View from India: Politicians using women

India will soon be going to the polls to elect a new government, and women are set to play an important role in bringing whoever wins to power.

A recent report by the State Bank of India stated that of the 680 million people who will vote in the 2024 elections, 49 per cent will be women. And that by 2029, there will be more female than male voters in India.

Politicians and parties are working hard to court the female electorate, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In 2019 the BJP won the most female votes for the first time. Since then the trend has continued, including in the 2023 regional elections in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Telengana, where women voted heavily in favour of the BJP. 

But why are women voting in such large numbers for a party whose leaders have consistently paid mere lip service to gender equality, and whose politicians have made many sexist and derogatory comments?

One clue could lie in the fact that the BJP has worked strategically to attract women voters with cash handouts, cheaper loans and cooking-fuel subsidies. In Madhya Pradesh, for example, the female swing towards the BJP has been mainly attributed to the Ladli Behna Scheme, that transfers a cash payment of around $12 every month to women from lower- and middle-class homes.

But cash handouts and cooking-fuel subsidies at best create dependence, not independence, and are unlikely to be effective in keeping women voters long-term if they are not matched with a reduction in the structural barriers to empowerment. Lack of access to education and employment are still not being sufficiently addressed while violence against women continues unabated. 

Since 2014, there has been a lot of discussion in India about encouraging women to take on leadership roles. However, the talk has not turned into action. In the healthcare sector, for example, women hold only 18 per cent of leadership positions and are paid 34 per cent less than men.

Women’s political representation remains woeful. Despite this, the government added restrictive conditions to the Women’s Reservation Bill, which was passed in 2023 and is supposed to guarantee one-third of seats for women in the lower house of parliament and state assemblies. 

These conditions say that the legislation will only come into force after a general census and a process called ‘delimitation’ (to decide constituency boundaries) are completed. Therefore, the bill is unlikely to be implemented before 2029.

The actual number of women candidates in elections remains disappointingly low. Within the BJP, only 42 out of 303 members in the lower house are women.

If we want to see a transformation in the lives of women we need more than hot air from politicians. More women are voting than ever before and it is only right that that should be mirrored in their representation in candidacy and leadership roles, at the very least.