What makes Uttar Pradesh’s women a powerful force at the ballot box

Women, who as silent voters turned around the fortunes of leaders like Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee, have emerged as the top focus group for all parties in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP saw its popularity rise after 2014 and reaped considerable electoral dividends after it introduced a slew of woman-focused programmes –– a strategy which is now being followed by rival parties in the state. But the question remains whether these women will be able to disrupt the political bedrock of a state firmly ensconced on the caste-religion combine.

Political observers said more women voted than men in 2017 and 2019. The increasing focus on women has ensured that parties just don’t go distributing sarees or tailoring machines. Now they lure them with financial incentives, laptops and two-wheelers, apart from talking about representation.

Data shows that only 46.6% of women voted in 1962 in UP while male participation was at 63.3%. Social scientist Akshay Mishra said, “Participation of women in UP has increased –– from 44.2% in 1991 to 59.56% in 2019, growing at a rate much faster than men,” he said. In the past 50 years, men’s participation has risen by 3.8 percentage points compared to almost 19 points for women.

BJP takes lead in wooing women

Women have been voting for the BJP in many states, thanks to the party’s flagship schemes like Ujjwala, Swacch Bharat, PM Awas yojana that have provided women economic ownership, rights to assets such as land and utilities like gas cylinders. Apart from financial inclusion schemes such as Beti Bachao, the PM Jan Dhan, the Sukanya Samridhi Yojana, the government has pushed laws such as a six-month maternity leave and a more stringent punishment to those accused of raping minors, all targetted towards the socio-economic upliftment of women.

In the run-up to the UP election campaign earlier this month, at a rally attended by over 2 lakh women, PM Modi laid the foundation stone for supplementary nutrition manufacturing units, rolled out a scheme to help SHGs, and said it is the women who will ensure that the opposition doesn’t come to power. The Union Cabinet’s decision to increase the age of marriage from 18 to 21 years is being promoted as a move to empower women by putting the focus on their health.

The BJP has rolled out Kamal Saheli clubs, Mahila Sammelans and over one-third of its slogans –– Aatmanirbhar naari hamara sankalp, Ujjwal bhavishya yahi vikalp (Self reliant women and a bright future-our resolution) and Diya samman, bhagaya darr, Banaya muft shauchalaya har ghar (We gave you respect through free toilets, put an end to fear) are focused on women.

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav has made it a point to talk about women’s issues often, referring to them as the “aadhi aabadi” (half of the population) and asserting that the M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) vote bank of the SP will stand for Mahila and youth this time.

SP’s ally Jayant Chaudhary’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) has promised 50% reservation to women in state government jobs, and free sanitary pads to girls in government schools, even as the Mayawati-led BSP has launched an attack on the BJP and Congress for only providing lip service to women and not acting on policy decisions such as reservation for women in Parliament.

Panchayati reforms paved the way

Factors such as increase in women-centric schemes, cash incentives, rise in literacy levels of women, peaceful polls, awareness among women, the national rural livelihood mission, rise of self-help groups (SHG) and the Panchayati Raj system reforms have been contributing to increasing visibility of women in political and social spaces, say people on the ground.

Panchayat elections with gender quotas were instituted in 1992 when the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, mandating 33.3% reservation for women and marginalised communities in PRIs, was passed. The share of women who are literate in UP has gone up to 66%, and for men to 82%, according to NFHS-5, 2021. It has also shown an incremental increase in the labour force. The state that has always struggled on development indicators has shown improvement in sex ratio and the handling of concerns such as anaemia, according to the latest data.

Basudev Singh, general secretary of Bundelkhand Seva Santhan that has been working with women and SC, ST population of the state for over two decades, said reservations in local governance for women, SC/STs paved the way for women finding a political voice.

“For the first time in 2003, of the 450 gram pradhans in the state, 30 STs were elected, of whom around half were women. By being part of the system, they started understanding the importance of numbers and started gaining political and social currency. Two percent reservation for STs in governments jobs benefitted women. Many of them are Asha, ANM workers, those born of bonded workers who are advising others on nutritional benefits now. This is a significant change from 1991 when literacy in the villages of Lalitpur was barely 4%. Now women are finding a voice, and helping other women find their too,” he said.

Parties’ approach to women

ET reached out to different parties to understand their approach to women. “Samajhdhar mahila parivar ko sahi rasta dikhati hai, samaaj ko jod kar rakhti hai” (A clever woman keeps the family on the right track and society together) –– this is how a BJP Mahila Morcha functionary explained, implying that it is through women, that the party hopes to reach the woman’s family. While the woman as a “labharthi” (beneficiary) is at the centre of the BJP’s outreach to women, it is also “gharelu-kaam kaaji mard” (non-migrant men) that the party wishes to target.

Uncertainty of how caste dynamics will play out is also pushing political parties to focus on women who they think are a committed vote-bank, and are critical for turn-out. The limitations in campaigning due to Covid-19 have made parties understand the importance of engaging with women. They give better feedback, can provide valuable input to influence families and are easier to engage with, workers across party lines said.

