Women in Mumbai look at a phone | Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
Representational image | Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
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While using social media to reach out to new voters, political parties may be missing out on a large section of the electorate.

New Congress-led governments took charge in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan last week. Leaving the campaign rhetoric behind and starting work, the new governments have promised to build on the good work done by their predecessors while fulfilling the promise of badlav (change). A policy implemented in all three states, which could be helped by continuity, is increasing the access to smartphones.

Since September 2018, Rajasthan has spent more than Rs 600 crore towards subsidising smartphones and internet plans under the Bhamashah Digital Parivar Yojana.  Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh also launched a programme for distributing 50 lakh smartphones a few months back (from ‘Chawal Baba’, Raman Singh had become ‘Mobile Baba’ for his supporters). In 2016, the Madhya Pradesh government distributed smartphones to meritorious students. But these policies did not provide a strategy for bridging the gender divide in access to technology.

While India is one of the largest growing market for smartphones, women are substantially less likely to own or have access to one. In the Mood of the Nation (MOTN) Survey conducted by CSDS earlier this year, almost four out of ten (38 per cent) men reported owning a smartphone, compared to only one in five (20 per cent) women. The gap transcends the urban-rural divide as women are less likely to own smartphones even in urban areas. How does this gap impact female engagement with the world around them and their political participation?

Also read: Why vote buying doesn’t work in India

Smartphones, by enabling easier access to the internet, are gradually emerging as a critical source of information on nearly everything from government schemes to local crime stories to electoral politics. As the smartphone becomes the gateway to new information and a tool for establishing wider social networks, increasing penetration among women may reduce the existing gender divide in access to information and awareness.

In the national election study 2014, more than four out of ten women voters (44per cent) said that they consulted someone before deciding whom to vote for; the figure among men was much lower – 31 per cent. More importantly, there is a sharp difference in who men and women consult before voting.  Women tend to mostly consider opinion within the household while men are relatively more likely to consult elites outside the household. In the survey, two-thirds (67 per cent) of women who consulted someone before voting, spoke to their spouse or other family members. In contrast, only 42 per cent men consulted people within the household. Further, a substantial proportion of men said that they spoke to local political leaders (24 per cent) or caste leaders (21 per cent). Women were less likely to directly consult these elites.

Table 1: Women more likely to consult people within the household

Note: Rest said they consulted others; Source: National Election Study 2014

As smartphone penetration increases, the sources of information for women may not remain limited to the immediate household. Even minor changes like following political discussions on WhatsApp groups, could gradually culminate in significant changes.

Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had claimed that 2019 could be the country’s first “mobile election.”

This change is already visible as parties have been steadily changing how they organise and operate their campaigns. For instance, in the MOTN survey April 2017, around one-sixth of WhatsApp users said that they were part of a group made by a political leader or party.

Also read: When patriarchy meets smartphone pornography: Why tiny Haryana is India’s rape capital

Smartphones allow parties to run centralised micro-targeting campaigns, by reaching out to a large number of people at a low cost. Digital messaging also allows parties to send targeted messages to voters without relying on a stream of intermediaries like mainstream media or party workers.

However, while using social media and apps to reach out to new voters, political parties may be missing out on a large section of the electorate – women without access to smartphones and internet. Further, the digital divide in access to smartphones also influences the narrative on online spaces like Facebook and Twitter. As men are relatively more active on these platforms, they may be shaping the online narrative.

Table 2: The digital divide persists in both urban and rural areas

Source: CSDS Mood of the Nation Survey, June 2018

What should governments do about this gender gap in access to technology? As with any new technology, lowering prices and increasing demand will make the smartphone ubiquitous in a few years. Televisions, once a rare commodity, have now bridged the caste, class, and even gender divides. For instance, in surveys conducted by CSDS there has been a sharp increase in the proportion of women who watch news on TV – from 46 per cent in 2009 to 72 per cent in 2017.

A similar increase is also taking place in access to regular mobile phones. However, given the centrality on the smartphone in today’s world, governments could make special efforts to specifically reach out to women. The Odisha government, for example, has launched a move to provide six lakh smartphones to women self-help-groups SHGs across the state. If cycles can be provided to girls in school, why not smartphones to girls in college? The reduced transaction costs of communicating and gathering new information could give further impetus to increasing political participation among women. It could potentially change how they vote and collectively mobilise them politically around women-centric issues.

The authors are PhD students in political science at the University of California at Berkeley, US.

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