Women’s participation in Indian elections is now at a historic high. With growing evidence that women voters clearly prefer certain leaders and parties, the way women vote has the potential to swing future elections.
Official statistics can only tell us how many men and women registered to vote and how many actually voted. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, female voter turnout rose to a historic high of 65.5% as against 67% for men – nearly closing the gap between male and female turnout which was in double digits (or close) until the early nineties. The absolute number of male voters still exceeds the number of female voters by over three crore, given that even now significantly more men than women are registered to vote.
But the rapid growth of female voter enrolment and turnout has been one of the big stories of the last decade. In 2014, women registered to vote outnumbered male electors in 87 constituencies. But female voters – the number of women who actually turned up to vote – outnumbered male voters in 97 constituencies. This is part of a continuous trend of improved electoral participation of women in India.
How men and women vote can only be estimated through opinion polling. Successive rounds of National Election Studies – a nationally representative opinion poll conducted by the Lokniti programme of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies – show that the BJP has always had a two to three point disadvantage among women voters as compared to the Congress.
In the US, women have historically leaned towards the Democratic Party over Republicans, with the gender gap growing wider since 2016 – 56% of women lean towards the party as compared to 44% of men. In the UK, the women’s vote is more closely shared by the Conservative Party and Labour, with the conservatives having an edge in 2017.
In its 2014 post-election National Election Study, Lokniti found that the broad direction of how men and women voted in India was the same in aggregate terms – 19% of men and women voted for the Congress. But the BJP’s gender disadvantage persisted – 33% of men voted for the BJP but 29% of women.
In most states, the story was similar. Men and women voted broadly in the same direction, with a slight gender disadvantage for the BJP. In Andhra Pradesh, both men and women chose the YSR Congress Party and the Telugu Desam Party over the Congress and the BJP, but women voters had even greater support for the two state leaders and even lower support for the two national parties than men. In all, just over 5% of women voted for either of the two as compared to 15% of men.
In Gujarat, both men and women preferred the BJP by far, and the BJP actually had a gender advantage among women, while the Congress, a distant second, did better among men.
However, in some states, men and women voted in completely different ways. In Assam, for instance, more women chose the Congress than the BJP, but many more men chose the BJP over the Congress. In Karnataka, men preferred the BJP while women preferred the Congress.
Some leaders have a clear advantage in the minds of women voters. Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, K Chandrasekhar Rao in Telangana and Naveen Patnaik in Odisha all did significantly better among women.
This is particularly the case for women leaders. The Mehbooba Mufti-led People’s Democratic Party in Jammu & Kashmir, the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, the Jayalalithaa-led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress all did better among women than among men in 2014. For two of these states – Tamil Nadu and West Bengal – Lokniti conducted post-poll surveys for their assembly elections and found the same gender advantage for the woman-led parties. In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK enjoyed a ten point advantage among women as compared to men, a potentially game-changing number in a state where women voters outnumbered men, and the AIADMK’s lead in voteshare was less than two percentage points.
There is little evidence that women vote for different things, though. A household survey of a nationally representative large sample by the Lok Foundation-Centre for Monitoring of India Economy found only marginal differences in what men and women were saying in January 2014 about the issues that would most influence their voting choices. Women appeared to care a little more than men about inflation and a little bit less about corruption.
A Pew Research Centre survey in November 2017 found that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was popular among both men and women, but viewed less favourably by women, primarily on account of his handling of communal relations.
A lot could depend on how the BJP’s perception among women has changed over Modi’s term.
A pre-election survey in May 2018 by Lokniti found a slight increase in preference for the BJP between 2014 and 2018.
Virtually all of the increase in support for the BJP during this period came from women voters. The BJP appeared to have made big gains among women voters in Haryana, Odisha and West Bengal, while its gains among male voters in these states were much more modest. The Congress, meanwhile, has made gains among both men and women, but the 2018 survey indicates that it could be losing its gender advantage.
In 2019, as the Election Commission continues its efforts to have a gender-equal electoral roll, more constituencies and states are expected to see women voters outnumber men. Through the force of cold electoral numbers, women voters will be forcing political parties to take notice.
In previous stories, Rukmini has looked at where the ‘Modi wave’ now stands and whether the BJP has a loyal caste vote bank. Read all the stories in the How India Votes series here.