How India’s ruling party capitalised on women’s votes
India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is celebrating its 42nd anniversary today. Claiming victory in four significant states in the latest elections, it made history as it retained power in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically significant state. Here Guni Vats, a scholar at the University of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, explains how the BJP has capitalised on the female vote.
I am not surprised that BJP won in Uttar Pradesh, but I wasn’t expecting them to sway the elections. As an intellectual and as a feminist, I am worried. When in a developing nation, and in such a fast-growing economy, people vote for free houses, free toilets and free rations, where do we stand economically?
During the second wave of the COVID pandemic, India saw millions of deaths. We saw people dying because of a shortage of oxygen and ICU beds. The government denied it, but Uttar Pradesh witnessed the corpses lying along the banks of the Ganges. They witnessed all of this and yet, they have decided to re-elect a government that could not handle a pandemic, that could not give them employment, that could not give them the basic resources to earn and fend for themselves, but rather offered them a carrot of free rations. Around fifty percent of Uttar Pradesh is dependent on free rations, a scary thought.
To their credit, people also said they voted for BJP for more law and order. Uttar Pradesh is one of India’s most densely populated states, and has the highest crime rate in the country. Now people living in the most remote parts of Uttar Pradesh claim that they can park their bicycles and motorcycles outside without fear of them being stolen.
As a feminist, I am disappointed because BJP did not promise a better representation of women in society. The person who won, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath, is a religious leader clad in saffron, with a masculine, misogynistic, heroic identity. As an elected representative I do not blame him for acting as he wishes, but I question the merit of a state that is voting for free rations, fanaticism and the lies that have been sold to them.
Why women support BJP
Women voted for BJP on the basis of the free rations scheme. In this election, BJP connected with women. Psychologically, in India, women represent femininity, they are connected to food. We have a popular deity in Hinduism called Annapurna, the goddess of food and nourishment, who is responsible for always providing food so her husband doesn’t starve. In that context, the men of the house are responsible to go out and earn a living, and women to put food on the table. The scheme for free food resonated with women.
I watched an interview with an old woman from the city of Mainpuri who said she owed her loyalty to the government because they provide free food. Women in Uttar Pradesh still have a colonial mindset: they are brought up to be humbled and oblige.
Uttar Pradesh is very different from every other state I have visited in India. Here people are always talking about politics: in evening TV shows or casually as part of drawing room conversations. Men are very vocal about their political views. But women are missing in that conversation: they do not feel that they should be a part of it. In Punjab for example, women voters are very confident of their choices. But in Uttar Pradesh, when journalists ask women who they would vote for, they feel very awkward, they will not go to the camera and say what they want. In most of the interviews I watched, I did not see women questioning the government, speaking about their rights or demanding better representation. Women were not fighting for women’s causes. In the grand scheme of things, women always choose to sacrifice their needs for the betterment of the men of the house.
Yet women are outnumbering male voters. They are the silent voters, and are becoming a very important electoral base. But because we are not talking about our needs, our representation falls into the same stereotypes: political parties take it for granted that what we want is a free bicycle or scooter, or we just want some amount of money to raise our living standards.
We cannot expect our male counterparts to understand the changes we want if we are not vocal about them. There is an electoral promise of installing more CCTV cameras on the roads. But CCTV cameras only increase surveillance of the public, they do not protect us. They do not promise us our basic rights, but what they think is right for us.
We do have emancipated, empowered women who know what they want. But how much of the opinions we voice are accounted for in democracy? This is painful because it’s not only happening in India – developed countries are also facing the same problem: we are not able to make ourselves heard. How many times have we seen women taking to the streets with their demands? But women’s voices worldwide keep being demeaned or censored.