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February 25, 1998


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The right to vote

Haresh Pandya

When it comes to elections in Saurashtra, it is the woman voter who has played a prominent role. Especially in the villages, where she have been curiously sympathetic towards any woman candidate in the fray. Women voters also get carried away by names like Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. That apart, they are influenced by those contestants who personally request them for their votes. The scene is only slightly different in cities.

Rambhiben Chavda of Padadhri village, Rajkot, has been voting for as long as she can remember. Though completely illiterate, she has, at 78, witnessed a long parade of governments, both at the state and central levels.

When asked if she is influenced by her husband, Kanabhai, who has studied up to standard IV, says she always takes her own decisions in such matters. Her favourite party -- the Congress. She was fascinated by Indira Gandhi, "a woman who sacrificed a lot for the betterment of India" and was sure that Sonia Gandhi too would follow in her footsteps.

Then there is 37-year-old Padmaben Dabhi of Bhesan village, Junagadh, who has studied up to standard VII. When it comes to casting her vote, though, she is guided by her schoolteacher husband, Dhirajbhai. She says she does not understand games played by political leaders but has, over the years, come to believe that "we must vote without fail." Padmaben likes it when contestants visit voters and ask for help to win the elections.

Champaben Parmar of Lalpur town, Jamnagar, hails from a very poor family. Her husband, a factory worker, is unable to earn enough money to support their family of eight. So Champaben (42) works as a maid servant in a couple of houses. Though not very educated, the passage of years has taught her some hard lessons. "Sometimes I vote, sometimes I don't. It all depends on whether I have that much free time. My husband never tells me whom to vote. I usually decide in the polling booth itself. Many netas come to us when the elections are on, they promise us the moon but, once elected, don't show their faces till the next elections. Over the years, I've realised all politicians are selfish. Nobody cares about our problems. We are getting poorer by the day, and our leaders are of no help. It makes me wonder why I should vote!"

Chandrikaben Mehta, 31, is a typist in a private firm in Rajkot. Initially, she is hesitant, but when she does speak, it is an explosion, "I have never voted in any election. What's the point? What will they do for us after we make them victorious? I have no faith in our political leaders and our political system. I am patriotic, yet I say it is a curse to born in this country. Except the wealthy and a few lucky ones, is anyone happy here? Do you think the BJP will bring in Utopia? Do you think the Congress will tackle all our problems? I am sorry to say this, but I feel our politicians deserve to be hanged. It sounds funny when they describe our votes as holy. If it is holy, why do they not preserve its dignity? Maybe, we women can do a lot for this country if we are united. But who will let us unite? Except for a few women, we are exactly where we were before Independence. My husband does not like my bitter attitude, but I ask him to try to understand my feelings. Of course, he always casts his vote."

While it doesn't work in cities, political propaganda sometimes works like magic when it comes to influencing women voters in the village. Good speakers tend to win over most of the women to their side. And all politicians, even the novices, know this.

They even know that mothers sometimes influence their daughters' votes. Daughters in Saurashtra tend to obey their parent blindly. And, in villages, women generally go in groups to cast their votes and often follow the pattern adopted by the first voter! Their unity in this particular matter has to be seen to be believed!

They also tend to get carried away by well-known film and television personalities, particularly if they are women. No star has ever lost in Saurashtra and, usually, it is the women voters who are responsible. Dipika 'Sita' Chikhalia, Arvind 'Ravan' Trivedi, Naresh Kanodia... they were all able to cast a spell on Saurashtra's women voters.

These elections will be no different. But, one thing is certain, irrespective of what the men do; the women will exercise their franchise. It is a different matter, though, that they will, in most cases, be guided by their husbands and friends. And many of them will vote just for the sake of voting, without giving any serious thought to either party or candidate.

Collage: Dominic Xavier

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