Tamil Nadu’s political parties are wooing women voters, but where are the candidates?

Both the AIADMK and DMK have a dismal number of women contesting in the upcoming Assembly elections at a time when there are more women voters than men.
Women standing in line to vote, and holding up their Voter IDs
Women standing in line to vote, and holding up their Voter IDs
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A monthly fixed monetary incentive, maternity leave, solar stoves, home medical services and more. These are some of the promises made by the DMK and AIADMK in the upcoming Tamil Nadu elections, and with good reason. These are expressly targeted at women, and Tamil Nadu’s women voters have voted in high numbers historically. In some cases, they have a higher vote share than men.

Consider this: During the last Assembly election in 2016 (the last time former leaders Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi contested in the elections), women voters created history. As per ECI data, 2.16 crore women voted in the elections, as opposed to 2.12 crore men — making it the first time that there were more women electors than men. Women became a determining factor in the AIADMK government being elected because of the support the party enjoyed, and the AIADMK’s vote share among women was 10 percentage points more.

The electorate has steadily grown. As per the Election Commission for 2021, there are a total of 6.26 crore electors — 3.18 crore women and 3.08 crore men.

Let’s look at the promises that have been made by major parties for women:


> Rs 1500 each per month for women in households

> Increase in maternity leave, increase in quota from 30% to 40% for government employees

> A 50% fare cut in town buses

> Digital market to sell SHG products

> Free washing machine and and solar stoves as well as six free gas cylinders


> Rs 1000 per month for every ration card holder’s housewife

> Quota in government jobs quota from 30% to 40%

> 12-month maternity leave and maternity allowance for women to be increased to Rs 24,000 from Rs 18,000

> Coaching centres in every district for graduate women to gain employment opportunities

> Free travel for women in town buses

In addition to AIADMK and DMK, Makkal Needhi Maiam and AMMK also have several promises geared towards women.

Despite the strong number of voters and high voter turnout, the parties do dismally when it comes to even putting up women candidates to contest.

On the other hand, while the number of women candidates has steadily increased since 1977, there hasn’t been a proportional increase in representation in the Assembly, largely because the increase in candidates is not from the primary parties.

Here are the women candidates and women in Assembly in the last 10 elections: 

Year Total
in Assembly
1977 1,390 24 2
1980 1,029 17 5
1985 1,498 61 8
1989 3,046 78 10
1991 2,843 102 31
1996 5,017 156 12
2001 1,860 109 25
2006 2,586 156 22
2011 2,748 143 17
2016 3,787 323 21

However, the numbers for the DMK and AIADMK (the only two parties that have been in power since 1967 in the state), have been stagnant. 

Year DMK
1977 3 - 4 2
1980 3 - 2 2
1985 8 - 6 5
1989 7 5 8* 2
1991 7 - 26 25
1996 9 8 3 -
2001 16 - 20 19
2006 12 7 23 7
2011 11 1 13 12
2016 19 4 21 16

Note: In 1989, AIADMK split into two factions, one led by Janaki and the other by former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. The numbers for both factions have been combined. They had 4 women candidates each. 

Even in 2021, while the two parties have recognised the importance of women as a vote base, they are yet to feel the need to even put up women to contest — let alone have them in the Assembly and in positions of power. Vote bank aside, the representation of women in politics doesn’t seem to be on the agenda of any of the major parties.  

Here’s where they stand for 2021: The AIADMK is fielding 14 candidates out of 171, or just about 8%. For DMK — it's 11 out of 173, or 6.3%. 

These are both parties who have spoken about 33% reservation in the legislature for women and fought to take credit for it when it was about local bodies, as well as backed the Women’s Reservation Bill. But when it comes to the legislature, going by the list of those who are contesting, the parties have shown that it is limited to lip service. 

In December 2020, Makkal Needhi Maiam’s party chief Kamal Haasan, at an event by the party’s womens wing, said he was concerned about the representation of women in the state Cabinet and placed the onus on women electors. 

“In 234 constituencies, there are only 20 women MLAs. In the cabinet, out of 30, there are only four women ministers. All the women should protest against this gender bias irrespective of party. The women cadres of MNM should fight even stronger because you have the full support of the party high command,” he said.

Less than three months later, even MNM doesn’t live up to its word. The party is contesting in 154 constituencies. The number of women who are contesting? Twelve. 

For the Congress, which is in an alliance with the DMK and is contesting with 25 seats, there is just one woman candidate — MLA S Vijayadharani. Tamil Nadu Mahila Congress president R Sudha, in a letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, said that the lack of women candidates demotivated women in the Congress. 

“It pains me tremendously that under your inspiring leadership there has been no just representation for women cadre, which demotivates not just Congress women, but also conveys the wrong message to all my sisters across Tamil Nadu,” she said.

The BJP has fielded three women candidates out of 20. Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi, meanwhile, is the only party where 50% of the candidates are women. 

Tara Krishnaswamy, the co-founder of Shakti, a collective working to increase the representation of women in politics, says that while parties may give out doles for genuine schemes, there is always greed for power.

“Overwhelmingly, Jayalalithaa received the women's vote and she has the history of not just announcing but delivering schemes for women. If schemes are announced and delivered, then there is great benefit to them and they tend to vote accordingly. This is something parties know. The DMK, for example, has never had the women's vote so they have really gone all out in terms of economic impetus to women. That is an understandable correlation,” she says, adding that parties are wooing them because the women’s vote can swing the victory. 

She says that schemes for men are geared towards caste and profession (which too is related to caste many-a-time), schemes for women are towards all women. 

“They are not necessarily voting by caste. There is a cross-caste gender-based vote that is happening, which is the reason schemes are geared to all women. This is an extremely positive thing and is a bloc vote, so to speak. There is enough of that happening that parties are appealing to women as a whole,” she adds. Women are more practical about governance when they vote, she says. 

However, when it comes to sharing political power, she says that men will have to give up something of their own, and in that case, they band together. 

“Men across parties don't want to share political power that is why across parties you see such vocal under-representation of female candidates. Men are banding together when it comes to hoarding power. Political power being the ultimate power, they don't want to share it,” she says. 

She adds that parties don’t need to wait for the Women’s Reservation Bill, and can pass an internal rule to have a certain percentage of women in their candidate list. “They can ensure they are gender representative just the way they are caste representative,” she says. 

“The reason we champion the Women's Reservation Bill is not because we need to reserve places for women. We need to reserve places for men so that they don't exceed that 50%. They don't know how to play within their sandbox so we need to draw a line around their sandbox. Otherwise they are going to encroach into everybody else's space,” she adds.

Unlike local body elections, Assembly and Parliament don’t have a women’s quota. While the parties may talk about 33% women’s representation, they’ve shown in practice that for now, that is just a pipe dream.

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