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.

Who is the sarpanch of Rana Bordi village in Gujarat’s Porbandar district?

Asked this question, Class 9 students of the village school had a loud and unanimous answer: “Sangabhai!”

In the panchayat office, the nameplate on the sarpanch’s desk said “Sangabhai J Mori”. On the walls around the desk, signboards with names of panchayat members also listed Sangabhai Mori as the sarpanch. And on the streets outside, men and women were full of admiration for the vikas or development that Sangabhai Mori had brought to the village “ever since he became the sarpanch in 2001”.

Beloved as he is, Sangabhai Mori is not the official sarpanch of Rana Bordi.

That post is currently held by his wife, Laxmiben Mori, who first served as the village sarpanch from 2007 to 2012, and returned to the post in 2017. Her husband was the sarpanch before each of her terms, and he passed the baton to Laxmiben every time the Gujarat government reserved the post for women.

This is a common phenomenon across India, where Panchayati Raj institutions – local government bodies at the village, block and district levels – are required to reserve 33% of their seats for women. Since 2009, at least 19 states, including Gujarat, have increased this quota to 50%. The impact of such reservation has not been small: in 2015, when local body elections were held in several parts of Gujarat, 56% of newly elected block panchayat presidents were women.

But in a large number of cases, women elected to panchayats are merely nominal members, propped up by men in their families who run the show on the ground. While Laxmiben Mori is no prop – she is opinionated, interested in politics and hopes to become an MLA or MP someday – she admits she is not the one in charge of the village’s sarpanch duties.

“My husband handles most of the sarpanch’s work. I go to the office if anything needs to be signed,” said 42-year-old Laxmiben, a soft-spoken woman who has studied up to Class 10.

Laxmiben speaks with pride about the achievements that make Rana Bordi a modern model of development: the village has clean roads, toilets in every home, free wi-fi, two anganwadis, a public health centre and a school up to Class 10. “We also got a CCTV camera installed on the main road recently for the safety of the villagers,” said Laxmiben.

She credits two men for these developments: her husband Sangabhai, and Narendra Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat for 17 years before becoming the Prime Minister in 2014. “In this election, everyone in our village will be supporting the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party],” said Laxmiben. “Modi has done amazing work for India and he has made development possible in our village.”

Laxmiben and Sangabhai Mori - the official and unofficial sarpanches of Rana Bordi village. Photo: Aarefa Johari

‘Women’s main problem is water supply’

When met Laxmiben Mori, it was 9 am and she was sweeping and mopping her spacious house. Her husband was out doing the rounds of their 25-acre farm, her in-laws live separately in the vicinity and her children – a daughter in Class 11 and a son in Class 10 – have been studying in boarding schools in Junagadh since they were six years old. “I am used to being alone at home all day,” said Laxmiben.

Her morning routine is arduous: cleaning the two-storeyed house, washing and feeding the cattle and cooking lunch for all their farm labourers, who tend to be migrants from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. For Laxmiben, the labourers are proof that unemployment is not really a problem in the country. On the contrary, she believes that local residents have sufficient work, and there is a shortage of locally-available labourers for the farms. “Why else would we have to hire outsiders?” she said.

Rana Bordi, says Laxmiben, is a fairly prosperous village, even though it is mainly populated by minority groups like the Rabaris, traditional dairy farmers listed as a Scheduled Tribe, Muslims and Kumbhars.

“Most of our youth study in ITIs [Indian Technical Institutes] and get jobs in different factories in the village,” she said. Even though the youth is not interested in taking up farming, Laxmiben claims that farmers in the village are doing very well.

“Yes, we have had some bad monsoons and the yield of groundnuts has been low, but those who say that there is an agricultural crisis in the country are just too lazy to work.”

Laxmiben Mori’s knowledge of her sarpanch duties are limited, and she sums them up as “solving people’s problems and bringing vikas to the village”. “The main problem that women have is poor water supply, and nothing makes them happier than when we fix their water connections,” she said.

When Sangabhai Mori walked in halfway through her conversation with, Laxmiben took a backseat and let him elaborate. His proudest moment as sarpanch, he said, was when Rana Bordi was given a President’s award for achieving total sanitation under the Congress-led government’s Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan in 2008, much before the BJP launched the Swachh Bharat Mission in 2014. Sangabhai travelled to Delhi with a male family member to collect the award, even though Laxmiben was technically the sarpanch at the time.

He also claimed that in 2001, he was the first sarpanch in the district to take villagers on periodic field trips to learn best practices from other villages. “I started by taking the men, but got no results. But when I started taking women on these visits, they began to implement various development programmes in the village,” said Sangabhai. “Mahila jagruti [women’s awakening] is very important.” Laxmiben smiled and nodded.

‘We no longer have child marriage’

Signs of women’s empowerment are more apparent in the rest of Rana Bordi’s panchayat, which has three women members out of seven. One of them is Amina Isub, a member of the local Sama Muslim sect who, like Laxmiben, has studied only up to secondary school. “Women of our generation were not allowed to study further, but today we have made sure that all girls in our village finish school and study further,” said Isub. “I was married at 17, but today we no longer have child marriage in our village.”

Rana Bordi's women panchayat members (left to right): Amina Isub, Laxmiben Mori and Bhavna Vara. The nameplate on the sarpanch's desk has Laxmiben's husband's name on it. Photo: Aarefa Johari

The most prominent young and educated woman of Rana Bordi is 33-year-old Bhavna Vara, the third woman member of the panchayat. Vara has a Bachelor’s degree in economics, is in the midst of a beautician’s course and works as a part-time substitute teacher at the local secondary school. ““I like working for the village and this is my second term in the panchayat,” said Vara. “I am not interested in marriage for now, and thankfully my family does not pressurise me about it.”

Do other young women and men have such autonomy and agency with respect to marriage? Are there, for instance, more love marriages in the village today? The three women were horrified by the question. “No no!” they said in unison. “We don’t have problems like daru (alcohol), nasha (drugs) and love marriage in our village.”

All three women want Modi to return as the Prime Minister after the 2019 Lok Sabha election. “Thanks to him, half the BPL [below poverty line] people in the village have Ayushman Bharat cards,” said Vara, referring to the central government’s health insurance scheme that offers health cover worth Rs 5 lakh to poor families.

“And look at the air strikes he did against Pakistan,” said Laxmiben, referring to the Indian Air Force strikes in Pakistan’s Balakot region in February, after 40 Indian soldiers were killed in a terror strike in Pulwama in Jammu and Kashmir. “Modi gave a fitting response to Pakistan for attacking us.”

Read more in the series:

A weaver in Telangana who will vote for the first time says that no government has helped her family

A businesswoman in Mumbai wants Modi back because he is a ‘powerful person’

A Telangana farmer wants to protect her land, but will vote for the party her village picks

This shop owner in Hyderabad is voting for BJP – even though her business has fallen

A Muslim woman in Godhra says she is proud that a man from her state is the Prime Minister