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The message was clear: Modi’s BJP achieved mixed results. And India will see a decline in female MPs in the new parliament.

In the run-up to International Women’s Day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an unusual campaign event for the country’s most important parliamentary elections: he delivered a speech at a rally in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal where the audience was exclusively women.

Modi said women voters were his shield against criticism of his government’s decade-long rule. His comments were in line with Modi’s – and his government’s – targeted appeal to women, who make up 49 percent of the country’s population.

From distributing gas connections for cooking to promises to improve women’s safety, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has portrayed itself as a defender of Indian women’s interests, even as some of its policies have been criticized for being based on bombast rather than facts.

And numerous polls in the run-up to the Indian elections suggested that, unlike the opposition, support for the BJP was higher among women than among men.

But a week after the outcome of India’s elections was announced – the BJP fell short of a majority and had to rely on coalition partners to form the government sworn in on Sunday – a complex picture is emerging about how women actually voted in 2024. The results also show a break with the trend of recent years, in which the number of elected female parliamentarians had increased.

Al Jazeera analyses how the BJP garnered votes, how its female candidates fared, how women’s suffrage turned out and what representation in the new Indian parliament looks like.

What are the BJP’s main arguments for women?

  • Access to LPG cylinders: In May 2016, Modi launched the Ujjwala scheme – the word means “bright” in Sanskrit – which aims to provide every household with gas cylinders for cooking. In several advertising campaigns since then, the BJP has portrayed Modi as a leader who has freed millions of women from relying on coal and wood for cooking. Government data shows that gas cylinder coverage has increased from 55 percent in 2016 to 97 percent in 2020, although other data suggests that many cylinder recipients could afford refills – raising questions about the scheme.
Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu and Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan pose for a photograph with the beneficiaries after handing over the $60 million gas connections under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana during a programme at Constitution Club on January 2, 2019.
Former Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu poses with beneficiaries of the Ujjawala programme in New Delhi in 2019 (File: Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • Maternity leave: In 2017, the BJP government pushed through legislative changes that gave formal sector workers six months of paid maternity leave – double the previous amount. Critics point out that the semi-formal and informal sectors dominate India’s workforce and offer far less protection to workers, especially women. Overall, the female labor force participation rate in India has fallen in recent years – meaning fewer women are looking for work in the first place.
  • Safety for women: In a country where nearly 90 rapes are reported every day, women’s safety is a key concern. Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, has long been considered particularly unsafe. Under the current BJP government led by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh now has the highest conviction rate in the country for crimes against women. But critics point out that the overall number of crimes against women in the state is also increasing year on year.
Members of various groups gathered around a figurine of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath while protesting at Jantar Mantar against the Hathras incident and crimes against women.
Demonstrators in New Delhi protest against the gang rape of a Dalit woman and other crimes against women in 2020. In protest, demonstrators burned a cardboard cutout of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath (File: Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
  • Draft bill on women’s reservation: This bill is set to be passed by Parliament in September 2023 after failing six times since its introduction in 1996. It is designed to ensure that women occupy at least one-third or 33 percent of the seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies. However, the bill will not be implemented before 2029 and only after a census and subsequent delimitation. This delay and the procedural hurdles that need to be overcome “make its implementation uncertain,” Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms, which works on electoral and political reforms, told Al Jazeera.
  • Triple Talaq ban: The Modi government claims to have liberated Indian Muslim women by banning the practice of triple talaq, which gave men the option of a near-instant divorce by chanting the word “talaq” three times. Critics point out that the ban feeds into anti-Muslim stereotypes by portraying Muslim men as particularly regressive, even though the Modi government has taken steps that run counter to the interests of Muslim women. In 2022, the Modi government approved the early release of the convicted rapists of Muslim woman Bilkis Bano during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat, where Modi was chief minister at the time. The Supreme Court overturned this decision in January 2024.
Home Minister Amit Shah during a seminar discussion titled “Abolition of Triple Talaq: Correcting a Historic Injustice” at Mavlankar Hall
Home Minister Amit Shah, who is also considered Modi’s deputy, during a seminar discussion titled “Abolishing Triple Talaq: Correcting a Historic Injustice” in New Delhi in 2019. (File: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Have women voters defected to the BJP?

A post-poll survey by Lokniti, a research program of the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), found that the campaign did not resonate well with female voters.

The party won by far the most seats and votes in parliament: 240 seats and 37 percent of the vote.

But within these numbers, a larger share of male voters – 37 percent – chose the BJP than female voters (36 percent). These numbers are similar to the support the party received in 2019.

This contrasts with the numbers of the main opposition party, the Congress Party. This year, 22 percent of women voted for the Congress Party, an increase of 2 percent from 2019. For comparison, this year, 21 percent of men voted for the Congress Party.

Chhokar said most women “see through” politically motivated programmes such as those promoted by the BJP.

“They see that these programs are not real and are only designed to get them to vote. They have seen the implementation over the years,” he said.

How many BJP women won the 2024 election?

The BJP was also unable to surpass its competitors in terms of the number of female MPs in Parliament.

Certainly, the BJP has more women MPs – and more men too – than any other party in its total number of seats. Of the 74 women elected to the Lok Sabha this year, 30 are from the BJP.

But these 30 represent only 12.5 percent of the BJP’s total 240 seats.

In contrast, women won 13.1 percent of the seats in the Congress and 38 percent of the seats in the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). The Trinamool Congress is part of the opposition INDIA alliance with the Congress.

In 2019, 41 of the BJP’s 303 seats were held by women, which meant that 13.5 percent of BJP MPs in the last election were women. For Congress, this percentage was 11.5 percent and for Trinamool, it was 40.9 percent in 2019.

INTERACTIVE_Women in the Lok Sabha_India_Parlimet_10 June_2024-1718012078
(Al-Jazeera)

How have women fared in elections in India over the years?

However, the low number of female MPs is not a party-specific phenomenon.

“All political parties want women only as voters and not as elected representatives,” said Chhokar. “Men in political parties do not want to share power with women.”

In 1951, 22 women were elected as MPs, which constituted about 5 percent of the Lok Sabha. This proportion has steadily increased, especially in the last three decades, reaching 14.3 percent in 2019.

However, in 2024 there was a slight decrease in the number of female MPs in Parliament: it was only 74, compared to the 2019 election, when 78 women were elected.

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