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Indians Ask Why 21 Million Women Are Not on Voter Rolls


A first-time voter with her ID card at a polling booth during national elections in 2014, in Sikkim. This year’s national election in India spans 39 days across April and May. A new book reveals that 21 million women are not registered to vote, reflecting social resistance to women doing so.

Every national election in India is numerically mind-boggling, and this year is no exception. More than 800 million registered voters are expected to participate in an election spanning 39 days from April 11 to May 19.

In this huge exercise in democracy, simultaneously organized at national and state levels, the government’s election commission has identified 2,293 political parties in the fray, although only seven of them are officially “recognized” at the national level. At least 8,000 candidates are expected to compete for the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house in India’s bicameral parliament. Thousands more will be seeking state assembly seats.

But there are other, less positive numbers. In the last national election in 2014, which propelled into power by a landslide Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his pro-Hindu party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), the Association for Democratic Reforms, a political-monitoring nongovernmental organization, found through official records that 34 percent of the elected members of parliament faced criminal charges, some of them serious.

This year, a different topic of discussion has been prompted by a new book by India’s leading opinion poll taker, Prannoy Roy, and Dorab Sopariwala, an internationally known researcher and fellow of Britain’s Royal Statistical Society.

Titled “The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections,” the book looked at women’s participation in Indian elections and found that while women have been active voters since Indian independence in 1947 and their numbers keep increasing, a tally of them finds 21 million not registered and able to vote.

The authors deduced this situation by comparing the number of women 18 and older in national census figures with the number of women on current voter lists. Three northern and western Indian states had the largest gaps: Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Southern states, where women have advanced faster, did much better.

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Why? Analysts say that some of the shortfall is caused by women being denied voting rights. But there is more to the story.

Soutik Biswas, a correspondent and incisive analyst of all things India for the BBC, wrote on March 14 that he was told by election officials that there is generalized “social resistance” in some families and communities against allowing women to vote. But there are also specific concerns, such as not wanting to have a daughter photographed or revealing a woman’s age.

As mobility increases in India, where virtually all women are married, statistically, then forced to move to the homes of their husbands, apparently there is no way to vote by absentee ballot, even if the would-be voters have valid registrations in their former home areas.

“If the sex ratio in a constituency is skewed against women and the average voter is male, the preferences of female voters are likely to be ignored,” Biswas wrote, despite that in the aggregate more women are voting nationally. In some constituencies, he noted, the number of women who are missing from voter lists — 38,000 to 80,000 people — can determine election outcomes.

For the 2019 elections, “there is no time to fix this problem,” Biswas wrote, noting that Roy has suggested letting any women vote who appears at a polling station and can prove she is 18 or older.

The election will be critical. Prime Minister Modi and his Hindu nationalists, who have been steering India unabashedly into a “Hindu” country, are facing surprisingly strong competition from the venerable and at least nominally secular Congress Party, now headed by Rahul Gandhi, the son, grandson and great-grandson of former prime ministers. The choice of every national and state constituency will count.


Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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