As India votes, women and youth could put Modi and his BJP over the top

Date:

NEW DELHI — From the United States to South Korea, it is a political axiom in many parts of the world: Women and young people tend to be less conservative than their husbands and fathers.

As more than half a billion Indian voters cast ballots in the world’s largest election starting Friday, two unlikely blocs of voters — women and young voters — could give Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government a significant boost in their bid to return to power for a third consecutive five-year term.

The emergence of these two constituencies marks a curious divergence between India and other democracies. It’s born from Modi’s unique appeal, which blends Hindu nationalism, personal charisma, big-ticket infrastructure spending and generous welfare programs into a powerful pitch that overshadows his failure to deliver enough jobs to precisely these voters.

But it also speaks to the broader social changes underway in India, where women in particular have increasingly voted independently from their husbands and become a highly sought-after electorate of their own.

If Modi secures reelection on June 4, as is widely expected, he’ll have women like Prachi Kanherkar to thank.

Around their dinner table in Gwalior in central Madhya Pradesh state, Kanherkar’s husband regularly laments about how Modi has injected religion into politics. But Kanherkar, a 37-year-old engineering professor, counters that Modi’s record fills her with pride.

Modi, she says, unveiled a grand Hindu Ram temple at the site of a razed mosque in January. He landed a rover on the moon last year. He encourages Indians to speak Hindi rather than English, the language of India’s foreign colonizers.

“It can turn into a big fight, especially as we sit with guests and our opinions are so clearly different,” said Kanherkar, who is part of a local women’s prayer group formed two years ago by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organization affiliated with the BJP. “But my vote is my right, and it is for my country,” she said. “I will use it.”

Courting women voters has long been a tactic pursued by Indian parties, but political experts say Modi’s party has taken it further than any previous government. In the last decade, the prime minister has announced programs to distribute free cooking gas cylinders, handed out bags of grain featuring his bearded visage, extended loans specifically for female entrepreneurs and even trained women to become drone pilots. The BJP has also taken Modi’s strongman image and given it a twist to appeal to women by framing him as tough on rape and domestic violence, observant of traditional Indian values and committed to seva, or selfless service.

Moreover, political scientists say, Indian women — like women in many other countries — display higher levels of religiosity compared to men, which has benefited the Hindu nationalist ruling party. BJP-hosted blood donation drives, temple cleanings and prayer events like the ones that attracted Kanherkar have all been a key “bridge” to draw women into political life in recent years, said Anirvan Chowdhury, a political science postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University.

“When BJP talks about culture, when BJP talks about the temple, it is natural for the women to come toward the BJP,” said Vanathi Srinivasan, the head of the BJP’s women’s wing. She said the BJP has found women are more likely to attend prayer song meetings than typical male-dominated political rallies, and the party has leaned into that as a strategy.

Today, the BJP is reaping the rewards of its recruitment drive.

In 2019, the gap between men and women in voter turnout significantly narrowed for the first time in decades, and in several recent state elections, the number of women voters has exceeded that of men, according to Sanjay Kumar, co-director at the Lokniti program for comparative democracy at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a premier polling organization in New Delhi.

And in six state assembly elections over the past two years in India’s Hindi-speaking heartland, where the BJP is strongest, four saw women vote at a higher rate for that party than did men, according to Lokniti polls. For instance in India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh, home just by itself to more than 230 million people, women favored the BJP by two percentage points more than men.

This emerging gap in preferences, cited by five consultants across the political spectrum, has fascinated political observers. They say such differences did not exist a generation ago in a patriarchal society where men had greater control over where women went, how they lived — and how they voted. Today, that’s considered “outdated medieval thinking” by Arjun Dutta, a strategist at the Indian Political Action Committee political consultancy, who has been telling his clients, mostly regional political parties, to target women voters.

In Kanherkar’s household, she and her husband, Anmol, not only differ in their politics, but where they get their news, a divergence made possible by the explosion of social media in India over the past decade that has given rise to a proliferation of political content — and disinformation.

She says she receives information from Hindi-language newspapers, WhatsApp, Facebook and DailyHunt, a news aggregator app. Her husband, a supporter of the Congress opposition party, says he mostly watches liberal commentators on YouTube because TV channels only serve up pro-Modi fare.

“Fifteen years ago, information sources for a household used to be the same, whether the same TV channel or newspaper or interacting with the same set of people,” said Rahul Verma, a political fellow at the Center for Policy Research. Now, he added, “individual mobile devices in our hands” have led to “differed decision-making.”

The strong support for Modi among women has confounded his critics, who point out that women are in some ways faring worse, not better, since he entered office in 2014.

While some health indicators for Indian women have improved, their labor participation rate fell steadily from 39 percent as recently as 2000 to a low of 24.5 percent in 2019, before spiking in 2022 to 33 percent, according to the International Labor Organization. Ten years into Modi’s rule, India still sits in the bottom 25 countries in terms of female labor participation.

“Every woman is asking us, they want money in their hands, they want jobs. They really want work to fight their poverty, unemployment, and inflation,” said Alka Lamba of the opposition Congress party, which has been running a “Justice to Women” campaign to draw attention to what it says are persistently high levels of domestic violence, poverty and price rise in India under BJP rule.

Modi’s ability to avoid blame for high unemployment has similarly preserved his position among another key constituency: the 18.5 million young Indians who are registered to vote for the first time. For many of these young Indians, pollsters say, the sense that India under Modi is rising as a geopolitical and economic power makes him attractive.

Although India’s economic trajectory remained largely unchanged for decades under successive governments, averaging 7 percent a year since 2004, Indian headlines frequently compare India’s growth to China’s slowdown and highlight new highways, railways and airports inaugurated by Modi. All fuel a popular perception that under Modi, India’s moment has finally arrived, political analysts say. Indians between the ages of 18 and 24 prefer Modi by about five to six percentage points more than other age groups, according to Lokniti data.

In a recent survey in New Delhi, Vibha Attri, a Lokniti researcher, found that young Indians felt their most pressing worry was a lack of jobs — 42 percent of college graduates under 25 are jobless, according to a 2023 study by Azim Premji University. Yet 70 percent of respondents said the BJP is best suited to run India, with two opposition parties trailing in single digits, Attri found.

“Even among those who say unemployment is a huge issue, a huge proportion of them are voting for Modi because that linkage is not there,” Attri said. “It’s because there is no alternative. Modi is the only leader they have known.”

In the capital of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal, one of the first-time voters will be Saloni Parashar, a 21-year-old law student who said India’s jobs crisis cannot be pinned on Modi alone. She was still confident in Modi’s campaign promise that India will become a developed country by 2047, and said the BJP simply needed more time to show results.

“Ten years is not enough time for any government,” she said. “They’re doing the best they can.”

For now, Parashar said she was thrilled about the thousands of kilometers of roads Modi has paved at home and the respect he’s won abroad. He has been courted by the United States, and stood strong enough to resist U.S. pressure to side with Ukraine against Russia, she noted.

“The U.S. tried to sanction all the countries that import Russian oil, but you see they didn’t sanction India,” she said. “India is an important player now.”

Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.

Share post:

Popular

More like this
Related

Russell Whitaker Hired as Washington State Swimming Coach

Washington State University Athletics has tabbed Russell Whitaker to...

Montgomery County teachers protest as budget shortfall and possible job cuts loom

Montgomery County teachers protested outside a school board meeting...

FanDuel rakes in record revenue from DC sports bettors in its first month – Washington Examiner

Washington, D.C., has hit the jackpot with its new...

Washington Avenue construction continues, businesses struggle with customers

ENDICOTT (WBNG) -- Construction on Washington Avenue began one...