old unpublished post from 2014.Were women Modi’s secret weapon?

February 22, 2016

an unpublished article on the 2014 election.

Were women voters Narendra Modi’s secret weapon?

Rajeev Srinivasan on a possible gender divide and the reasons for it

I have not yet been able to find data on how women voted in these elections. But I have a conjecture that far more women would have voted for Narendra Modi than conventional wisdom suggests, for both psychological and practical reasons. Until the data is crunched, we will not know this for sure, so I emphasize this is only a hypothesis at the moment.

Conventional wisdom, especially as based on American data, about women’s votes would follow certain axioms:

  1. Women are not particularly interested in politics but in day-to-day issues
  2. Women are more swayed by emotional appeals
  3. Women are put off by conservative or right-leaning parties
  4. Women may pay attention to irrelevant things, like a candidate’s good looks

And add to that, in India:

  1. Women vote as their menfolk tell them to, not as independent thinkers

Let us start with these postulates. Well, the immediate implication is that the BJP has not a ghost of a chance of winning their votes, because:

  1. The Congress is quite good at sops and giveaways. The immediate gratification has always won them the votes, especially from rural womenfolk
  2. The media barrage about how the BJP would turn the country into an unending mess of riots and violence – a la the narrative of BJP/Modi guilt in Gujarat 2002 – would terrify women
  3. The BJP with its allegedly macho image (remember how an editorialist in the mis-named The Hindu thought that even Swami Vivekananda was too macho a figure?) would scare women
  4. With all due respect to Shriman Modi, with his 56-inch chest, he’s no beauty. Women prefer guys like John Kennedy. And Rahul Gandhi, with his dimples, appeals to them
  5. Most men are going to vote for the familiar Congress (especially after being plied with booze and the usual rousing slogans of roti-kapda-makan and Secularism in danger!)

Thus, a priori, one would imagine a BJP, with its rather unsophisticated image (especially as narrated by the mainstream media), would not appeal greatly to the woman voter, who, I imagine, counts for a little over 50% of all eligible voters in the country. This impression was strenghtened by an interview I did of a smart young woman, who said she was “put off” by the BJP. She made a face too. But I did find that older women in Kerala were more positive towards them.

Other interviews I read about – mostly about young women in metros – were generally negative about the BJP. They seemed to have an image problem – quite likely because of the intense dislike the media has had for the party. Thus, it did not look promising for them at all.

But what might have happened during the last phase of the campaign? One possibility is that women are generally kind-hearted and sympathetic to the underdog (perhaps because they find themselves the underdogs in many of their encounters with men).

But then women like a winner, too. The feebleness of Rahul Gandhi’s campaign would have contrasted with the robustness of Modi’s. The images of Modi’s immense popular support (such as the ocean of people turning out to greet him in various places all over the country) must have had some impact, too.

I posit that women, who generally look for security in whom they choose for their husbands, are also keen to select the most capable and most formidable leader, because in a sense that is what keeps their country, and ultimately themselves, safe. The widely publicized issue of women’s safety (especially in the wake of the rape-murder of poor Jyoti Singh Pandey) may have made more willing to accept machismo, obviating item #3 in the list above. And Modi conveys machismo in spades, and efficiency too. He is the guy to depend on in a tight spot.

This struck a chord. I was amused by several anecdotes about old women arriving in polling booths (where Modi was not contesting) and demanding to know where they could vote for Modi. The man had become a movement, a tsuNaMo!

Perhaps the most important issue for women would have been item #1: their day-to-day troubles. Roaring inflation that has eaten into purchasing power falls disproportionately hard on women, as their budgets have increased anywhere near as much as prices. A mother struggling to feed and clothe and educate her children – as most fathers are blissfully unaware of these matters – has faced a tough time in the recent past. Economics dictated that they would not be swayed by short-term blandishments when they had seen for ten years poor delivery by Congress.

Item #2 – fear tactics about terrible times under the BJP – may not have played much of a role. Besides, not only the BJP, but also the AAP, focused women’s attention on the issue of corruption, which they probably encounter in regular extortion. In many ways, the fear of the unknown BJP was overwhelmed by the contempt for the known Congress. Women were ready to give the BJP a chance.

Item #4 is something that irritates men endlessly: the seeming female focus on irrelevencies. A friend of mine in San Diego, a smart and witty woman, once told me that she voted for Obama 1 simply because “he was better looking than McCain”. I told her I could have given her 25 good reasons why she should have voted against Obama, but she didn’t care.

But I think women are not as superficially as men think they are. Women, used to multitasking, are probably taking into account a large number of factors, which they don’t want to go into, when they simply say, “the guy looks good”. They arrive at a gestalt based on all these factors  – again it irritates men – calling it ‘woman’s intuition’, which is surprisingly clear-sighted.

As an example, take Shashi Tharoor’s campaign in Trivandrum in 2009. The guy looks like a rock star and speaks with a silver tongue, and women (of all ages and political persuasions) simply swooned over him, and he got a huge majority of around 100,000, unheard of in razor-thin-victory-margin Kerala. But wait, there’s more: women calculated that this man, if elected, would almost certainly become a minister, and also bring international pizzazz to his constituency, both of which were true.

Now contrast this with the Tharoor campaign in 2014. This time, the women were not very happy with him, for various reasons. But they also calculated that if he were to win, almost certainly he wouldn’t be a minister because the UPA was unlikely to come back to power. So I conclude they voted for O Rajagopal, who could become a minister in a likely NDA dispensation. So much so that Tharoor won with a much reduced majority.

Did men tell women how to vote, item #5? Perhaps. This continues to be a problem, I am sure. But this time the menfolk were also caught up in the TsuNaMo, which means that too worked to Modi’s advantage. The women I spoke to did not say “my husband told me to do this”, they usually said, “I like (or don’t like) Modi because…” Okay, they were in Kerala, where women generally are more independent.

Women are a tough vote bank. They who manage to pocketbook will be looking carefully at how far their rupees go. Unless the recent stagflation is tamed and there is clear growth, they will defect. Women are notoriously and ruthlessly practical about money: therefore Modi has to ensure that economic growth, along with their concerns about the safety of their daughters, are taken care of. In that case, this secret weapon will stick with him.

1250 words, May 23, 2014


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