Speaking at the launch of the Amma two-wheeler scheme in Chennai, in memory of the BJP’s political partner-in-arms J. Jayalalithaa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in February last year:
“When we empower the women in a family, we empower the entire household. When we help with a woman’s education, we ensure that the entire family is educated. When we facilitate her good health, we help keep the entire family healthy. When we secure her future, we secure the future of the entire home. We are working in this direction.”
And yet, at the end of the BJP’s 10th list of candidates for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, only 37 of the 322 candidates declared so far are women. Even though candidates for 121 seats are still to be announced (in a Lok Sabha of 543 MPs), the trend is clear. It seems highly unlikely that more women will make the cut and improve the BJP’s grade.
The BJP fielding a mere 11.4 per cent of women candidates is a far cry from Modi’s promise of keeping women at the front and centre of both politics and governance.
At the end of the day, when it comes to placing power in the hands of women, both Modi and the BJP have balked.
This is a reversal of not just promises made, but also intent displayed. Modi has unveiled several pro-women schemes in the last five years, not just from the goodness of his heart, but because he sees that fulfilling basic needs is the first big step towards economic empowerment.
The much-lauded Prime Minister Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), which provides a Rs 1,600-subsidy to gas retailers to provide an LPG connection to poor families, is a shining example. By January 2019, the government had disbursed 6.3 crore LPG connections since the launch of the scheme in May 2016 against its target of covering 8 crore households by March 2020.
Naturally, the focus has been on Uttar Pradesh, with its 80 Lok Sabha seats in Parliament. So far, 1.26 crore LPG connections have been issued in Uttar Pradesh, followed by West Bengal (78 lakh) — a state the BJP is pushing hard to do better in — Bihar (77.51 lakh), Madhya Pradesh (63.31 lakh) and Rajasthan (55.34 lakh).
Other notable pro-women schemes launched by the Modi government include the maternity benefit scheme (Rs 5,000 in three instalments to first-time lactating mothers), ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana (aimed at the girl-child, it encourages parents to save in a tax-free account for her education and marriage), and of course the Deen Dayal Antyodaya Yojana loan programme – this was actually started by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Congress government in 2011, when it was called ‘Aajeevika’.
Modi saw its tremendous potential, along with MNREGA, and ramped up this scheme of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission to cover 622 of 640 districts nationwide with a three-fold increase in outlay. Women are encouraged to save small amounts, as little as Rs 10, in a bank account, which allows them to apply for low-interest loans to fund small businesses.
The toilet-building campaign has yielded real results – the awareness of sanitation benefits is a slow, but real, change on the ground. And then there is the new law against instant triple talaq for Muslim women that has been perceived as a modernising agent.
Clearly, Modi has realised that the woman voter of all religions is an untapped constituency, which he can leverage to his party’s benefit. According to Election Commission data, in the 1971 general election, 49.11 per cent of women had voted; by 2014, this had increased to 65.3 per cent.
Significantly, the gap between men and women voters in the 2014 general election was a mere 1.79 percentage points. At least 16 states and Union Territories (including Bihar, Punjab, Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu etc) had more women voting than male voters.
Worryingly, the Election Commission data also admits that in the 2019 election, there are 21 million “missing” women, with Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan leading the list. According to psephologist Prannoy Roy in the BBC, this amounts to 38,000 women missing on an average in every constituency and as many as 80,000 missing women for every seat in UP alone.
So, if Modi has recognised the power of the female potential, why wouldn’t he place real political power in their hands?
In a May 2018 working paper for the United Nations University about women in politics, researchers Thushyanthan Baskaran, Sonia Bhalotra, Brian Min, and Yogesh Uppal looked at 4,365 assembly constituencies in India from 1992 to 2012 and found a significant co-relation between women politicians and improved economic performance. This was intimately connected to the fact, especially in close elections, that women have a lesser criminal record than men.
Clearly, for women to come out and vote, they must also feel safer. The presence of more women candidates assuring them of this fact is bound to have a huge impact.
This only means one thing. That Modi looks at women as consumers of his projects and schemes, not as ideators or thinkers. He must remain the deliverer of pro-women schemes, which women will happily receive.
For the BJP, the male candidate remains the ‘jajman,’ the ‘karta-dharta,’ the head of the household.
To argue that politics is about the business of ‘give and take’ and that women are missing because they may not be “winnable” candidates, is completely missing the point. This brand of politics refuses to recognise that women are motivated, ambitious and willing to create real change.
In fact, the Modi government, with a simple majority in the Lok Sabha, could have easily passed the Women’s Reservation Bill, which was passed in the Rajya Sabha during UPA-1. But Modi chose to ignore the Bill, while thinking up several pro-women schemes, because he couldn’t imagine a world outside the Lakshman Rekha.
In the end, Modi’s ‘Women Project’ is like the proverbial glass of water – half full, half empty. The women he has empowered through schemes like Ujjwala and Aajeevika will probably be grateful. But what if they want more?