-incumbency, was driven by women voters. The resounding success of the BJP in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections was also fuelled by this silent bloc. Back in 2016, it was Jayalalithaa’s popularity among women voters which is believed to have brought AIADMK to power in Tamil Nadu despite several odds. Of course, the DMK’s involvement in the 2G spectrum case did act as the tipping point.
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A look at certain voter statistics shows why political parties have framed their promises keeping the women voters in mind in the ongoing elections. In Assam, for instance, around 1.15 crore of the 2,34 total voters in Assam are women, just marginally lower than the 1.18 crore male voters in the state. Here, the Congress party came out with five guarantees to chalk out its way back to power. These guarantees include a law against CAA, 5 lakh government jobs, Rs 2,000 per month to housewives, Rs 365 daily wages to tea garden workers and 200 units monthly free electricity for households. Significantly, the three of these five promises are directly aimed at women voters.
The BJP too has pulled out all stops in promising greater financial assistance and empowerment for different sections of women. The party, which began the Orunodoi scheme in 2020 to provide Rs 830 per month to the household headed by women, has now promised to increase the assistance to Rs 3000 and the number of covered families to 30 lakh from the present 17 lakh. The move, the party claims, will benefit 30 lakh woman across the state once the scheme is revised. The ruling party also promised to increase the financial assistance given to pregnant women of the tea garden community to Rs 18,000 from the current amount of Rs 12,000, saying that it will help the woman take care of herself and her child. The party also promised to give free bicycles to girl students after Class 8 and free scooties to college-going girls.
West Bengal, which is witnessing the biggest high-stakes battle among the five poll-bound states, is another case in point. Here, women voters constitute 3.4 crore of the total 6.99 crore electorate, slightly lower than the roughly 3.58 crore voters in the state. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which is locked in a tough battle with the BJP for a return to power, has bet big on students and women voters. The TMC has promised to bring in a new scheme to ensure a monthly Basic Income to female heads of 1.6 crore households. The scheme envisages Rs 500 to families of General Category and Rs 1,000 to families of SC/ST category. It also said that free doorstep delivery of monthly ration will be done for 1.5 crore households. The ruling party also promised that over 25 lakh additional houses will be built under the Bangla Abas Yojana for the poor. The party also promised to give Student Credit Cards with a limit of up to Rs 10 Lakh at an interest rate of 4 per cent.
The BJP also lined up a slew of promises for women and youth in its attempt to gain power in a state where its tally has never touched double digits in the 294-member state assembly. To counter TMC’s pro-women promises, the BJP promised monetary support for education to Dalit and tribal girls and free education to girls from KG to PG. It also promised 33 per cent reservation for women in government jobs while also promising free public transport for women, pension to widows and setting up a women police battalion. The Congress, on the other hand, ruled out dole politics and urged people to vote for a sustainable government. In its manifesto, the party promised monthly assistance of Rs 5,700 to 20 per cent of the most economically backward families. It also promised to increase the number of women police stations to ensure the safety of women.
In Tamil Nadu, a state infamous for its freebee politics, the ruling AIADMK has again made all efforts to woo women voters. Of the 6.28 crore eligible voters in the state, 3.18 crore are women, higher than the 3.08 crore male voters. In a state where women voters form over half of the state’s total electorate, the doles by political parties are also aimed at this section of voters. Free washing machines, free solar stoves, free cable connection, door-step delivery of ration, one-year maternity leave, 50 per cent off for women in city buses, six free LPG cylinders a year, Rs 1500 per month for women heads of households, increase in maternity funds from Rs 18,000 to Rs 21,000 and Kavalan app in all districts across the state to increase the safety of women are what form a major chunk of the ruling party’s pre-poll promises. Its rival DMK, on the other hand, has promised increasing women’s reservation to 40 per cent in government jobs, monthly subsidy of Rs 100 per gas cylinder, Rs 24,000 assistance for pregnant women, home medical services for pregnant women, and free sanitary pads for school and college students.
Women voters outnumber men in the neighbouring state of Kerala. Of the 2,74 crore total voters, around 1.42 crore are women, ahead of the 1.33 crore-odd male voters. Here, the ruling CPI-M dispensation has promised a pension for the state’s female homemakers and training for women with technical assistance so that more women can be employed. On the other hand, the BJP has promised six free cooking gas cylinders to economically weaker sections, a pension of Rs 5,000 per month to the family if the main bread-earner falls sick or is unable to work. Opposition UDF led by Congress has promised Rs 2000 ‘pension’ for women homemakers between the age of 40-60, six months maternity leave for those working in the unorganised sector, Rs 6,000 per month to the poor under ‘Nyay Yojana’, Rs 3000 post-delivery and a two year age relaxation for government job exams for unemployed women of Scheduled Tribe, and Rs 10 lakh interest-free loan for Women entrepreneurs.
Across the states, there seems to be a shift among political parties to offer better promises to women voters. When and how did this change come? The Bihar and UP elections are recent examples, but the biggest case in point was perhaps the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, which saw the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi return to power with a greater majority, despite a concerted and united effort by opposition parties. Policy-making with a focus on women — free gas cylinders (Ujjwala Yojana), cash incentives to build toilets in every home (Swachh Bharat), or Rs 6,000 to pregnant and lactating mothers — was rewarded when this constituency backed the BJP and brought it back to power with a bigger mandate.
Will the BJP’s policies and promises do wonders in West Bengal or will the women voters continue to back a woman chief minister? Can the AIADMK’s doles prevent what the opinion polls have predicted as an election to win for Stalin’s DMK? Can Priyanka Gandhi plucking tea leaves and Congress’ promises along with the optics sway the elections in its favour? These are answers that will be known only post-May 2 when the results are declared. What one does know is that the often silent vote bank is watching every move carefully. And it is not easy to read their minds!