The return of the gender gap

If women alone were to vote in the current elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would win 88 more Lok Sabha seats than the Indian National Congress (INC) (using CSDS data — see Table 3a). If only men voted, the BJP would get 126 more seats than the INC (if we stubbornly assume a constant ratio of voteshare-to-seats conversion). This hypothetical example highlights how gendered voting choices can have a big effect on election outcomes.

As Rajeshwari Deshpande wrote in September 2009:

The Congress has enjoyed an advantage among women voters since the 1996 general election. The party’s popularity among women reached a high point in 1999 when the gender gap in favour of the Congress was 5 percentage points. Since then, the gap has been closing. In the 2009 election, the Congress enjoyed a slight tilt in women’s votes towards it.

That no longer seems to be the case. According to the latest available CSDS data, the gender gap between the INC and BJP has reemerged with a vengeance (we define the gender gap as the difference between women and men voting for the BJP subtracted from the difference between women and men voting for the INC — note that the 2014 gap emerges from less reliable pre-poll data while the rest are from post-poll data):

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 1.16.19 pm

So why might such a gap exist? The United States has experienced a gender gap in favour of the Democratic Party since 1980, and in 2000 and 2012 Democratic presidential candidates had a 20 percentage point gap in their favour (that dwarfs the Congress Party’s record eight-point gap in 1998 and 1999). Explanations of the gender gap in the United States and other industrial societies fall into three general (and partly overlapping) categories:

  • Economic. Higher female participation in the labour force, and the fact that female workers face wage discrimination at the workplace, have pushed women to the left of the political spectrum in favour of parties that emphasise redistributive politics.
  • Family. In a similar vein, rising marriage ages, the widespread use of contraception, more out-of-wedlock childbearing and increased divorce rates have driven women voters to the political left, since they are no longer in a position to benefit from the incomes of male partners.
  • Values. The belief that a woman is entitled to reproductive autonomy (particularly salient in the United States) and the spread of feminist ideas have pushed women voters in the direction of political parties that share those values.

To what extent might these factors apply in the India case? At first blush, it would appear unlikely. India’s female labour force participation rate has fallen in recent years (from 44% in 2005 to 36% in 2012), which would undermine the case for an economic explanation. The mean effective age of marriage for Indian women has risen from 19.5 years in 1991 to 21.2 years in 2011 (a 9% increase), and contraception usage has increased between 1992-93 and 2005-06, but the divorce rate remains low and out-of-wedlock childbearing appears rare. So far as values go, abortion is not a partisan political issue in India, and there is no evidence that women’s rights issues shape voting behaviour.

Indeed that India even has a voting gender gap should be surprising: political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris found (using 1990s data) that only “postindustrial” societies have a gender gap that favours left parties; the gap favours ideologically conservative parties in post-Communist and developing societies. (Let’s leave aside the question of how generalisable categories such as “left” and “right” can be.)

But things get interesting when you look at the following chart (drawn from Table 2 in Deshpande’s article):

Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 1.16.35 pm

The gender gap in favour of the INC in 2009 — when it was small by historical standards — was highest in precisely those groups that you would expect to be most influenced by the same economic and cultural trends that have created the gender gap in Western societies. If this holds up to further scrutiny (beyond the scope of this blog), then it could provide one answer to the puzzle that Deshpande posed about women and the INC: “There is no evidence that women find its policies more attractive than [do] men”.

There are other views. Deshpande argues that it makes more sense to look instead at regional variations, and sure enough, the INC’s gender advantage varies from state to state. She suggests that the INC’s gender gap is really the reflection of caste and class factors, and that there is no independent gender tilt in favour of the INC (although there probably is one against the BJP). Furthermore regional parties matter a great deal, and women in the latest CSDS surveys appear to be leaning towards Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.

That said, women’s issues are more salient in the 2014 national campaign than ever before (as Supriya Nair pursuasively points out), which has forced political parties to craft more specific appeals to women. An Association for Democratic Reforms-Daksh survey found that women’s safety is the third most important election issue (of ten) for urban voters. And Narendra Modi’s aggressive, patriarchal campaign clearly contrasts with Rahul Gandhi’s persistent outreach to women voters.

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