The election to the 17th Lok Sabha is around the corner. It has been touted as the world’s largest democratic exercise with India’s nine hundred million voters ready to cast their franchise.

India’s political scene has now heated, and political parties are gearing up to dole out umpteen electoral promises, factoring in religion, caste, language, ethnicity, community and so on for electoral gains. But, how does gender play a role in this game of preferences?

Women’s Day passed off amidst customary celebrations all around. No doubt, India is inching forward to bridge many gender gaps. But, sadly, despite the constitutionally guaranteed right to equality remaining in force for more than seven decades, the gender gap in political participation is found to be the widest. A country with about 586 million women, had only 11.2 per cent representation in the 16th Lok Sabha.

In the assembly elections in 2018 in the five states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh (MP), Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram, with a combined strength of 93 million women, only 62 women MLAs, among the 678 elected members, could pass muster in the electoral fray, which amounts to just 9 per cent, down from 11 per cent in the 2013-14 essay. Chhattisgarh alone saw an increase in the proportion of female MLAs, while Mizoram continues with zero female representation in the assembly.

No wonder, India has slipped in the IPU rankings from 148 in 2017 to 151 in 2018 and is far away from the global average of 22 per cent women’s representation in the higher political power structure.

Now, perhaps there is reason to cheer. The recent Election Commission (EC) data indicates that there is a spurt in the number of eligible women voters from 47 to 48.13 per cent, and among the newly enrolled voters, 4.35 crore are women, while 3.80 crore are men, which means that more than half of the first time voters will be women in 2019.

Uttar Pradesh has the largest share in the increase in women voters with 54 lakh, followed by Maharashtra with 45 lakh, Bihar with 42.8 lakh, West Bengal with 40 lakh, Tamil Nadu with 29 lakh and Gujarat with 24 lakh. In Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Arunachal, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya, women voters continue to outnumber men and in states like Nagaland, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Telangana and Jharkhand, the gender gap in the voter base has been considerably narrowed down.

Yet, it is still not an all-out success story. According to the 2011 census projections, the population of women would be around 97.2 per cent of that of men by 2019. But EC data says that numbers of women voters constitute only 92.7 per cent of male voters, indicating a gap of 4.5 percentile, or that 21 million women are yet to come under the purview of the electoral process.

Women as contestants also remain on the margin. The rate of participation never exceeded more than 5 per cent from 1962 to 1996 and thereafter, it hovered around 8 per cent in the next six elections. The highest ever was 8.1 per cent in 2014. However, a relatively modest rise of 7 per cent has been noted in SC/ST-reserved constituencies from 1998 onwards, but in general seats, it remained as poor as 4.8 per cent.

Studies also revealed that reservation of seats for women at the local level by the 73rd amendment has stimulated a pipeline effect and encouraged many women to venture into state or national campaigns, which ultimately led to half of the increase in the number of female MPs and MLAs in recent elections.

Over the years, women have also shown increasing enthusiasm in casting their vote. Photographs of women in large numbers standing in queues outside polling booths in small towns is now common, which surely indicates an upsurge in political awareness among women even outside the big cities.

In the 2017-18 assembly elections, women for the first time even stole a march over men in voter turnout with an increase of about 27 per cent as against men’s seven per cent. The women in Bihar and Odisha were found to be in the lead, while in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, the picture is not so encouraging. However, the changing trend is more noticeable in assembly elections.

Unfortunately, Indian women are yet to be recognised as a potential vote bank, unlike other powerful blocs like caste or minorities. The past instances bear testimony to the fact that most of the pre-poll political campaigns or manifestos, made only perfunctory references to women’s issues creating a temporary hype which eventually faded away once the election temperature had cooled down. It is true that India did have powerful women political leaders, but competitive electoral politics often compelled them to push for those issues that yielded political dividend, and gender focussed ones were relegated to the background.

The unsuccessful journey of the Women’s Reservation bill speaks volumes about the inherent gender bias in India’s male-dominated political class and women’s lack of political clout.

Now, some recent decisions – like that of the Odisha Chief Minister to give 33 per cent party tickets to women, his West Bengal counterpart’s on 40 per cent seats for women and the Congress President’s poll promise of steering the stalled women’s bill raise some hopes. Perhaps, India’s political narrative is finally taking note of the surging women voter base.

(The writer is a former Indian Information Service Officer and media educationist)