Women’s votes played a decisive role in the Karnataka elections. The statistics speak for themselves. In the Chamundeshwari seat lost by former chief minister Siddaramaiah to his Janata Dal (Secular) rival G.T. Deve Gowda, 1.10 lakh women cast their vote as opposed to 1.14 lakh men.
K.N. Ramesh, the joint chief electoral officer in Karnataka pointed out, “The voting percentage of women was 75% as opposed to 76% men in Chamundeshwari.”
With women voting in such large numbers (of the 2.4 crore women in the Karnataka electoral list, 1.8 crore women cast their votes on May 15) it would be expected that the political parties would have given a large number of tickets to women candidates.
The reality is that despite all this tall talk of smashing gender barriers, the number of tickets to women candidates has shrunk drastically. Out of 224 assembly seats in Karnataka, the BJP gave a measly six seats to women candidates while the Congress gave 16.
The argument that there are not enough women in the state’s politics who could be given tickets is specious. Karnataka was one of the first states in India to reserve seats for women in panchayats and has many experienced women in grassroots politics who could have been given tickets for assembly elections.
Fewer tickets to women candidates in Karnataka is part of a trend seen across all states, be it Tripura, Gujarat, Punjab or Uttar Pradesh. And this is happening at a time when the Election Commission has found that women candidates are often more educated than their male counterparts and with no criminal records.
In the Tripura assembly elections, not only did women vote in larger numbers than their male counterparts in many constituencies, but they also made a difference in many crucial elections. In Dhanpur, the constituency of former chief minister Manik Sarkar, according to Taposh Roy, deputy election commissioner, female voters averaged 95.26% against male voters who averaged 90.09%.
In chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb’s constituency Banamalipur, women voters crossed the 86.09 percentage mark against the male voting percentage of 86.30.
Tripura Congress vice-president Tapas Dey admitted to their crucial role in helping the BJP win. Dey claimed that, “Women, who have a 3% higher vote share than men in this election, voted against the CPI(M).”
One of the main reasons why the BJP trumped the women vote was because of the high rate of crime against women. The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) has shown that Tripura has the highest rate of crime after UP, but has one of the lowest conviction rates amongst all states.
Aparna De, secretary of the Tripura State Commission for Women, expressed satisfaction at the large numbers of women who have participated in the election and attributed it to their high levels of political awareness.
What she was not willing to make a comment on was on the fewer number of women candidates across all parties.
Despite 25 years of Left rule, only 24 women contested the assembly elections in this state (two less than in 2013) and from these, three won, including Bijina Nath who won for the third time on a CPM ticket.
But look at the case of Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own state which has a deficit sex ratio for women and where political power continues to escape the majority of women. The gender ratio among voters in the 2017 election was 920 women per 1,000 men as against 910 per 1,000 male voters in 2012. Of the 11.85 lakh teenagers who were eligible to vote in these elections, only 38% were female voters.
A surprising development in Gujarat is that while EC statistics show that out of the 4.3 crore voters in Gujarat, 2.08 crore were women, the vote share of women has dipped considerably in the last elections.
Ahmedabad-based political scientist Professor Ghanshyam Shah has his own assessment of why women voters turned up in fewer numbers.
He claims that the Narendra Modi charisma among women is on the decline. This is something that had been reported extensively in the Gujarati press. “Earlier, women were impressed with Modi’s aura of masculinity and talk. But now his own supporters and loyalists feel he overdoes his boasting and are disillusioned with his performance,” says Shah.
Shah also feels the major increase in prices of all food and essential commodities as well has a hike in fuel prices has led women to feel the BJP and its leaders do not care for their concerns.
Congress spokesperson Ami Yagnik believes the low turnout was a criticism of the Gujarat model of development. Yagnik described how during the past five years, the BJP state government has closed down 13,000 government-run schools in which girls and boys from poorer homes studied. Families were saving and skimping to send their boys for an education even if the schools are located several kilometres away.
But what was the fate of the girl child? She was being forced to stay at home with the present government allocating only 2% of its budget to the field of education.
Yagnik also pointed to the growing sense of insecurity among Gujarati women in which the state saw 472 gang rapes in the last two years but the entire Nirbhaya fund was returned unused to the Centre . In Gujarat, only 21 women were given tickets. Among the 338 candidates who contested the Himachal Pradesh polls, only 19 were women.
This patriarchal mindset is reflected in the fewer numbers of women contesting elections.
Women politicians decry this trend pointing out that the main reason for their being sidelined is because they lack the money and muscle power to fight elections. Prior to 1980, Karnataka, to cite an example, saw up to 19 women in the assembly in 1957.
Former minister Leeladevi R. Prasad says that she had earlier fought and won elections for as little as Rs 25,000 but today “caste and money power are in the forefront”.
Dr Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, believes there is a more insidious reason for this exclusionist politics. “The RSS ideology is basically reflective of an extremely patriarchal mindset. Politics for them is a masculine activity. They talk about giving support to the weaker sections of society but that is not the case. The last four years have seen ten percent of women being forced out of the workforce despite the fact that a large number of our homes are today headed by single mothers,” said Kumari.
“The BJP has a few poster women at the top but someone like Sushma Swaraj can hardly be said to have risen in politics because of her RSS background,” Kumari added.
Political scientist Dr Zoya Hasan is equally critical of how all our public spaces are becoming all-male preserves. ‘This male-dominated ideology spread by the RSS has seen a huge rise in sexual violence. Not that rape did not occur earlier. But in the case of the Kathua rape case, two BJP MLAs had actually defended the accused and even the Jammu Bar Association went to the extent of claiming the case be handed over to the CBI since the J&K crime branch had communalised the investigation. The police in Unnao did the same when they gave a clean chit to the local MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar,’ said Hasan.
Dr Hasan feels it is the insidious spread of this ideology which has seen women being sidelined from public positions. ”How many vice chancellors in the country are women? How many women have been inducted into the Niti Aayog? Women are hardly visible in the public domain,” she maintained.
Left leader and former member of the National Commission for Women Malini Bhattacharjee believes political parties give a token acceptance to women, many of whom are celebrities who have no understanding of ground realities.
“Today, for women who come from poorer sections of society to make an entry into politics is next to impossible,” she said. Bhattacharjee also pointed out that tough, outspoken women are not given tickets. “Can you imagine someone like Gauri Lankesh being asked to fight an election? She was such a danger to the powers that be that she was made to shut up,” said Bhattacharjee.
The Women Reservation Bill which would have ensured 50% reservation for women in assemblies and in the Lok Sabha is in a limbo. This is obviously something which the Modi government does not consider amongst its priorities. The result may be a further sidelining of Indian women from the political arena.
Rashme Sehgal is an author and a freelance journalist based in Delhi.