The persistence of gender inequality which is embodied in ‘missing women’ (a concept developed by Amartya Sen (1990, 1992) is a common phenomenon in low income countries. We studied the gender bias in political participation by analyzing women voter turnout in Indian democracy from 1962 till 2012 and discover a silent revolution. Our analysis reveals striking findings:
(1) There is a steady and a sharp decline in the gender bias in voting over time. In particular, we find that the sex ratio of voters (the number of women voters to every 1000 men voters) increased very impressively from 715 in the 1960s to 883 in the 2000s.
(2) This phenomenon of declining gender bias in voting is across all the states, including the traditionally backward “BIMARU” states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
(3) This decline is solely driven by the dramatic increase in women participation in the elections since the 1990s, while men participation has remained unchanged.
(4) We also find evidence that women voters are agents of change – they vote differently from men and have a remarkable effect on re-election outcomes.
The right to equality in voting is a basic human right in liberal democracy. The fact that more women are voluntarily exercising their constitutional right of adult suffrage across all states in India is testimony to the rise of self-empowerment of women to secure their fundamental right to freedom of expression. This is an extraordinary achievement in the world’s largest democracy with 717 million voters of which 342 million voters are women.
Existing literature has documented a significant gender gap in different sectors including health, labor market opportunities, education and political representation. Anderson and Ray (2010) provide a decomposition of missing women by age and cause of death, and their findings suggest that excess female mortality is a universal phenomenon and should not be attributed merely to parental preferences. Duflo (2012) provides an excellent overview of the literature by reviewing the relationship between gender inequality and economic development.
We contribute to this literature by documenting the growing political empowerment of women voters in India and establishing their role as agents of change.
In contrast to existing literature which finds stark persistence in gender inequality over time in various outcomes, we report a more positive phenomenon of sharply declining gender bias in political participation measured by voter turnout.
The reason why this is an important development is because it is not an outcome of any specific “top down” policy intervention to raise voter turnout of women, but is driven by the voluntary act of self-empowerment of women. This paper also differs from the existing research on women and politics in a fundamental way. While previous works have focused on women as policymakers, our emphasis is on women as voters in politics. The common apprehension with policies that promote women leaders is that they may not be as powerful as the male leaders. Women leaders might effectively be puppets in the hands of their husbands or local elites.
We do not have similar concerns when we study the role of women as voters in politics. Women enjoy the right to equality in voting, and a vote is a formal expression of an individual’s choice of political parties, representatives or of broad policies. This is a critical area of research as women voters comprise a significant share in any election within a representative democracy. There is evidence to support that women and men have different preferences over policies. Studying the effect of having women policymakers, Chattopadhyay and Duflo (2004) show that the gender of the village council president impacts the investments into different kinds of public goods. We complement this literature by studying whether there are differences in voting decisions of men and women.
We find strong evidence to support that men and women, indeed vote differently. We study the trend of increasing women voter participation in elections and analyze whether it has any significant effect on political outcomes. In particular, we explore whether men and women vote differently and thereby affect re-election outcomes. To do this, we exploit a unique setting of re-election of Bihar state assembly elections in 2005. When the assembly election was held in Bihar, in February of 2005, no political party emerged as a winner to form the government. As a result of this, re-elections were held within eight months, in October 2005. We compare outcomes of all 243 assembly constituencies in Bihar for both the elections which were held within a short period of time.
The results reveal that in 35 percent of the constituencies, there was a change in the election outcome. In these constituencies, the winning political party of the February election was not re-elected in October, and a new political party was declared the winner. As a result of this massive change in election outcomes, a new government was formed in Bihar.
Our analysis shows that this change in the election outcomes was fundamentally brought about by the women voters. Our study adds to an important and growing literature on the re-election prospects of political parties such as Brender and Drazen (2008).
This excerpt from “Women voters in Indian democracy: A silent revolution” has been published with permission from Brookings India.