Did Modi’s Efforts to Appeal to Women Voters Prove Effective in the Election?

BJP Women voter

Modi’s BJP made a clear pitch, but the election results yielded mixed outcomes, resulting in a decrease in the number of female MPs in India’s upcoming parliament.

Prior to International Women’s Day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducted a unique campaign event ahead of the country’s massive national election. He delivered a speech at a rally exclusively attended by women in the eastern state of West Bengal.

Modi emphasized that women voters served as a shield against criticism of his government’s decade-long rule. His remarks aligned with the targeted outreach efforts by both him and his government towards women, who make up 49 percent of the country’s population.

Under Modi’s leadership, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has portrayed itself as a champion of Indian women’s interests, highlighting initiatives like the distribution of cooking gas connections and claims of improved safety. However, some of these policies have faced criticism for being more about rhetoric than substance.

Several pre-election surveys indicated that the BJP enjoyed greater support among women compared to men, a contrast to the opposition’s standing.

However, a week following the announcement of India’s election results, where the BJP fell short of a majority and formed a coalition government sworn in on Sunday, a nuanced understanding is emerging regarding women’s voting patterns in 2024.

Al Jazeera examines the BJP’s voter engagement strategies, the performance of its female candidates, women’s voting behavior, and the status of representation in the incoming Indian parliament.

What are some of the main appeals made by the BJP to women?

LPG cylinder access: In May 2016, Modi initiated the Ujjwala scheme, meaning “bright” in Sanskrit, with the goal of providing cooking gas cylinders to every household. Through various advertising campaigns, the BJP has portrayed Modi as a leader who liberated countless women from dependence on coal and wood for cooking. According to government data, gas cylinder coverage increased from 55 percent in 2016 to 97 percent by 2020. However, alternative data suggests that many recipients have struggled to afford refills, prompting scrutiny of the scheme’s effectiveness.

Maternity leave: In 2017, the BJP government implemented legal amendments that granted women in the formal sector six months of paid maternity leave, doubling the previous duration. Critics note that India’s labor force is largely dominated by the semi-formal and informal sectors, which provide significantly fewer protections for workers, especially women. Consequently, India’s female labor participation rate has declined in recent years, indicating that fewer women are seeking employment.

Women’s safety: Women’s safety remains a critical issue in India, where nearly 90 rapes are reported daily. Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, has long struggled with a reputation for being particularly unsafe. Under the current BJP government led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the state now boasts the highest conviction rate for crimes against women. However, critics note that the overall number of such crimes has been increasing annually in Uttar Pradesh.

Women’s Reservation Bill: The Women’s Reservation Bill, passed by Parliament in September 2023 after six unsuccessful attempts since its initial introduction in 1996, aims to reserve at least one-third (33 percent) of seats for women in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies. However, its implementation is delayed until after the 2029 elections and contingent upon a census and subsequent delimitation process. This delay, coupled with the necessary procedural steps, “makes its implementation uncertain,” according to Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms, an organization focused on electoral and political reforms, as told to Al Jazeera.

Triple Talaq Ban: The Modi government asserts that it has liberated Indian Muslim women by prohibiting the practice of triple talaq, which allowed men to obtain an almost immediate divorce by saying “talaq” three times. However, critics argue that this ban reinforces anti-Muslim stereotypes by depicting Muslim men as particularly regressive, even as the Modi administration has taken actions seemingly detrimental to Muslim women’s interests. In 2022, the government authorized the early release of the men convicted of raping Bilkis Bano, a Muslim woman, during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, where Modi was the chief minister. The Supreme Court overturned this decision in January 2024.

Did women voters gravitate towards the BJP?

According to a post-poll survey by Lokniti, a research program at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in New Delhi, the outreach efforts did not significantly resonate with women voters.

The party secured a decisive victory, capturing the most seats and votes in Parliament with 240 seats and 37 percent of the vote.

However, a greater proportion of male voters (37 percent) supported the BJP compared to female voters (36 percent). These figures are comparable to the party’s support in 2019.

This contrasts with the figures for the main opposition party, the Congress. In this election, 22 percent of women voted for the Congress, marking a 2 percent increase from 2019. In comparison, 21 percent of men supported the Congress this year.

Chhokar stated that most women can “see through” the politically motivated initiatives promoted by the BJP.

He mentioned that women perceive these programs as insincere and merely aimed at garnering votes, having observed their implementation over time.

What was the number of female candidates from the BJP who emerged victorious in the 2024 election?

The BJP hasn’t surpassed its competitors in terms of electing female MPs to parliament either.

Certainly, with its total seat count, the BJP boasts more female MPs as well as more male MPs than any other party. Among the 74 women elected to the Lok Sabha this year, 30 belong to the BJP.

However, those 30 women represent 12.5 percent of the BJP’s overall tally of 240 seats.

In contrast, women secured 13.1 percent of the seats for the Congress and 38 percent of the seats for the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). It’s worth noting that the Trinamool Congress is aligned with the Congress in the opposition INDIA alliance.

In the 2019 election, women held 41 out of the BJP’s 303 seats, accounting for 13.5 percent of the BJP’s MPs. For the Congress, this percentage was 11.5 percent, while for the Trinamool Congress, it stood at 40.9 percent.

What has been the track record of women in India’s electoral history?

However, the limited representation of women MPs is not unique to any specific political party.

Chhokar remarked, “Political parties aim to attract women only as voters and not as elected representatives,” adding that “Male members within political parties are reluctant to share power with women.”

In 1951, 22 women were elected as Members of Parliament (MPs), constituting approximately 5 percent of the Lok Sabha. This figure has steadily increased, particularly over the past three decades, reaching 14.3 percent in 2019.

However, in 2024, there was a slight decrease in the number of women MPs in parliament, with 74 women elected, compared to the 78 elected in the 2019 election.