It’s difficult to coax a conversation out of Bimala Devi in the mornings. She starts her day at 6 am, walks from the slums of Krishna Nagar to the markets of Shimla’s celebrated Mall Road and once she is done with sweeping and cleaning designated shops (about 8-10 shops a day), she heads back home to cook lunch for her school-going grandchildren.
Each minute of our conversation is stalling her day by that much time. “Yes, I will vote this year, but I don’t have just a few issues in mind. Mehangai (price rise) is an issue but I will still vote for the BJP,” she says. Asked why, she said, “He (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) got us a big hospital (AIIMS) in Bilaspur (Himachal Pradesh). That’s important. Otherwise, we had to go to other states for our treatment.”
Himachal Pradesh will vote on Saturday and according to the figures of the last Assembly election, 79 per cent women had voted while only 70 per cent men had practiced adult franchise. These numbers are in stark contrast to the figures in the neighbouring states, including Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
Clearly, this is an informed, aware electorate and political parties have tried their best to woo them. Congress’s manifesto promises every adult woman a monthly stipend of Rs 1,500, the Aam Aadmi Party said it will provide a stipend of Rs 1,000 and the BJP manifesto promises a reservation of 33 per cent in government jobs and government-run educational institutions.
However, for 38-year-old Sunita Devi, a homemaker from Nankhari, a village about 100 km from Shimla, mehangai is the main issue that will determine her vote. LPG cylinders cost around Rs 1,100 in Shimla and that has forced Sunita to cut down on other expenses. “I save money by walking instead of taking the bus to the market. I feel that the government has not done enough to take care of unemployment in the state. These things affect us directly,” she says.
According to the 2011 Census, Himachal Pradesh has, at 47.4 per cent, the second-largest participation of women in the labour force in the rural areas. The literacy rate of women here is 73.51%.
A mere mention in the manifestos may not be enough to woo the women voters of Himachal Pradesh and Anu Sharma, a student of journalism in Himachal Pradesh University, bolsters one’s belief in that. “You will see women working in every field here but you won’t find many women political leaders. I think that’s important,” she says. While the BJP has given tickets to only six women candidates in Himachal Pradesh, the Congress has nominated only three.
“As a woman voter, my priority is the development of my district Chamba. My district is still considered to be one of the most backward in the country. Even now, pregnant women of Chamba have to travel hundreds of kilometres for delivery or even for proper check-up,” says Anu.
Seema Azad, a librarian at the Himachal Pradesh Library, feels that women voters should rise above their “petty concerns” and vote for development. “I think we should not be focussed only on issues like price rise and Old Pension Scheme (OPS). That’s a very blinkered worldview. We need to vote for development,” she says.
On the other hand, Ambika Ghemta, an LIC agent from Chaupal, believes that stagnation is something that is killing the spirit of the state. “Our ambitions are too limited. The same set of promises have been made for too long. Government jobs are handed out like doles. We need a change,” she says.
Shilpa, 27, a homemaker from Hamirpur, feels that unemployment is an issue that needs to be taken more seriously in the state. According to the official website of the Himachal Pradesh Department of Labour and Employment, the number of registered unemployed youths of the state stands at 8,77,507 (March 2022).
“We need to vote for a party which will tackle this problem in a scientific manner. Each party makes big promises but never delivers. We need to bring an end to this,” she sums up.