Mother, Daughter, Goddess, Voter: Tamil Nadu’s Political Parties Court Women This Poll Season

Every party in the state courts the woman voter, but do they know what she really wants?

Members of the DMK women's wing pose at a meeting. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Members of the DMK women’s wing pose at a meeting. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Coimbatore: On Avinashi road on the way to the international airport in Coimbatore, women lined up behind bamboo fences, all the way upto a cardboard fort guarded by a pair of life-size sponge elephants.

Drivers and bike riders stuck in a maddening traffic jam shook their heads. “So grand? So much police bandobast? Preparation for three days? This is Amma’s public meeting,” said autorickshaw driver Manikandan, referring to J. Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister and the leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). He looked at the hundreds of women wilting in the queue at noon for a meeting that would start after 6pm. “Paavam thai kulam (poor womankind) – all parties want to win them over these days.”

From behind the bamboo fence, middle-aged Ranganayaki beckoned a vendor and bought a glass of chilled buttermilk. AIADMK party workers had ferried her in a women’s bus that morning from the neighbouring district of Pollachi to attend the meeting. “The party guy will give us 500-800 rupees and lunch,” she said, laughing. “At least from most women, there is no demand for a quarter!” (a 250ml bottle of liquor). Ranganayaki said she had voted for Jayalalithaa in 2011 because she had promised free mixies, grinders and fans. “All are under repair now. But this time, Amma has said she’ll ban alcohol in a phased manner. Everyone is saying this, but as a woman, I trust her more,” said Ranganayaki.

All parties are courting women aggressively in their campaigns for the 2016 assembly election, not only in speeches and appeals, but also in their manifestoes. The AIADMK offers a 50% discount on two-wheelers for working women and gold coins for all brides-to-be. Nearly every party has promised to increase the maternity assistance package. Many of them say they will slash the price of milk. The Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) is offering ladies-only buses, three new universities for women and a 33% reservation for women in the police force. One of the many bizarre poll promises comes from Captain Vijaykanth’s Desiya Murpoku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) – home delivery of ration goods, meant to ease the burden on women, who are usually the ones to purchase groceries for the family.

Women enter a PMK rally in Dharmapuri ahead of time. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Women enter a PMK rally in Dharmapuri ahead of time. Credit: Rohini Mohan

The battle for prohibition

But the mother of all women-centric promises is prohibition, which all four major players – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), AIADMK, the DMDK and the PMK – have competitively assured. If the promises are to be believed, the anti-liquor voter is spoilt for choice today: after the election results on May 19, it seems, no matter who wins, the state-run wine shops under the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) will close down.

In a DMK public meeting in Trichy in April, M. Karunanidhi called women the biggest victims of alcoholism. “You’ve suffered enough, my mothers and sisters,” he said, referring to their having to endure rampant domestic violence and illicit liquor-related deaths. “I promise you a full ban on alcohol, so that you may have a better life.” In the crowd, Kiruba Tamilmani, 48, who introduced herself as the wife of a district party worker, cheered and clapped. She had stacked five chairs together and was standing atop them to be able to see Karunanidhi on stage. Pointing to the dancing men in front of her, she grimaced. “See? Drunk. All drunk. They won’t listen to their wives, but look at them cheering for prohibition. Only a full ban can change them.” DMK women’s wing chief Kanimozhi, while on a van campaign in Dharmapuri district, said, “It’s what women want, and we can’t ignore it.”

In truth, however, it’s not clear if the demand for prohibition in Tamil Nadu first came from women. “There’s validity in the claim that women are the most affected by substance abuse by men, and want the drinking to stop, but to my knowledge, a state-wide mobilised movement for prohibition did not originate from women, as is being claimed by parties today,” says A. Mangai, feminist writer and theatre activist. Unlike in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, historically women have not led the anti-liquor agitation in Tamil Nadu. Instead, those at the forefront of anti-TASMAC protests have been left-leaning youth groups, the TASMAC employees’ union criticising the horrifying working conditions in wine shops, and Gandhians like Sasi Perumal, whose recent death during a protest to shut down an illegal state-run liquor shop made prohibition an urgent election issue. In each case, police violence and Jayalalithaa’s overreach to quell these street demonstrations have intensified the battle.

But as Kasturi Selvadurai, a young teacher at a PMK rally in north Tamil Nadu said, “They say they’re doing it for us. Okay, do it for us. Let us see who can keep this promise.” Her friend Muthumani added, “Today, I told my husband, I’m also coming to the meeting. I used to always feel a political meeting is no place for a woman but now if they’re going to talk about us so directly, I’m going to come.” At the DMK rally in Trichy too, Gauri, 35, had seen a DMK meeting in her neighbourhood and dropped in out of curiosity. She recalled a horrifying experience at a DMK rally 10 years ago. “It was always a male fiefdom. As a woman at their rally, you’re pushed around, and molested.” That late April evening, she seemed pleasantly surprised at the large number of policewomen and a larger-than-usual area cordoned off for women only.

Policewomen hang out at a DMK rally in Trichy. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Policewomen hang out at a DMK rally in Trichy. Credit: Rohini Mohan

The new constituency

Analysts suggest that parties’ conscious focus on women is thanks to a growing realisation that the dependable old cadre base is shrinking, and new voters must be won over. While unemployment and agriculture are perennial subjects, the prohibition issue might be a clear marker between the old and the new voter base. “The old image of the voter to be wooed is a fellow with grey hair, a quarter in one hand, biryani in the other, and a philosophical film dialogue on his lips,” says Dalit poet and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) general secretary D. Ravikumar. “Today, the voter base is lakhs of under-35 youth and women.”

AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa's cut out gets ready to be put up in Coimbatore. Credit: Rohini Mohan

AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa’s cut out gets ready to be put up in Coimbatore. Credit: Rohini Mohan

Political analysts suggest that it was since Jayalalithaa took over the AIADMK that women are seen as a constituency with measurable desires that can be managed for electoral returns. The party’s initial female voters were fans of party founder and film star M.G. Ramachandran. Jayalalithaa consolidated this section in her own way. “As a woman in a man’s world, she tried to distinguish herself by projecting this Amma image, being the mother, referring to women as her children whose desires she knows even before they ask,” Mangai said. “Her protectionist attitude of a welfare state gets camouflaged with the image of Amma.” Interestingly, Vijaykanth’s wife Premalatha, the real decision-maker in the DMDK, is also adopting the same strategy in her campaigns.

Freebies became the popular way to woo and satisfy this new voter. Even those not directly targeting women have ended up easing their mounting financial burden, said S. Anandhi, associate professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies. “Tamil Nadu’s women have a great amount of anxiety in the context of male unemployment and alcoholism,” she said. “There is a skewed responsibility on women to earn and sustain the family economically.” The DMK’s 2006 masterstroke of the free colour TV, the two rupees’ worth of rice distributed through an efficient universal food security system, the AIADMK’s mixies and the Amma Unavagam eateries with their one rupee idlis have all helped. Despite being a drain on the state coffers, they’ve inadvertently contributed to both reducing desperate poverty, and relieving women of economic instability.

The catch-22 for women

Simultaneously, however, these measures might have depoliticised women, just as they have a large section of the electorate. “Most women just want a provider state today, which will close the huge gap between their need and income,” said Anandhi. “Both the enormous burden to run the family and its partial mitigation by a quick-fix freebie has left women with little energy, time or commitment to engage politically, make cogent demands and be in the public sphere.”

This is palpable in the small proportion of women that contest elections in Tamil Nadu. Of the over 3,800 candidates that have filed nominations in the 2016 election, only 320 are women –  the highest tally for the state so far. In 2011, only 136 women were fielded and only 14 elected – barely 5% compared to the aspirational 33% women representatives in the assembly. Even a city like Chennai had only three women members of legislative assembly (MLAs). In 2006, of 156 women fielded, 22 won. From 1991 to 2011, 11.2% of the candidates fielded by AIADMK were women (only 93 in 830), while DMK’s record is a shameful 6.4% (51 women in 797 candidates).

Sheelu Francis, who runs the Women’s Collective NGO that works on women’s empowerment, said, “Contesting an election requires a lot of money and muscle. An ordinary woman doesn’t have that. Even if parties accept women, they never give winnable seats to them.” She explains the catch-22 for women: they need to be popular to be allotted good seats, but roles like district secretary or regional coordinator have been hogged by established men and their families for decades in Tamil Nadu. “Jayalalithaa takes many bold steps but being a woman, even she doesn’t give grassroots leadership positions to women,” said Francis.

In early 2006, several women’s rights activists tried to start a women’s party, but Francis said it fell through due to differences, especially around the issue of total prohibition, and many ended up contesting under the Aam Aadmi Party. One of these women, former IAS officer V. Sivakami, who worked for 29 years in the government and contested on a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket in 2009, started her own political outfit in December 2009 called the Samuga Samathuva Makkal Padai. This election, she has allied with the DMK to get a seat in the Perambalur reserved constituency. Jayalalithaa’s constituency of R.K. Nagar now has five women contesting. “This is a good development, but in most places, parties don’t think these choices through, in terms of relevance of the candidate, her background, abilities and oratory skills. They don’t throw their weight behind a good woman candidate. And when we lose, it’s blamed entirely on us,” said a woman candidate in Chennai who did not want to be named.

Women politicians also face personal attacks and slander as a matter of course. From defamation suits against actor and former DMK member Khushboo, now the Congress spokesperson, for her comments on safe premarital sex in 2010, to snide comments by rivals about weak women ministers, the arena is hostile. “Men talk a different political language, and whether among the young or old, gender sensitivity is very poor,” said Francis. Recently, Tamil Nadu Congress Committee chief E.V.K.S. Elangovan made a derogatory comment about BJP state president Tamilisai Soundararajan, and even about Jayalalithaa’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He has earlier made similar statements about his own party MLA and state women’s wing president S. Vijayadharani. In response, Tamilisai called him “a habitual offender” and gracefully requested political decorum. “Tamilisai is trying to do decent politics, but even her own party’s partisan politics tries to drag her down,” said Francis.

At public meetings across Tamil Nadu, the woman voter is spoken of as victim, heroine, goddess and daughter, and many beautifully-crafted songs are being sung to her strength and common sense. But the politics, as always, remains a one-way street. “I was there for barely 15 minutes and I almost believed that they care about women,” said Kannamma Ganesan, an agricultural labourer in Theni, walking back after attending her third rally. “The politicians are chanting about women’s empowerment for months now. Maybe they’ll come to really believe it one day.”