Political parties vie to court women power

February 24th, 2008 - 4:47 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Narendra Modi
By Rakesh Mohan Chaturvedi
New Delhi, Feb 24 (IANS) Two of the country’s largest political parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are competing - and in fact trying to outdo each other - in courting women voters as India heads towards the Lok Sabha polls due next year. Constituting nearly 50 percent of the total electorate in the country that comprises nearly 670 million voters, women - as witnessed in assembly elections over the past two years - are coming out to vote enthusiastically in huge numbers and thus emerging as a formidable vote bank.

“In the Gujarat assembly elections, BJP leader Narendra Modi addressed as many as 2.8 million women voters separately. Modi kept raising issues close to them again and again in every meeting. What we saw was that women in key constituencies voted en bloc for him and this affected the outcome in as many as 10 to 15 constituencies,” said Veena Nayyar, president of Women’s Political Watch, an NGO involved in women empowerment.

According to political observers, going by recent electoral trends a large number of candidates were now being elected with margins as low as 1 to 2 percent and in many cases women have been the crucial swing factor.

“Women are decisive voters. Today, women decide the outcome (of an election). Earlier women voted on the basis of what their brothers, father or other male family members decided. This is rapidly changing and a family does not vote as a whole,” political analyst N. Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies told IANS.

“The rise in the number of educated women and the increase in the number of women stepping out of households to eke out a living give it an entirely different spin,” added Rao.

It was the BJP that started the wooing game, upping the ante by announcing in its national council meet in January this year that it would set aside 33 per cent reservation to women in its organizational structure. Last week the BJP went one step ahead to further its claim.

“The government should declare clearly that it is presenting a women’s reservation bill in the presidential address in the budget session and present it. We will back it,” thundered BJP leader L.K. Advani at a mammoth rally in the capital that predominantly encompassed women. In the vast expanse of the Ram Lila grounds almost 15,000 women from as far as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the north-eastern states were present.

Probably sensing the BJP’s game plan, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, a day earlier, demanded that Finance Minister P. Chidambaram present a ‘gender sensitive’ budget and hoped that he would give sufficient stress on pro-women policies.

Gandhi’s comments were made while visiting her pocket borough, Rae Bareli.

If that was not enough, union minister for women and child development Renuka Chowdhury promptly led a huge delegation of women to Chidambaram, demanding a gender sensitive budget with special focus on health and women empowerment. Even President Pratibha Patil showed her concern for women, calling a meeting of some cabinet ministers to check what their ministries were doing for women.

“The finance minister has already got enough feelers from the party high command that his budget next week should be women-friendly,” said a Congress party insider.

Some of the measures contemplated include incentives to insurance companies for announcing special schemes for elderly women and widows, easy availability of loans for women and increase in allocation of funds for family and health welfare, especially maternal health.

“This will be the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s last budget before the general election and there are strong indications that it will try its best to appease women,” said a Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader.

However, Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, the Communist Party of India women’s wing, believes that neither of the political parties was sincere.

“Both the Congress and the BJP do not have the political will and social commitment on the Women’s reservation bill. In fact the BJP does not even have a consistent stand on the bill. Women should see the hollowness of their empty promises,” she said.

The Election Commission of India figures show that more and more women are coming out of the confines of their homes to vote and be heard in elections.

Right from the 1991 polls, there has been a progressive increase in women’s participation. Starting at 51.35 percent of women voters who cast their vote that year, this percentage jumped to nearly 58 per cent in the 1998 elections and has been hovering near this mark since.

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