Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Women Will Decide, Again

By turning out to vote in larger proportions than the men, Sikkim’s ladies have displayed that they are keen to have a larger stake in governance and policy-making. This is for the second consecutive election that women voters have outperformed men in Sikkim. In Elections 2009, against an 81.46% male voter turnout, Sikkim’s women posted 82.77%. This time, in 2014, 81.40% of the women voters exercised their franchise to help decide the government for the next five years against 80.57% men. Irrespective of what the final verdict posts, this is one statistic that should make every Sikkimese proud. Very few other places in the country can make such claims towards women’s empowerment – and make no mistake, stepping out, braving the heat and the rain later in the evening to vote, is a sign of empowerment. And this is no flash in the pan, but appears to be a process which has sustained and grown over the past decade. In Elections 1999, women voter turnout was five percent lower than men [84.36% versus 79.10%], and as women’s empowerment efforts progressed in earnest [and the SDF government deserves credit for it], in Elections 2004, male and female voter turnout were almost level – against the 77.99% men who voted that year, as many as 77.01% of the female voters showed up and voted. As already mentioned, the women turned the tables on male voters in 2009, and have retained the bragging rights for this election as well. Even as the women voters rank higher in percentage turn-out, they are not very far behind when it comes to absolute numbers either. Against a total of 1,53,425 men who voted in Sikkim last month, 1,46,228 ladies pressed the EVM button. [This figure was M: 1,25,660 and F: 1,18,681 in 2009].

Irrespective of how the results pan out, Sikkimese women have established that their endorsement will be required by every aspirant and every candidate, in every constituency, in Sikkim in the future. This power can be lightly ignored because while women voters are in [a very slight] majority in five assembly constituencies, in actual turnout [not just percentage] they outnumber the male voters in as many as nine Assembly constituencies. There are more women voters in Namchi-Singhithang, Upper Tadong, Kabi Lungchuk, Dzongu and Lachen Mangan constituencies, and while they maintained this lead in actual voting as well, they managed to also pull ahead of men in four more constituencies – Melli, Gnathang-Machong, Martam-Rumtek, and Upper-Burtuk. Even the most basic political calculation will thus recommend that irrespective of what happens to the perpetually sabotaged Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament, political parties in Sikkim will be well advised to allow more women into representative politics roles. The ruling Front has three women candidates this time and the chance to have one more, while its main opposition has just a token representation [and the chance to field one more in the event that a bye-election is required]. These numbers will have to improve. While the ruling party can claim credit for the 50-50 representation its women leaders have in the Panchayat and Urban bodies, the other parties, as also the ruling actually, will have to begin by allowing more women into decision making posts within the party. The parties, for their own survival, need to appreciate the power that women wield in Sikkim now and this means that women’s issues can no longer be sidestepped. Political power is no longer possible without catering to the women voters, and given the centuries of prejudice and offensively male-centric system that has been imposed on women, one hopes that this vote-bank stands separate from the caste and community divisions that short-sighted politicians tend to carve up. It is an accepted fact that the male voters in Sikkim are segregated by too many petty and selfish responses, the female voter preferences, because they are still relatively new to this level of involvement, remain little understood. The results should provide some hints on how the Sikkimese women decide their votes and if this is found to be a voter sensibility that rises above the opportunistic crassness of the hitherto male-dominated process, then Sikkim can expect a more ideology and performance-driven politics in the future. Is one expecting too much from cold statistics? 

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