Women in Election Campaign of CPIML
Women in Election Campaign

(With inputs from Meena Tiwari, Shashi Yadav, Anita Sinha, Samta Rai, & Shweta Raj)

Unlike Britain or America, Indian women achieved voting rights with the universal adult franchise being introduced at the time of independence, and this was indeed historic. However, the gender gap in political participation of women in India has been a topic of debate every election.

Ujjwala, Beti Padhao – Beti Bachao, Swacch Bharat, or Matru Vandana schemes, the BJP rolled out yojanas with women as the target group. The Indian National Congress promised Rs. 1 lakh cash transfer to women every year and 50% reservation for women in government jobs if they came to power in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and termed it ‘Naari Nyay’. In Karnataka, they have implemented the free bus ride scheme called ‘Shakti’ and Rs. 2,000 monthly allowance for women under the Gruhalakshmi Yojana. Nitish Kumar too has a base among women who vote for him due to his policies on alcohol prohibition in Bihar. The ‘Sashakt Mahila, Saksham Mahila’, free cycles for girl students, 50% quota for women in panchayat and municipal bodies, financial assistance to Class 12 girl students, etc., have been some of his popular schemes. While political parties have left no stone unturned in influencing women voters with welfare schemes, the number of women who turn up for voting has actually been of concern.

For decades, Indian men cast their votes much more than women. However, the situation began to change in the 1990s, from when there has been a steady incline in women voter turnout. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the difference in voter turnout between men and women came down to 1.4%, and the women voters outnumbered men by a thin margin of 1.7% in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The 2019 general election also had registered a 5.1% increase in women voters, and reports show that in the various State elections of 2022 and 2023, there was a palpable increase in the number of women voters. However, in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, 31.20 crore women have reportedly cast their votes, with the turnout at 65.78%, with that of men being slightly higher at 65.80%. Of the 36 states and union territories, the voter turnout of women in at least 19 states exceeded that of men. A Lokniti-CSDS survey suggested that 36% women voted for BJP as against 37% men, and whereas the Congress enjoyed more support among women than men.

Mahila Samvad 

The independent and unique campaign among the women voters of the four constituencies that CPIML contested – namely, Arrah, Karakat, Nalanda and Kodarma – saw women-only teams conducting meetings with women in every village of the constituencies. While the everyday campaigns were undertaken by the party cadre at the grassroots level among farmers, youth, workers, in Dalit bastis and among poor households, the women cadre of All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) took out the jansampark campaign specifically among women voters to kindle political discussions. This was one-of-a-kind campaigns, which received accolades from the people, media, activists and politicians alike, as it mobilized the women voters solely on the basis of political issues and not rhetorics.

In Bihar alone, close to 800 meetings were held in villages of the constituencies . While women were the main focus in these meetings, they were joined by men, especially young men. Despite the scorching summer and heatwave across Bihar, the women leaders of AIPWA undertook these campaigns with much fanfare and enthusiasm with door-to-door campaigns, pamphlet distribution, coupon campaign, political discussions and one-to-one conversations with women. In the villages of Arrah, the women’s team would begin with songs ripe with political context, which would attract the women to gather at a common area. The meetings had a presence of 50 women on an average, who would actively violence, electoral bond scam, unemployment, impact of GST, failing education & health systems, inflation, communal propaganda, misuse of ED/CBI, high electricity bills, violence and injustices against women by the BJP and BJP backed leaders, etc., and included local issues of access to water, cleanliness as well.

The Lokniti-CSDS post-election survey noted that the people assessed their household’s financial condition, rather than their perception of the national economy, which determined who they voted for. This was visible during the mahila samvad, where the most hard-hitting issue was the economic crisis faced by their families. Skyrocketing price rise, insufficient ration doled out, high electricity bills, GST being imposed on cereals, vegetables and milk, etc., were talking points during the discussions. “The women in some of the Dalit tolas had stored their gas cylinders on the attic, as many of them were unable to afford its refilling, despite the Ujjwala scheme and they had to cook on firewood,” said Comrade Anita Sinha who was campaigning among women in Daudnagar in Karakat LS constituency. Some women noted how they received electricity bills worth Rs. 90,000! “A woman in a village in Agiaon said she sold three of her mango trees to settle their electricity bills!” said Comrade Shweta Raj. The women were visibly upset with former Union Minister of Power RK Singh of BJP, who contested from Arrah and lost to Comrade Sudama Prasad of CPIML, since he was apathetic to poor families in Bihar receiving bills worth thousands of rupees.

