What Do Indian Women Want from This Election?

They’re Voting in Historic Numbers. But It Might Not Make Them Happier or More Prosperous

With women’s rights in India under pressure, journalist Sanjukta Sharma writes what women voters hope to gain in this year’s election. Courtesy of AP Photo/Altaf Qadri.

Since April 19, the day general elections began in India, voters have queued up outside polling booths, braving a muggy, scorching heatwave. The mood appears mostly upbeat. Voters talk to TV news reporters. They articulate wishes for change or belief in the incumbent leader.

This year’s election is the largest, and longest, in India’s 60 years of increasingly fragile democracy. Nearly a billion people are eligible to vote, in seven phases, over 44 days.

In voting thus far, women have outnumbered men in several states, and have made up nearly half of the people at the polls. Women may be poised to match men’s influence at the ballot box. But how will they vote? In a country where women’s rights and opportunities are under pressure, it’s not clear that turning out for this election will make Indian women’s lives happier, safer, or more prosperous.

The 2024 election pits candidates aligned with current prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against candidates from the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) led by Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi—the great-grandchildren, grandchildren, and children of former prime ministers.

Modi’s platform, communicated in sweeping speeches and vicious attacks on social and legacy media, emphasizes economic development and a traditionalist nationalism that privileges India’s Hindus over its Muslims and other minorities. The BJP’s most flagrant move to establish Hindu supremacy was the inauguration of a temple to the deity Ram at Ayodhya, at the site of the centuries-old Babri Masjid Mosque.

Alongside Ram, the hero of the Hindu epic the Ramayana, the BJP venerates his loyal wife, Sita—calling on Indian women to be sacrificial, devoted, modern-day domestic queens meant to serve the patriarchy. Modi plays on the idea that women are best seen in relation to men, as “maa, beti, and behen (mother, daughter, and sister).” And he cautions that their mangalsutra (the gold-and-bead necklaces married women wear) will be snatched by “them”—“infiltrators” or “ghuspaithiya,” a Hindi word meaning intruder that Modi recently used to describe members of India’s Muslim community.

Women comprise only 19% of India’s workforce, down from more than 40% in the early 1990s.

Modi offers lofty promises about women’s futures. India should have “a women-led development,” which thus far seems to be a collection of government giveaways such as a recent effort to install liquid petroleum gas hookups in rural homes (that can no longer afford to refill their fuel canisters) and a drive for clean toilets (exposed as ineffective by the country’s embattled independent media outlets). At BJP rallies, the vague slogan “Nari Shakti”—which roughly translates to “Women Power”—roars out of microphones every time the government faces criticism about discrimination or violence against women.

There’s been plenty of both. The BJP has largely alienated India’s 181 million urban women, who could join the workforce but instead cook, clean, and care for families. Better employment is one of the top wishlist items for Indian women, who also tell reporters that they want safety in public spaces, a check on inflation, and better education and health facilities. But according to 2021 data from the World Bank and International Labor Organization, women comprise only 19% of India’s workforce, down from more than 40% in the early 1990s. In a nation with a tradition of strong women leaders, only 12% of this year’s remaining election candidates are female.

There has been gruesome violence, motivated by political aims and bias. One girl raped by a BJP legislator in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, in 2017; another 8-year-old Muslim girl gangraped in Kathua, Kashmir, in 2018; a Dalit girl gangraped in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, in 2020; hundreds of women assaulted, raped, or killed in the Manipur, a state in the northeast where ethnic clashes have led to unimaginable brutalities. Police investigations of these crimes have been slow and inconsequential. BJP members have celebrated when rapists have been released from jail, and they have lashed out at victims who publicly expose their attackers. Data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau revealed that on average, in 2021, 86 women were raped every day and citizens lodged 49 cases of crimes against women every hour; from 2014 to 2022, the bureau reported that overall crimes against women per 100,000 population increased from 56.3 to 66.4.

Violence is a major concern for Rajnita Chaudhury, a 21-year-old intern at a film production company in Mumbai who voted BJP in the last election but is reconsidering her vote this time around. “I want public spaces to be safe. I want to be able to travel by myself at night everywhere in India. Is that too much to ask?” she said. But she’s not optimistic. “What is killing my hope the most is how divided our college campuses are. Boys from Uttar Pradesh are going ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (Hail god Ram) for everything. I can’t relate to it.”

Sheetal Bachche, 38, a domestic worker at a suburban residential complex in Mumbai, migrated to the city newly married, about 15 years ago. “The women in my family were very hopeful when Modi first came because he talked a lot about what will help women,” she said. But most of his promises “went bust, [so] I am thinking of alternatives. And so are the women in my extended family.” She added, “But is there any alternative for Modi?”

The Gandhis and INDIA, with a platform promoting equality and sharply focused on unemployment and inflation, are trying to answer that question in the affirmative. Rahul Gandhi has visited girls’ colleges and spoken with 18 and 19-year-old girls in smaller towns and villages on the campaign trail.

But his counter-promises to women sound a lot like Modi’s. His recently announced Mahalakshmi scheme would deposit 100,000 rupees each year in accounts of “women in poor households.” Which category of poor, and whether all these poor women have bank accounts, is not clear.

The woman of the moment is Priyanka Gandhi, whose resemblance to her grandmother Indira has been a subject of discussion for decades. In the last election, she did not campaign. This time around is different. She embraces her role as a non-playing captain, bolstering her team by articulating the party’s focus on three primary issues: unemployment, capitalism-induced corruption, and rising inequality. She speaks a chaste Hindi, wears a wry smile, and makes humorous puns on Modi’s fear- and hate-mongering.

She speaks to women as individuals—not just as mothers, daughters, and sisters. At a recent rally in Nandurbar, Maharashtra, flailing, screaming crowds showed their support for her. Within the swell, the promise of change—if not in the outcome of these elections, for the future of women participating in politics and public systems, and finding their voices as individuals.


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