The endgame and what it portendsMay 12th, 2009 | By Elections2009 | Category: Lead
The outcome of this phase is linked to women. This is not merely because three major women leaders are in the fray, but also because of the way women vote, says Yogendra Yadav
The endgame in the 15th general election will be played out today in four corners of the country. On the eastern front bordering Bangladesh, greater Kolkata and the 24 Parganas go to polls in this last phase. On the western front bordering Pakistan, this phase includes most of Punjab and Baramulla constituency in Kashmir valley. The northern border with China also goes to the polls with Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand joining the Terai region of Rohilkhand in Utta r Pradesh that borders Nepal. Finally, of course, the mother of all battles will be fought in all the constituencies of Tamil Nadu, which defines the southern boundary of the Indian peninsula, next to Sri Lanka.
The outcome of this endgame is linked to women. It so happens that three of the big States — Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh — have a major woman leader at the heart of the electoral battle. Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee may be very different kind of leaders in terms of their social origins, ideas, and routes to power. But they have come to symbolise woman power in Indian politics. The struggle for survival in a world of powerful men has taught them the fine art of using a whimsical temper as a weapon. But the presence of women politicians at the top does not imply that women have emerged as a political constituency. The success of women leaders is not related to the way women vote. It is also not a guarantee that the condition of women will be improved; women politicians have rarely made the plight of women an election issue.
However, the women’s vote could play a vital role in Tamil Nadu this time. Ever since Ms. Jayalalithaa forged a grand coalition to take on the DMK-TMC combine in the 1998 Lok Sabha election, the advantage has been enjoyed by whichever Dravidian party that cobbles together a larger coalition. The DMK held that advantage in the 2004 Lok Sabha election and the 2006 Assembly election. This time, alliance arithmetic definitely favours the AIADMK. In 2006, Ms. Jayalalithaa had already got Vaiko’s MDMK to switch from the DMK camp. She lost the Assembly poll but the DMK’s staggering lead of 17 percentage points over the AIADMK-BJP alliance in the Lok Sabha sweep of 2004 was reduced to less than five points in 2006. This time the Left parties and the PMK have also made the switch. If we assume that each of these parties carry even half of their vote share to their new partner, the DMK’s lead in the Assembly election would be wiped out and the AIADMK-led front would enjoy a comfortable lead in the race. The DMDK of cine-star Vijayakant is something of a wild card, but unless it improves dramatically on its performance in 2006, it may not make much of a difference to the two allies.
Besides electoral arithmetic, the DMK’s record of governance may work against it. The CNN-IBN-The Hindu-CSDS survey carried out at the time of Assembly poll had revealed that even if it lost the election, Ms. Jayalalithaa’s government was not very unpopular. Subsequently, the DMK government did fulfil its electoral promises, but problems of water, electricity and livelihood remain a challenge. Allegations of widespread corruption and the ongoing family feuds within the DMK could have hardly endeared it to voters.
The only uncertain factor is how the ongoing human tragedy in Sri Lanka will play out. The uncertainty is not over whether it matters to people or not. Rather, whether voters have much to choose from and whether they can blame one front and trust another on this question. Otherwise, the AIADMK-led front appears to enjoy the momentum. The only real question is whether this is just an advantage or a Tamil Nadu style electoral wave. In the 2006 Assembly election, the AIADMK secured five percentage points more among women than men. If it can do equally well among women voters this time, it may be able to convert its advantage into a wave.
On the defensive
Ruling parties are on the defensive in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The Akali-BJP combine is battling the combined effect of the State government’s negative image, the succession war within the Akali Dal, and the projection of a Sikh as the next Prime Minister by the Congress. The ruling combine will be happy if it can save a handful seats. A State with one of the lowest sex-ratios in the country and a very low rank in the Gender Disparity Index, women’s issues have not figured in the political agenda. The Union Territory of Chandigarh is witnessing a keen fight between the Congress, the BJP and the BSP.
The BJP government in Uttarakhand is up against a resurgent Congress, the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, which was its partner till recently, and the BSP, which is hoping to pick up a seat in the plains. The BJP government in Himachal Pradesh, less than two years old, appears better placed than its counterparts. State-specific issues have dominated the polls in these States.
As Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal play out their end-games, there does not appear to be a direct connection between women leaders, women’s issues and the women’s vote. Uttar Pradesh figures second from the bottom in the Gender Development Index and the Gender Disparity Index. The women’s vote was a crucial but unspoken component of Mayawati’s social engineering. But for a crucial two-point gender gap in its favour, the BSP would not have secured a clear majority. The BSP will need a higher support level among women this time too, as ground reports suggest the party is nowhere near its peak due to a serious erosion in its non-Dalit vote.
The Samajwadi Party is unlikely to perform as well as it did in 2004 and appears to be losing a great deal of ground among Muslims. Political reports suggest a recovery for both the Congress and the BJP, but it is not clear whethern this will translate into many more seats.
West Bengal’s record on gender development and gender disparity does little credit to the ideology of its ruling front. At the same time, the Left Front has traditionally enjoyed a greater support among women voters than men. This ‘gender gap’ was almost closed in the 2006 Assembly election, when the Left Front received about the same level of support among men and women. The Left needs to recover the gender advantage it enjoyed as it faces what is perhaps its toughest election in the last three decades. This phase will see a direct face off between the Trinamool and the CPI(M) as the allies are less significant in Kolkata and neighbouring areas that poll today. Overall, the Trinamool-Congress combine has a chance of breaking the previous record of 16 Lok Sabha seats, the best won by the non-Left since the era of Left dominance began.
Making a difference
The importance of the women’s vote is not confined to the three States with prominent women leaders. The evidence gathered by National Election Study series at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies shows that this vote makes a difference all over the country. An overwhelming majority of women say that they take their own decisions when they vote. The evidence also shows that their voting pattern is different from men.
The women’s vote famously worked for NTR in Andhra Pradesh and Bansi Lal in Haryana, when prohibition was an issue. A reckless excise policy in Rajasthan may have led women to vote in a big way against Vasundhara Raje. If the Congress is the overall national beneficiary of this ‘gender gap,’ the picture is variegated at the State level: women voters favour the Left in West Bengal, the TDP in Andhra and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. More than the presence of a woman politician, what attracts women voters is the ability of a political party to address some of the issues that affect them. In an election where a small one per cent vote shift can lead to 15-20 Lok Sabha seats changing hands and upset all equations for government formation, small changes in the women’s vote can be decisive. If this vote does not feature much in discussion on counting day, it is not because it did not matter — it’s only because it remained invisible.
(Yogendra Yadav is Senior Fellow at CSDS and Editor of Samayik Varta. Research support for this article by Dr Sanjeer Alam and Himanshu Bhattacharya)