The most significant change in the last 50 years of elections in India has been a big improvement in the sex ratio of the electorate, new data show. While male voter turnouts have remained roughly stagnant, female participation has increased substantially, research finds.
Mudit Kapoor and Shamika Ravi, assistant professors at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, analysed 50 years of Election Commission data for the Assembly elections held between 1962 and 2012 in 16 major States. They found that the sex ratio of voters — the number of women voters for every 1,000 men voters — improved from 715 in the 1960s to 883 in the 2000s.
Significantly, this improvement did not come about because more women registered to vote than men but because more women actively voted. The researchers found that the sex ratio of electors, all those on the roll, did not improve over time; in fact, it worsened in some States.
But female voter turnouts increased faster than male, leading to an improvement in the overall sex ratio of voters.
Moreover, this improvement took place across the States, including backward ones.
Madhya Pradesh and Odisha are the most improved backward States, going from 558 and 572 women voters for every 1,000 male voters in the 1960s to 804 and 866 in the 2000s.
The greatest success, however, has been that of Himachal Pradesh; it has gone from being one of the States with the worst sex ratio to the second best.
Barring some exceptions, the ranking remains fairly unchanged. Bihar, with the most adverse voter sex ratio in the 1960s, was the second worst State in the 2000s. Uttar Pradesh was the new worst. Kerala remains the State with the most equitable gender ratio among voters, right through the last 50 years.
“This has happened because of a sustained effort by the Election Commission over the years,” said a senior EC official, declining to be quoted.
“If we noticed that a particular State, and then a particular constituency had too few female voters, we went back and looked at the census numbers… We did this right down to the polling station level. And then, our endeavour was to bring them up to par,” he said.
The EC mobilised every level of government machinery, including literacy missions and anganwadi workers, to push female empowerment in traditionally laggard States, the official said.
“Yes, we now feel a great sense of satisfaction,” he admitted.
“There is much more awareness among women. They are now deciding on their own as to whom to vote for, while earlier many would vote for those whom their husbands or fathers asked them to vote for,” said Girija Vyas, Congress MP and Union Minister and former chairperson of the National Commission for Women.
“Our leaders raise issues that concern women, and this draws large numbers of women to their rallies, and then on election day,” BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman said.
Not just are the numbers an indicator of female empowerment, say the authors of the study, but they are significant because of a growing body of research that shows that men and women may vote for different things.
Using the example of two Assembly elections having been held in quick succession in Bihar in 2005, Mr. Kapoor and Ms. Ravi found that constituencies in which the female voter turnout increased significantly were more likely to vote for a change in party than others.