As Tamil Nadu gears up for polls on April 6, political parties have engaged in a one-upmanship contest to corner a significant vote bank in the State , women. Just around International Women’s Day on March 8, both the Dravidian parties, DMK and the AIADMK, announced high-ticket incentives targeting women.
While MK Stalin promised Rs 1,000 a month for the women heads of family, Edappadi Palaniswami upped the offer to Rs 1,500. Originally, it was actor Kamal Haasan who began the attempt to garner women support with an idea for salaries to the stay-at-home moms and wives.
“This will help us a lot. We will consider voting for those who give us more and for the one who gives us less, we won’t vote for them. We are struggling to make ends meet. If we get extra money, it will help us a lot. We can use the extra amount to pay rent,” said 60-year old Abhi, a resident of Virugambakkam.
In many lower class-households in TN where alcoholism is a real menace, the responsibility of handling home finances falls squarely upon the shoulders of the women in the family. “We have to pay rent, electricity bills, buy groceries, handle our children’s education fees. My husband is no more and I’m not able to provide proper education to my children. I’m paying fees for the one child and I’m not able to provide education for my daughter. I’m struggling and I’m the breadwinner of the family,”said Mangai, another woman voter.
In equal parts, these moves are met with hope and skepticism. A section of the women say they are mere eyewash. They remember many promises made in the past that have never been met. Kupamma, another woman voter in Chennai, said: “First the DMK announced Rs 1,000 for housewives. Immediately the AIADMK made a similar announcement, with the amount being Rs 1,500. We didn’t receive a single free cylinder during the high-impact days of the coronavirus but the AIADMK is promising six free cylinders a year. On the announcement about cooperative loans write-off that the ADMK announced earlier, we checked with the authorities but they say the G.O. hasn’t been passed yet.”
Many women in the lower strata of the society are just emerging from the financial turmoil brought by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many lost their jobs. The struggle to survive had shown them the lacunae on the part of the government in helping out at a time of crisis. Saritha, a woman voter in Chennai, who worked as a cleaner at the premises of a small business, said: “During the Covid phase, we lost jobs. We didn’t have an income then. Where were these people during that phase? Now they say they will give us 1,000 or 1,500. This will come back to bite us, considering the hike in electricity bill. Gold Winner refined oil which was once sold at Rs 90 is now sold at Rs150. How can we cope with this price?”
Wooing women for votes is not a new concept in Tamil Nadu. For years, AIADMK icon J Jayalalithaa had groomed a loyal legion of women supporters. She drew them by a slew of announcements that catered to them exclusively: gold coins for brides, mopeds at 50% subsidy, and household essentials such as grinders and mixies, bicycles for girl students, and much more.
In the 2016 manifesto, Jayalalithaa promised a 50% subsidy for working women who buy two-wheelers. “We bought Honda Activa for Rs 54,000. Two days later, the government official paid us Rs25,000. So, we really bought the bike at just half the price. Jaya Amma always implemented her promises and she did a lot for the women fraternity,” said Mumtaz.
It is probably an indication that Jayalalithaa’s stranglehold on the women vote base may have disappeared with her, forcing the AIADMK to get into a tight contest with the DMK for their support.
“Until Jayalalithaa was alive, she did a lot for us,” said a woman voter near Chennai. “She helped a lot when it came to our children’s education. After her death, they haven’t done anything for us. We have left our hometown and come here to work. We didn’t have problems till Jaya Amma was alive. After her death, we get nothing. Only when one has a ration card, she gets something. We don’t have ration cards and we don’t get any benefits. If Amma was alive, I would have voted. Now we have to see who helps us and only then vote.”
Political analysts point out that while Jayalalithaa may have owned the women voter segment with her sops — and the fact that she held sway as a politician in what was clearly one of the most hostile environments for a woman to survive — it was her mentor MG Rmachandran and his arch-rival Karunanidhi who were pioneers in cultivating such a segment in the first place.
N Sathiya Moorthy, a political analyst said: “Wooing women voters goes back particularly to the MGR era, but even the free education and noon meal scheme, etc, also benefited rural women. Both him and Karunanidhi competed with each other in the empowerment of new-generation voters, who began taking up full time jobs first and professional education later on.”
Sathiya Moorthy sides with the skeptics when it comes to converting doles into votes: “A lot depends on the credibility, or perceptions thereof. Women are worldly-wise now than ever before. With competing cash offers, they will look at the add-ons, and evaluate them for medium-term sustainability.”