The current effort by political parties to bring more women into the political process through reservations and quotas in Parliament and panchayats is only one part of a national project to make woman an important stakeholder in India’s democracy. The other part is to reorient political strategies to view women as a voting block — that is, as a mega constituency of its own, which supersedes ethnic, geographic, caste and other narrowly defined identities.

Historically, while Indian elections have been fought and analysed, rightly so, by understanding vote-bank loyalties, it would be short-sighted for parities to assume there is no mutability in these categories as democracy matures.

We have already seen the rhetoric change from one focussed on ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘farmer’, ‘soldier’, ‘Scheduled Castes/Tribes’ to ‘middle class’ , ‘rural-urban’, skilled’, ‘migrant’, and so on. The same will hold true for as women as they begin to see policies and politics as affecting their own welfare or not. It is worth looking at the US elections to see how targeting women voters has become an integral and critical part of any presidential contest. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, women voters in the US have both outnumbered and out-voted men since 1980. Indeed, their ability to shift electoral outcomes has caused parties, candidates, and strategists alike to recognise the value of their vote.

10-point gender gap

In 2012, women made up 53 per cent of voters on Election Day, casting over 64 million votes in the presidential race. In 2012, women were 10 percentage points more likely to vote for Barack Obama than were men! In fact, had women not voted in this election, Mitt Romney would have won by 8 percentage points.

The 10-point gender difference, analysts point out, ranks as the second largest gap since 1980. Ironically, women remain under- represented in US House of Representatives compared to other developed countries (that is, in,terms of percentage of women in legislature).

The opposite is true in India where despite the presence of women leaders in significant positions of power, it has not necessarily improved their welfare. There is little evidence that women-friendly laws have been spearheaded and lobbied by women politicians. In fact, women leaders outside of the realm of politics have significantly influenced key pieces of legislation — though gender neutral ones — with far-reaching consequences.

Women as a block

Aruna Roy’s pioneering role in the RTI movement is well documented and so are those of numerous social workers who have spearheaded self-help groups, which have in turn offered employment-, and not entitlement-, based solution to women’s growth and welfare. The point is that political parties as whole have not targeted women as a constituency. Unfortunately, relying on the current cadre of senior women politicians is unlikely to be the ground zero of this change.

Still, it may be worthwhile for senior women politicians across party lines to convince their ‘leadership’ that it is time a party sees women as a significant block.

This issue, if addressed, can and will pay handsome dividends during elections. Further, they must seek to counter the argument that women voters will vote along the lines of their husbands, fathers, and sons, as there is no overwhelming documented evidence of this being true.

‘She’ is safe

When gender-neutral information permeates villages, a more aware female electorate will know that “she” is ultimately “safe” in the “nth moment” of voting in a secret ballot and will exercise her own political judgment sooner or later. In this quest, perhaps political parties can learn from markets that have generally led States in innovation.

Indeed, the power of a female consumer in urban and rural settings has forced the private sector to respond to products which appeal to women — be it a pink vespa in urban settings or small packets of hair dye in deep rural India.

The Indian woman is also a consumer of governance and politics, which in many ways is more critical to her survival and welfare in India than they are to men.

Indeed, political parties must be forced to take a position on gender issues and party leaders (not just women leaders) must realign their manifestos and campaign strategies to target women and see them as politically relevant. Arguably, these manifestoes will be the beginning of writing a new social contract between India and her women.

(The author is a New Delhi-based political economy researcher.)