SP spokesperson Rajeev Rai said the SP’s best performance in an assembly election was in 2012, when for the first time, the female electorate outvoted men breaching the 60%-mark. “Women across castes have voted for us in the past. That will happen this time too. Distress due to job losses, Covid-19, price rise, migration have taken the most toll on women. The free ration that they talk about hasn’t reached most people which is also why there is anger.”

Shiwanand Dwivedi of the BJP said that the SP being anti-women has stuck in the minds of the people. “The party vociferously opposed the stringent provisions in the Anti-Rape Bill in Parliament and promoted hooliganism. Nearly four crore women are in the age group of 18 to 35 who value safety. The BJP government has been able to give them that. What the Congress is doing with its women’s pitch is pointless, unless they talk about improving women’s representation in the party in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh where this has been going down.”

A BJP female functionary said that according to the party’s estimates there will be at least 4-5% women who will vote as a category based on what the Modi-Yogi government has done. “For instance, we are starting a campaign on the importance of free ration that the Yogi government has been distributing or how the pension of 30 lakh widows have been doubled. The effort is to ensure that the woman, even if she is not convinced about the BJP, won’t be influenced by others.” She added that while all other caste groups are divided, women can help a party better for concentrated gains.

The non-Yadav and non-Jatav categories are basically a collection of many small castes, none exceeding the 4%-mark. The BJP hopes that the women of these communities will vote for them as they did in 2017. While apart from upper castes, Mauryas, Lodhs and Kurmis, Pasis are its primary catchment area, the party hopes that women from the other castes too, either as beneficiary of central schemes or as a nationalistic young woman aspiring to think beyond regional politics, vote for the party.

“The only challenge is to get women to think beyond their community lines, and convince them to influence their husbands. Women are more grateful towards the incumbent if the government has helped them in some way. They are better at organising small events like listening to PM’s Mann ki baat. The party’s feedback generation over the last few years improved because we are asking more women about the ground reality,” the functionary said.

On the issue of Dalits, she said the BJP is sensitive and refrained from launching personal attacks on Mayawati, and has been using Baby Rani Maurya, the former Uttarakhand governor, who is a Jatav, for its outreach.

“Patriarchal battles are tough, but women in UP are preparing to tip the scales,” the functionary said.

Women may not vote en bloc

Those who work on the ground said that women are still away from getting mobilised as a unit. Political analyst Somesh Pandey said it is a myth that any party thinks that it can get women to vote as one bloc. In UP, the fault-lines are as much caste-driven as they are divided on religious lines.

“Since 2004, the BJP has been getting at least 70% of upper caste vote, SP at least 70% of the Yadav vote, and BSP at least 70% of the Dalit vote. In the 2017 assembly elections, the combined vote share of SP and BSP (44%) was greater than that of the BJP (40%). The parties are not contesting together now, which makes the women’s vote critical for all parties. For the BJP, getting the endorsement of women is important to retain the numbers it did in 2017. The turnout of voters is crucial for the incumbent and women are also the most committed voters. It is tricky because women vote for a combination of personality and party. Leaders such as Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee managed to become caste neutral, top choices for women, but Mayawati couldn’t manage to get women from non-Jatav castes to vote for her despite promising better law and order,” he added.

Former V-C of Benaras Hindu University, HK Singh, said his empirical studies on SHGs in the state showed that while they have managed to grow quantitively, they needed a quality boost. “But in the last few years, the emphasis on law and order has helped women become more mobile. It has given them a sense of safety. They are willing to join the economic force. However, while they are good producers, there is a need to train them in marketing and managing logistics. The core issues of bijli sadak paani continue to torment our villages, the brunt of which is faced by women, which is why it will take a while for women to mobilise as a unit.”

The government has not been able to pull the state out of its low per capita income trap, improve wages and labour productivity and create jobs required for a structural transformation of the state, said Priyanka Sahay, a rights activist based in Lucknow, adding that 25% of India’s interstate migrants are from UP which has impacted the lives of women the most.

Arguing that the state is far from witnessing a committed female vote-bank because no party has been able to address their issues of health, education and employment holistically, Sahay says a revolution of sorts is happening on the ground, as witnessed in the recent panchayat polls early this year when 54% of the successful candidates were women.

“Forty two of the 75 districts elected women presidents which is more than the 33% reservation for women in local bodies which shows that change is happening slowly. Political parties are talking about women because it helps them look more acceptable, soften their rough edges, apart from mobilising support, but it is time female voters realise their power, mobilise themselves and become powerful enough to be able to swing elections. Only then, will representatives serve them better.”

Roop Rekha Verma of Saajhi Duniya, a Lucknow-based NGO that has worked on women related issues, told ET that despite strides made by women in the fields of education, there is a gap in their understanding of their own rights and the importance of electoral franchise, mainly as society is shrouded by a patriarchal mindset and caste hierarchies.

“The Congress is preparing the ground for the years to come. As of now, many women are educated but not politically aware to see through polarisation or the nuances of the electoral discourse, as much as men do because their exposure to what is happening in society is limited…Patriarchal norms are entrenched and this notion of women being moral custodians of the family is a burden on women too…They are expected to be good women and most of them toe the family line when it comes to politics, and the ones who are qualified are yet to ask the right questions.”