Gender Gap

Increasing Women Voter Turnout in Indian Elections

By: Sanjay Kumar, The author is a Professor and currently the Director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)
Since the first General Elections were conducted in 1952, the participation of women in voting has gradually increased. Various factors, including, but not limited to literacy rate, exposure to media and voter awareness campaigns have played a role in this.
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Even though Indian elections have consistently witnessed a reasonably higher turnout than most advanced democracies, a gender gap in voting in India continues to exist since the first Lok Sabha election held in 1952. The average turnout during last 16 Lok Sabha elections has been around 60 per cent but men have been outnumbering women voters. The Lok Sabha election of 1962 witnessed a gender gap of 17 per cent (Fig. 1). This gap was significantly reduced for various national elections during the 1990s, further narrowing down to less than 2 per cent during the 2014 Elections (Rai, 2017).

Though India continues to fare poorly on gender parity, as reflected in its 87th rank in the latest Global Gender Parity Report (2017) of the World Economic Forum, major changes seem to be occurring in the political arena. As the recent trends in women turnout in Indian elections at the national level indicate, the country could soon witness a reversal in electoral participation in terms of gender. It is important to note that gender reversal in electoral participation has already happened in various state assembly elections.

It is widely believed that orthodox social norms in India have limited the role of women in mainstream electoral politics, restrained them from emerging as independent voters and reduced the importance of gender issues in the policy discourse. In this context, the significant rise (Fig. 1 & 2) in women turnout in the state assembly elections held in recent years and the 2014 Lok Sabha election, raised the question as to what resulted in this significant rise in women turnout in the Indian elections. In many states, it is not just the turnout amongst women voters that has increased—women voters have in fact outnumbered men in voting.

The analysis of the aggregate data released by the Election Commission of India on turnout in various assembly elections held in India between 1990 and 2016 suggests that the gender gap in turnout remained fairly unchanged between 1990 and 2001. The turnout of women voters started increasing from 2002 onwards and most assembly elections held after that witnessed a higher turnout amongst women voters (Fig. 3). This change was noticeable in most of the states in varying degrees. While some change in the turnout amongst women voters began in mid-1990s, the most significant change occurred 2008 onwards, when women turnout increased significantly. In fact, the states which had witnessed a very narrow gender gap between men and women turnout in the 1990s showed further improvement, resulting in a  reversal over male voter turnout. During the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, for example, women turnout was higher than men turnout in the states of Arunanchal Pradesh, Goa, Meghalaya, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Sikkim and Tamil Nadu (Election Commission of India, 2015).

What may affect gender gap in turnout?

The narrowing gender gap in turnout between men and women should be looked at with caution as it can take place under four scenarios. First there could be a situation where turnout amongst women does not increase, but there is a sharp fall in the turnout amongst men. Another situation could be that there is a decline in turnout both amongst men and women but the decline in men turnout is much sharper, as compared to the decline in women turnout.  There could be a third situation, where there is a rise in turnout both amongst men and women, but the increase in turnout amongst women is much higher compared to men. And lastly there could be a scenario, where there is a decline in men turnout, accompanied by an increase in women turnout. Based on the magnitude of the gender gap in the early years in the period under analysis (1990 onwards), the states have been classified into three categories – states with high gender gap, states with moderate gender gap and lastly states with low gender gap. Interestingly there is a broader regional pattern that emerges in this classification—the BIMARU states of North India, along with Odisha and Gujarat, fall in the category of high gender gap, while the moderate gender gap primarily includes all the states in southern India, except Kerala. The Third category of states include mostly those in the north-east, West Bengal, and some of the hill states. The unique thing about the states in the low gender gap category is that most of these are small states. The gender gap remained almost constant during the first two periods in all three categories of state grouping, but this gap narrowed down substantially in states with a high gap during the period 2002 to 2007 and continued till the 2014 elections. Although the gender gap in turnout has reduced in all three categories, the sharpest decline took place in states where the gap in turnout was highest.

Many social scientists and political commentators have attempted to understand the broader implications of this rise in women turnout. Often, larger sociological and demographic changes lie behind trends and patterns in the aggregate data. At the outset, it must be understood that a substantial proportion of women voters take into account the opinion of others before deciding whom to vote for (Kapoor and Ravi, 2014). Deciding whom to vote for is not always a solitary decision as voters discuss politics with family members, friends, colleagues, local elites etc. Survey data from the National Election Studies (NES) conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) for the 2004, 2009 and the 2014 General Elections has consistently shown that more than 40 per cent of the voters accepted that they did not decide entirely on their own and the opinion of others mattered while making up their mind. Still, one must note that there is a gender gap in the proportion of voters who voted independently. While more than two thirds of the men claimed to have decided without taking anybody else’s opinion, the proportion was much lower amongst women at around a little more than half (Kumar and Gupta, 2015).

