In every election, there are conversations and analysis on various factors that impact the results: caste, money, unemployment and agrarian crisis among others. In all of these factors, women appear as a footnote. Do women vote according to caste? What do they want from the government? Do they feel a woman politician is better for women? This series is an attempt to find out How Women Vote.
The quest to figure out how any one category of citizens votes is quixotic. Every category is internally diverse and our various identities intersect to place each person in a unique location, while also fractionalising the category itself. Moreover, every person is part of the largest collective—citizens—and as such, each of us mirrors in our way, the concerns of the collective. Where you stand determines what you see.
When the state went to the polls on April 18, 2019, more women than men turned up to vote in all but eight urban constituencies. On May 23, we will learn how they voted but we have learnt over the last eighteen months what their chief concerns are. While political parties and civil society have been highlighting issues relating to the constitution, national security and corruption, election conversations and campaigns in Tamil Nadu have returned to local concerns over and over. This reflects recent local governance failures in some measure.
Women are given responsibility for meeting the everyday needs of families, and last year, in a consultation held by women’s organisations and members of self-help groups on civic issues faced by women, participants identified five categories of concerns. Cleanliness topped their list; from dustbins and regular garbage collection to the supply of usable and potable water to public toilets and sanitation, they listed clearly the civic amenities they were missing. Safety followed, at home, in school, at work and in public areas. Responsibility for this was clearly reposed in the government. Alcohol is a revenue winner for the Tamil Nadu state government which operates outlets to regulate alcohol sales but these outlets create a menace in their neighbourhoods. The participants wanted their local outlets relocated and safety measures like CCTVs put in place around them. The lack of accountability at the local government level, especially because local elections have been long delayed, was an issue and they wanted service delivery and grievance redressal streamlined at the local level. Finally, they demanded a presence in government and that those in the administration and the government hear women’s points of view and concerns.
This is not to suggest that national concerns do not resonate with Tamil Nadu women. Women’s groups in Chennai drafted and read aloud to gatherings of women an Open Letter to Candidates that listed both national and local concerns. In each location, both sets of concerns resonated with listeners who endorsed them enthusiastically. The national concerns included ending divisive politics and the infringement of fundamental rights; gender justice in election campaigns and beyond, and replacing protection-driven approaches to safety with service delivery that is gender transformative; and livelihood rights including workplace safety.
Distinctively, coming from a state where cultural nationalism has consistently meant support for states’ rights, one of the features identified as integral to the spirit of the Constitution is federalism. The Open Letter describes this as “The spirit of a federal Union where powers and resources are shared fairly across the Union so that states are not tempted to raise revenue through the sale of alcohol,” repeating the concern of the previous manifesto on the nexus between state revenue and alcohol sale, and its impact on neighbourhoods and the safety of women and girls.
Across Tamil Nadu, women have been at the forefront of struggles against predatory development. From Koodankulam to Sterlite to the Salem Expressway, they have protested and they have faced the consequences of asking inconvenient questions. This is because they realise they will bear the brunt of the impact of environmental damage, climate change, disasters and displacement.
The serial sexual violence and murder case uncovered in Pollachi, in which a senior politician is alleged to be complicit, has underscored in the public mind the idea that after Jayalalithaa’s death, women are not safe in Tamil Nadu. Nor apparently, are children with the number of reported cases of brutal child sexual abuse seeming to have gone up. In casual conversation, people remark that there is no government now. The apparent decline in the safety of Tamil Nadu women is linked to this sense of anarchy.
This state of affairs is also associated with central interference and manipulation. The present government is seen as having been both vulnerable and amenable to this alleged interference. The Jallikattu ban; the requirement that all aspirants appear for the National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET); and age-old antipathy towards the use of Hindi at the expense of Tamil, keep that flame of Tamil cultural nationalism and state autonomy alive. For women, as for men, it would seem that the state fares better left to its devices, but with adequate resources.
A century of rationalist, anti-caste reformist politics in Tamil Nadu has laid bare how gender and caste hierarchies continue to affect each other, each cancelling out any advantages the other might offer a person and reinforcing their vulnerabilities. As elsewhere but maybe with greater awareness, women in Tamil Nadu live their lives at the intersection of their gender and caste identities, among others, and the issues that affect them as well as their perspective on these issues, reflect this location.
Inter-caste sexual and gender-based violence in the name of honour continues to take place despite the century-long campaign to eradicate caste. Young men and women are policed and punished for relationships outside of narrowly defined caste groups. The price is paid by women whose mobility is restricted and therefore, access to education and livelihoods; who are married off early in the name of protection and honour, and whose experiences of violence in the home and outside are sought to be effaced. For women in Tamil Nadu, the need for a law on ‘honour killing’ is not an academic issue; there needs to be a law that recognises this crime as stemming both from caste prejudice and misogyny.
A cursory reading of campaign reportage suggests that candidates recognize that the local comes first in Tamil Nadu. Although garbage and roads are outside the reach of Parliament, they are promising voters that they will keep an eye on these everyday concerns. They reference the Thoothukudi shootings, the water shortage, NEET and Tamil pride in their interactions. To voters at the far end of the country, and especially to women who remain politically marginal, Delhi is still very distant. They will send to Parliament those they are convinced understand local issues best.
The author is a political scientist and the founder and director for the Prajnya Trust – a nonprofit organization based in Chennai.