NEW DELHI – In the poll-bound state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Congress Party leader Priyanka Gandhi, a member of the Gandhi-Nehru family that gave India three prime ministers, has crafted the party’s campaign around women.
At rallies for women, she has repeated the party’s slogan “Ladki Hoon, Lad Sakti Hoon“, which in English means: “I am a girl and I can fight.”
Congress has promised that 40 per cent of the assembly seats it is contesting in UP, the country’s most-populous state, will be reserved for women.
It has also released a women-centric “pink manifesto” promising smartphones and electric scooters for female students and free bus travel for women, among other things.
Elections for the 403 assembly seats will take place in seven phases from Feb 10 to March 7, with vote counting slated for March 10.
Amid an Omicron surge, the Election Commission has asked parties to roll out virtual campaigns and has banned roadshows and rallies till next Saturday (Jan 15) in UP and the four other states going to the polls – Punjab, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand.
Still, analysts said the outreach to women has given some momentum to the campaign by Congress, which is trailing in fourth place in opinion polls.
“Congress was a non-starter in Uttar Pradesh. It has no community vote. So in that situation, for Priyanka Gandhi to play the woman card was setting the agenda,” said journalist and political analyst Neerja Chowdhury.
“Women of all communities, particularly first-time voters, are very enthused and very few parties are tapping this group. She (Priyanka) is on to something but she has a handicap of hardly any organisational structure in the state and a third wave of Covid-19 to contend with.”
Two weeks ago, a rally for women, though marred by a stampede, was well attended, pointing to how women are keen to participate in the electoral process in a state where more than half of the 145 million voters are women.
They are a growing force in India’s elections, with more women than men now showing up to vote in many places.
Still women, like men, are not a homogeneous entity and do not form any single vote bank.
They vote according to their perception of which party or candidate offers them the best choice, which has compelled political parties to offer a slew of women-centric schemes and sops during elections.
In recently held elections in West Bengal, for instance, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee successfully added votes from large sections of women to her existing support base by focusing on women voters, including dangling cash transfers and fielding many women candidates, resulting in the defeat of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).
And the Rashtriya Lok Dal, a regional party, has promised 50 per cent representation to women in the police to check crimes against women, if they win the UP elections.
“I think all political parties are realising the importance of the women constituency, especially in a tough electoral race. What survey data is increasingly showing is women don’t vote similar to the way men vote,” said Dr Sandeep Shastri, vice-chancellor of Jagran Lakecity University.
“Women focus on developmental and welfare-related issues and on how issues impact day to day life.”
The BJP, while accusing opposition parties of making false promises, also has its sights on wooing women voters in UP, where it came to power in 2017 and holds 312 of the 403 seats.
Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi transferred a total of 10 million rupees (S$182,500) into the accounts of women’s self-help groups and launched a programme to set up 202 nutrition manufacturing units, funded by self-help groups, aimed at improving nutrition of children.
The BJP is highlighting successful national schemes such as the one providing free cooking gas connections for homes, as well as a recent decision to raise the legal marriage age of women from 18 to 21, putting them on a par with men.
Analysts see the UP elections as a “semi-final” in the run-up to the 2024 general elections.
The state has the strongest political representation in Parliament with 80 seats out of 543 seats.
Opinion polls predict a BJP win with the Samajwadi Party, a regional party led by former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, in second position.
Times Now Navbharat ran an opinion survey that indicated that BJP will return to power with between 230 and 249 seats, followed by the Samajwadi Party with 137 to 152 seats. Congress party holds just 4 to 7 seats.
“It (UP elections) is the first match in the semi-finals. A few months before the general elections are the other semi-finals – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh. UP is important, as it accounts for one-sixth of India,” said Dr Shastri, who noted that Mr Modi’s constituency of Varanasi was also in UP.
“That way winning UP or doing well is important for them (BJP).”