Even amongst those who took others’ opinion while deciding who to vote for, there is a gender difference in terms of whose opinion mattered most. Survey data from NES 2009 and 2014 show that men tend to interact with a broader group as more than half of them who did not vote on their own, consulted individuals outside their immediate household—friends, colleagues, caste leaders, and local leaders. On the other hand, for more than two thirds of women who did not vote entirely on their own, the opinion of their husbands or other family members mattered most (Rai, 2017). Socialisation and independence in decision making should not be understood as ‘either/or’ between voting on your own and taking someone else’s opinion. An individual who interacts with a wider range of people and discusses politics outside the household would be considered to have a greater degree of political socialisation. Also, it would be safe to assume that even in a discussion on politics within the household, on an average, women especially daughters-in-law and unmarried daughters would have the least say.

The self empowerment hypothesis would explain the higher women turnout as a result of greater degree of socialisation amongst women, as compared to earlier and independent decision making with lesser influence of other family members. The analysis of the survey data from the NES 2009 and 2014 for eight states which have seen a significant fall in the gender gap due to an increase in women turnout, mostly in the low-income states of the country, indicates mixed results (Kumar and Gupta, 2015). In four of these states—Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Chhattisgarh, there was a sizeable increase in the proportion of women who voted without taking anybody else’s opinion. In other states, the proportion has either remained constant or in fact decreased.  One cannot say for sure that the higher turnout of women voters in 2014 elections in India is due to their ability to take independent voting decisions (ibid).

If the increase in women turnout was indeed a result of women emerging as a separate political entity, then one would also expect women being considered as a vote bank by political parties just like caste and communities. In the recent elections with increase in turnout amongst young voters, they are being seen as a vote bank by parties and findings from the NES indicate that young voters did vote decisively in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections (Verma and Kumar, 2014). Research on gender voting in India has primarily demonstrated the existence of a gender gap in the support base of the principal national parties—the BJP and the Congress. The Congress has traditionally been known to have a slight gender advantage amongst women. Its votes share amongst women had normally always exceeded the proportion of votes the party gets amongst men. This difference for the Congress narrowed down in 2014 as the party received almost the same proportion of votes amongst both genders. The BJP, on the other hand, has been known to have a gender disadvantage as more men are likely to vote for the party as compared to women (Deshpande, 2009).

Alongside the increase in literacy, the last decade has also witnessed a rapid technological progress which has led to a major increase in media exposure in the country. Newspapers, television and the radio are sources of information for people across the country. Media plays an important role in inducing political participation by generating awareness about rights and issues. It also aids various civil society organisations and the Election Commission of India who use it as a platform for voters awareness campaigns. In the survey data of NES 2009 and 2014, there seems to be a sharp difference (as voter turnout increases where exposure to media is high) if one compares turnout amongst women without exposure to media with those with limited exposure (Kumar and Gupta, 2015).

It is quite evident that there has been an overall increase in exposure to media and more than half the electorate seems to be following the news. Survey data of NES 2009 and 2014 shows that in the last half decade, there has been a massive increase of around 23 per cent in media exposure amongst both men and women and the proportion of women with very low or no media exposure has dropped sharply from 65 per cent in 2009 to 39 per cent in 2014. There is thus a trend that shows a decline in the gender gap with a massive upsurge in media exposure (ibid).

 Endnote

Overcoming the gender gap in voter turnout is indeed a landmark for the democratisation process in India. However, representation of women, both in Parliament and state legislative assemblies of various states remains low. But the increase in women voter turnout, the marginal increase in their representation in parliament (proportion of Women Representation in the Lok Sabha increased from 4.4 per cent in 1952 to 11.2 per cent in 2014), the positive change in representation of women in gram panchayats and their increased involvement in other electoral activities must not be discounted, as these demonstrate the faith women have in democracy and its institutions and their strong belief in the power of their vote. All these factors show a slow, but a desirable shift in women’s increased role in the Indian democracy.

References

Deshpande R., 2009. How Did Women Vote in Lok Sabha Elections 2009? Economic and Political Weekly 44(39): 83-87.

Election Commission of India, 2015. India Votes: The General Elections 2014, Available at: https://bit.ly/2PxIKR9

Kapoor and Ravi, 2014. Women Voters in Indian Democracy. Economic and Political Weekly 49(12): 63-67.

Kumar S. and P. Gupta, 2015. Changing Patterns of Women’s Turnout in Indian Elections, Studies in Indian Politics, 3(1): 7-18.

Rai P, 2017. Women’s Participation in Electoral Politics in India: Silent Feminisation. South Asia Research 37(1): 58-77.

Verma R. and S. Kumar, 2014. The Arithematic and Implications of the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, Research Journal Social Sciences, 22(2): 1-27.

World Economic Forum, 2017. The Global Gender Gap Report 2017, Available at: https://bit.ly/2hyrEUk

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