No matter which coalition is voted to office on May 16, this election, apart from its ideological polarisation and rhetoric, will be distinctive for three things. First, India will have recorded the highest voter turnout in general elections ever. Provisional estimates suggest two in every three Indians have voted, that is, more than 66 per cent turnout (See Figure 1). This is higher than every previous Lok Sabha election. Second, the gender gap in turnout (the difference between female and male turnout) appears to have become negligible.
In many states, women voters have outnumbered their male counterparts. Third, the increase in female turnout has unfortunately not led to a greater number of women candidates competing for a seat in the Lok Sabha (7 per cent of total candidates in 2009 and approximately 8 per cent of total candidates in 2014). It is likely that the 16th Lok Sabha will not see any significant increase in the number of women MPs (there were 58 female MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha).
The fact that women have turned out in equal numbers to men raises questions that should concern those who forecast election results using opinion polls, as well as the BJP. The BJP faces a serious challenge among women voters. As Rajeshwari Deshpande of the University of Pune, after analysing the National Election Studies (NES) data from 1996 to 2009, has pointed out, women are less likely to vote for the BJP. In this respect, the BJP appears to be like conservative parties in other parts of the world. In the US, women are less likely to prefer the Republican party. In the 2012 presidential elections, more women voted for the Democrats whereas more men voted Republican. A similar pattern seems to be taking shape in India.
Deshpande’s insights are supported by NES 2014 pre-poll data (the fieldwork was conducted between March 18 and 25). The BJP faces a large gender disadvantage, much larger than previous years, with men more likely to vote for it. Opinion polls suggest that for every six men who said they would vote either for the Congress or BJP, almost four preferred the BJP. As far as women are concerned, their votes are almost evenly split. For every five women who said they would vote either for the BJP or Congress, two said they would vote for the Congress. If these survey findings are accurate and if the provisional turnout data is correct that as many women are turning out to vote as men, the number of seats the BJP will finally get largely depends on to what extent the party has managed to address this gender gap.
Why does the BJP face a larger than ever challenge in mobilising the female voter? First, as Figure 2 shows, the BJP’s voter base is largely male. The BJP draws more votes from men, with 58 per cent of its supporters being male and only 42 per cent female. Second, Narendra Modi’s appeal among men does not help the party. Men prefer Modi as the prime ministerial candidate even more disproportionately than their preference for the BJP. Among those who favoured Modi as prime minister, 62 per cent were men and 38 per cent were women.
This gender gap may exist due to multiple factors. First, the BJP as a party appears to represent a constellation of organisations and individuals who have, in the past, infringed on women’s freedoms, often through violent means. This includes violent attacks by right-wing fundamentalists on women against their urban lifestyles and choice of clothing.
Gender-specific issues, especially women’s safety, have acquired more salience in this election. Both Modi and Rahul Gandhi kicked off their campaigns last year by wooing women entrepreneurs affiliated with FICCI and the CII, respectively. Both parties have stressed the need for creating a safe environment for women. The BJP has focused on educating the girl child and providing women equal opportunity. However, despite this rhetoric, women do not see the BJP as a party that can address key issues concerning the country today. The data presented in Figure 3 clearly shows that on the question of price rise, corruption, national security, encouraging more women in politics and maintaining law and order, women voters are less likely to perceive the BJP as a better party. In fact, on the question of encouraging women in politics, both men and women are less optimistic about the BJP’s ability to address women’s issues in comparison with other key issues.
Second, the BJP’s aggressive style of campaigning, which often invokes militarist references, is less likely to find sympathy with women voters. In our view, the BJP’s lack of support among women is further aggravated by Modi’s “56-inch chest” style of macho politics and the aggressive rhetoric suggesting he is a decisive leader. His speeches and their tone do not appeal to women voters. In a survey conducted in February 2014, voters were asked whether Modi’s speeches and interviews attracted them to vote for the BJP. Among those who reported that they were influenced by Modi’s speeches and interviews, two-thirds were men. Other surveys have pointed to women preferring a more inclusive and less decisive style of politics.
Of course, the fact that Modi makes no bones about his socially conservative agenda does not help the BJP. Social conservatism in India favoured by a party where there are few female leaders of any renown is bound to be perceived negatively by women. The number of women MPs in the House may not increase significantly this election, but the dramatic increase in women turning out to vote should remind parties that India is on the cusp of a greater change where women may bury histories and decide the future.
The writers are with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US