The upsurge in campaigns for women empowerment and the ever-increasing use of slogans and phrases for equality, justice, especially in the last decade or so, by different political parties paint a very hopeful future for the country. However, a careful analysis of these campaigns reveals a well-coordinated political strategy that’s barely concerned with equality.
With the ever-increasing participation of women voters in elections, there has been an upsurge in political marketing strategies aimed at appeasing them and capturing their vote. In 1967, female turnout lagged behind male turnout by 11.3 percentage points; it fell to 4.4 percentage by 2009 and to its narrowest margin of just 1.8 percent in 2014. In fact, in half of all states and union territories, female turnout actually surpassed male turnout. [i] Evidently, this growing participation of women voters, and their increasing role in deciding which political party gets voted into power has resulted in many campaigns with the message of empowerment being used as a means of ensuring the women vote.
In the recent times, many campaigns have been criticised for being a mere election gimmick. In 2018, ahead of a vote in the southern state of Karnataka, which followed the release of Bollywood’s first film on menstrual hygiene in February, pledges of ensuring menstrual healthcare and increasing accessibility to sanitary pads were made by political parties. This pattern continued in other local elections that followed as well. The ruling government vowed to give free sanitary pads to students and the poor, and to fix the price at 1 rupee for all women if voted to power.[ii] The Congress party – which governs the state -promised free pads to students in government colleges and to scrap the current tax on them.[iii] An NGO for menstrual awareness tagged it as a targeted marketing campaign rather than a substantive policy promise, “The national government is charging 12 percent tax on sanitary napkins and (lists it) as luxury item…why don’t they remove that first?”, said the founder.[iv]
Several other policies and campaigns have been targeted as being mere marketing tools- focused more on advertising than sparking on-ground changes. Moreover, what is also important to note about these campaigns, often aim at increasing the role of women in various fields has barely resulted in that. When it comes to women voters, despite the decreasing gender gap amongst the voters, men still outnumber women on voter registration rolls by a vast majority. The increase in female voter participation is not driven by increases in female voter registration; on the contrary, the shift is a result of greater female turnout among those already registered to vote.
Another campaign, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, aimed at improving child sex ratio, female literacy and women empowerment, has been highly criticised for its focus on marketing rather than producing tangible results. So far, the government has allocated Rs 648 crore for the programme in the last five years and spent 56.27 per cent of it, or Rs 364.66 crore, on marketing.[v] Less than 25% was allocated to the states and districts; and more than 19% of the funds weren’t released by the government.[vi]
The very same parties that initiate these campaigns barely incorporate women candidates in their party structure. The participation of women as candidates still remains very low. In 2014, just 8.1 percent of candidates for the Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament) were women, but this figure was the highest on record. A recent analysis of women candidates for the 2019 elections shows that out of 184 BJP candidates, only 23 (12.5%) are women. The Congress is only marginally worse with just 17 women of 143 candidates analysed so far. That’s 11.9%. These figures are remarkably low for major political parties that endorse women empowerment and representation.
Analysis of campaigns and the political parties reveal a well though out, funded and coordinated marketing effort, targeted at a specific section of the electorate, in order to capture and consolidate political power, to the extent where serious policy issues have been trivialised into mere tools of marketing. These campaigns, that might have the potential to make necessary changes, require on-ground policy changes, resources of accessibility, and stringent amendments in the already existing institutions. This trivialisation undermines the issues of inequality, underrepresentation and injustice to an extent that it furthers the distance to equality that these campaigns allege to attain in the first place.