While Bihar noted the lowest voter turnout in the country, it witnessed 62.95% women turn up for voting as against 51.95% men. It is said that women have played a crucial role in the consecutive victories of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and have been hailed as a “silent force”. However, the mahila samvad noted an anti-Nitish and anti-Modi wave in the villages. “While the women belonging to kurmi caste will most definitely vote for Nitish Kumar, in Nalanda, we were able to sway a section of them to vote for CPIML, especially among the scheme workers like ASHA, Anganwadi, mid-day meal workers, etc.,” said Comrade Shashi Yadav and added that women were vocal on issues of development, which Nitish Kumar is known to have ushered in for Nalanda. “Women spoke about how road infrastructure did not reach their villages. They also raised concerns about Nal Jal Yojana, as handpumps were removed and now they wait for hours to fetch water for their homes,” she said. Samta Rai, who campaigned in Arrah said that there was simmering anger among jeevikas as Nitish claimed that they had become ‘lakhpatis’, and whereas they actually earned Rs. 850 to Rs. 4,000 in a month and are caught in a cycle of indebtedness. Many young women, who are said to be beneficiaries of education schemes doled out by Nitish expressed to the contrary that they are prevented from higher studies as they cannot afford education.

In villages of Obra, the women spoke of how they received calls from their daughters and sons studying in different states asking them to vote for INDIA bloc candidates, and not to the BJP, which influenced the women voters to be more receptive to the political discussions. The anti-incumbency against RK Singh was not only visible, but the derogatory language used by him against Sudama Prasad during his campaign, further irked the voters, as for them the issue of dignity and respect was key in this election.

Comrade Meena Tiwari said that the mahila samvad also took place in temples, where women attended shiv charcha. “While women had diverse political opinions and supported both the ruling regime and the opposition parties, it was clear that none of the women agreed with the Hindutva propaganda of the BJP,” she said. On the Hindu-Muslim hate being stoked by the BJP-RSS, a woman in Arrah told Comrade Samta Rai that everyone has a right to live in this country and each has a right to practice their religion, and that no one should bring a rift among the people based on their religion. She said, “Our Babasaheb Ambedkar is being broken. How can we tolerate that? They are taking the name of Ram. Will we protect Ram, or will Ram protect us?” they asked her. Comrade Shweta said that even when women had bought into the communal propaganda, countering it with conversations on labour rights, especially of scheme workers and women peasants, their minimum wages, maternity leave rights, etc., helped them understand the political context. Even in Hilsa, the women were vocal about exercising their votes to CPIML or INDIA bloc candidate as they said they had decided to save the Constitution.

With CPIML having a strong presence in Arrah and in parts of Karakat and Nalanda constituencies as well, the women remember the fight for equality and dignity that the party has organised in the many past decades, and hence felt a strong connection with the party and the candidates. With a base in musahar tolas, the commitment to the party and the reverence towards the struggles were visible. “It was a hot day and we got hungry while campaigning in Srinagar village of Rajgir at a musahar tola. We requested the women to feed us, but they said that there was nothing available to eat in their homes. After much coaxing, a woman stood up and asked us why we wanted to eat in a musahar locality. So, we responded that the party was born amongst them, and that we would eat anything they offered us. Thereafter, one woman after the other went into their homes and got us something to eat,” narrated Shashi Yadav. She further noted how women in a village in Hilsa remembered the struggles led by the party for women to go to toilet in open spaces, and the oppression they faced at the hands of the feudal landlords due to that. “The women fought to keep the party strong in this village, because they knew they could not let go of the dignity they had won,” she said. In yet another meeting, a man belonging to the bhumihar caste was disrupting the women’s meeting with his counter propaganda, when a woman stood up and loudly said that the man and his community would not understand how the party has fought to ensure that the oppressed people are now able to sit on chairs or khatiya, and to wear chappals; and that if he were allowed to go on, then they will have to go back to the days when they were oppressed.

During the covid crisis, there was an overall collapse of the health system, and it was then that former MLA of Agiaon and CPIML leader Comrade Manoj Manzil campaigned for strong health system and built two hospitals in the constituency (coming under Arrah LS constituency) and a third one is under construction. “As maternity health of women is a big issue in the constituency, and migration is also occurring due to lack of health infrastructure, building of these hospitals granted access to the people here, which helped garner a lot of goodwill for us,” said Comrade Shweta. The ‘sadak par school’ movement led by Comrade Manoj Manzil for children of poor families to access good quality and dignified education had a great impact as well, especially since school mergers and high fees was restricting people from getting an education, she added. In Badgaon, where 22 comrades along with Comrade Manoj have been incarcerated in a politically motivated murder case, the women relatives of those men who are incarcerated campaigned for CPIML, while putting forth their political outlook to the other women and sought votes. Comrade Anita Sinha said that people remembered Comrade Rajaram Singh from the time he was an MLA 20 years ago and remembered the work he did in the Obra constituency at the time, and the struggles he led to achieve dignity for the people.

With the catchy slogan going with beats of “aap ka button kahan dabega… teen tara jahan rahega”, women from Dalit bastis and poor households, whether literate or illiterate, were able to cast their votes for CPIML, to save Constitution and to save democracy.