The National Election Studies (NES) have so far advanced three observations regarding the nature of women’s vote in Indian elections. The first is about a participatory upsurge among women along with other marginalized groups in the 1990s. The second observation is about an overall gender advantage to the Congress among women voters, at the all-India level. And the third is about a similar gender disadvantage to the BJP among women voters. The story of the women’s vote was further complicated by the studies based on the NES when they suggested how gender as an explanatory factor to understand the nature of women’s vote could not be seen in isolation. These studies also point out how gender operates along with other dimensions of social hierarchy in deciding the nature of women’s voting behaviour.

The gender-wise patterns of vote in the 2014 elections further complicate the story at two levels. At the first level, it is about the increased turnout among women voters in these elections. At the backdrop of a significant increase in the overall voter turnout (from 58 to 66 percent) at the all India level, there is a remarkable closing of the gender gap between men and women voters (men at 67 and women at 66 per cent at the all India level).

In quite a few States women have outnumbered men voters. If this is not so new a phenomenon for States in the North East like Manipur, Meghalaya and Sikkim; it is definitely happening for the first time in States like Bihar, Rajasthan, Punjab, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Uttarkhand etc. This process is unfolding since the post 2009 phase of Assembly elections in different States and is pointing to a possibility of arrival of a women’s constituency.

Our first cut analysis of the NES post poll data this time provides interesting conjectural pointers towards understanding the nature of women’s vote. At the all-India level, the possible generalizations are about gender-wise support of the two main parties. In spite of its overall victory, less women than men seem to have voted for the BJP. The party faces a nearly 3 percentage point gender disadvantage among women voters at the all India level. On the other hand, the Congress party’s advantage among women seems to have neutralized in these elections. These broad generalizations get complicated as we try to decipher the gender-wise vote to main political parties at the State level. If the BJP lacks support among women voters in States like UP, West Bengal, Odisha and Karnataka; it is preferred by more women than men in States like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan and (surprisingly) Tamil Nadu. In Maharashtra, where the BJP has a disadvantage among women, its ally Shiv Sena gets more support among them. The BJP’s loss of women’s vote in Odisha and West Bengal become gains for the Biju Janta Dal (BJD) and the Trinmool Congress rather than for the Congress. Therefore, it is possible to argue that the BJP’s consistent gender disadvantage among women this time takes the shape of regional political dynamics.

Lastly, it must be noted that the parties with women leaders (AIADMK, TMC and BSP) have all gained more support among women voters in these elections and it may point to another possible space for arrival of a women’s constituency in the future.

(Rajeshwari Deshpande is a Professor of politics at the University of Pune)

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