Indian women are voting more than ever before. In many states, their turnout is now higher than that of men. But political discussions in the country rarely feature women – even in the media.
What are women thinking on the eve of the 2019 election?
Aarefa Johari and Nayantara Narayanan travel to find out in Half the Vote, a series that brings you the stories and perspectives of women – only women – on life and politics.
On the last Friday of March, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao kicked off his campaign for the Lok Sabha elections by addressing rallies in Hyderabad and Nalgonda district.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also in the state that day, campaigning in Mahabubnagar, where the Bharatiya Janata Party is hoping to win a seat as it had done 20 years ago.
But none of that mattered to Nagaroja Vallabhdas as she got ready to start work that morning.
Like her parents and generations of her family before them, the 21-year-old is a weaver. Her family belongs to the Padmashali caste of traditional weavers and lives in Pochampally, a town famous for its saris that showcase the intricate, geometric ikat designs. Pochampally lies in Telangana’s Bhongir district and parliamentary constituency.
Vallabhdas voted for the first time in the Telangana Assembly election in December and will cast her vote again on April 11 to send a representative to the Lok Sabha.
‘Weaving is the only work I know’
Vallabhdas carries on the traditional family job because she does not have a choice.
Her father died two years ago, after developing health problems associated with excessiave drinking. She and her brother now help their mother operate the handloom that occupies half the front room of their two-room home.
While her mother never went to school, Vallabhdas has completed her intermediate education or “inter” as she calls it – two years of study after Class 10. She chose to study biology, physics and chemistry.
“If I could study further I would but my family cannot afford that,” she said. “Weaving is the only work I know so I have to help my family. If I had the choice, I would like to get into nursing or find a job in system works and data entry.”
Like many other young people in the town, Vallabhdas would also like to live and work in a big city like Hyderabad, which is 43 km away. Her friends from college have gone on to pursue undergraduate degrees or have got well-paying jobs outside Pochampally. But she has had to return home.
The Telangana Rashtra Samithi government has launched many programmes to help powerloom and handloom weavers in the state, many of whom have faced extreme distress. But no benefits have trickled down to Vallabhdas’ family.
They work for master weavers who send them yarn and pay them for their labour when they deliver saris. Vallabhdas said that the family manages to weave two saris every week for which they get Rs 1,500, which barely helps them meet living expenses and pay the rent for an old, run-down house.
The only government support they get is a widow’s pension of Rs 1,000 a month for Vallabhdas’ mother Parvati. The family has not received support from any of the other numerous welfare schemes that the Telangana government has rolled out on the back of which the Telangana Rashtra Samithi returned to power with an overwhelming majority in December.
One programme that Vallabhdas had pegged her hopes on is the two-bedroom housing scheme that the state government launched in 2015, which provides fully subsidised housing to the rural and urban poor. But despite having applied for a house two years ago, Vallabhdas’ mother has not heard back from authorities.
“KCR [as K Chandrashekar Rao is popularly known] had promised two-bedroom houses but he has not done anything here,” said Vallabhdas. “He goes to the same places and keeps doing things for the same people but not for us.”
‘Why is she not married?’
The other form of government support that the family is counting on is the Kalyana Lakshmi scheme through which a poor family earning less than Rs 2 lakh a year can get Rs 1 lakh for the wedding of a daughter.
Parvati Vallabhdas is looking for matches for her daughter and hopes the government will deliver the Rs 1 lakh when the time comes.
Nagaroja Vallabhdas is less enthusiastic at the prospect of marriage. “I want to work and continue to help my family,” she said.
But she is conscious of the social pressure on her mother. “Outside, in society, people will talk and ask, ‘Why is she not married?’”
According to Vallabhdas, one of the better things that the KCR government has done is to introduce She Teams, an initiative that sets up police units headed by women constables with the objective of making public spaces safer and the process of reporting crimes easier for women.
In a town like Pochampally, Vallabhdas said, it is acceptable for a young woman to be out till about 8 pm. After that, their families begin to worry about them.
“With the She Teams that the government has introduced, women like me have more confidence about their safety when they go out,” said Vallabhdas. “If they improve safety, our families will also let us go out more.”
Deciding who to vote for
Vallabhdas’ preoccupation is with her work and helping her family make ends meet. She does not pay attention to the daily news and ignores the barrage of commentary on WhatsApp and Facebook. She would rather watch a movie starring her favourite film star Prabhas or watch Telugu serials with her mother at the end of a long day.
For her, like for many others in semi-urban and rural Telangana, deciding who to vote for depends on whether a candidate has had an immediate and personal impact on her life.
K Chandrashekar Rao and his Telangana Rashtra Samithi has done little for her family. Vallabhdas has heard of Congress President Rahul Gandhi but does not know what he stands for or what he has promised to do if his party comes to power. She believes Prime Minister Narendra Modi did his best to purge black money from India’s economy through demonetisation in November 2016 and that he supports the military and their families. But the policies and politics of Delhi are far removed from her life in Pochampally.
However, one Lok Sabha candidate has made an impression on Vallabhdas. She had heard that when a student in the local college got into an accident, Congress veteran and four-time MLA Komatireddy Venkat Reddy took him to hospital and helped him.
“Because of what he did I think I will vote for the Congress,” she said.