06/12/2016 2:00 PM IST | Updated 06/12/2016 9:51 PM IST

Jayalalithaa's Support Among Women Voters Was Unlike Anything India Has Seen

And that's not something women politicians can take for granted.

Babu Babu / Reuters
Supporters of J. Jayalalithaa wear masks as they gesture during an election campaign ahead of the general elections in Chennai, March 21, 2014.

When Jayalalithaa swept to a historic fourth term as Chief Minister this summer, she set an unusual precedent in Indian politics--she was propelled to power by women, a trend not seen in this scale in the state or in the rest of the country.

A pre-election opinion poll by Lokniti-CSDS showed that while 36% of men preferred the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), the preference among women was 46%. The AIADMK trailed the second place DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) alliance among male voters in all groups except the upper castes. However, women voters from all communities except Christians preferred the AIADMK. With women voters outnumbering men in 2016, this could well have been the decisive edge. Women were less likely to perceive her as corrupt and more likely to perceive her as caring.

This might seem obvious, but hasn't always been the case; women voters do not usually vote significantly differently from men, and Jayalalithaa's contemporaries don't enjoy the same level of electoral backing from women. A Lokniti-CSDS post-election opinion poll for West Bengal showed that women's preference for All India Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee was only one percentage point higher than that among men. In 2012, male voters were more likely to prefer Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati as Chief Minister than women in Uttar Pradesh. But in Tamil Nadu, the Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey showed a seven percentage point difference between male and female preference for Jayalalithaa as CM.

Besides, this trend became stronger over the years. 2016 saw the highest support among women for Jayalalithaa that the party had ever seen. The strong support among women for the AIADMK was particularly significant because, as Chennai-based senior journalist A.S. Panneerselvan told HuffPost India, the AIADMK was alone among the three major alliances which did not make prohibition the central issue. The promise of a ban on the sale of alcohol, widely seen as one of the reasons behind the Nitish Kumar-led alliance's victory in Bihar in 2015, was seen by the other two alliances as a vote-gainer among women.

"Jayalalithaa carried forward the social investment in Tamil Nadu that began in a sense in 1967 [the first time a Dravidian party came to power]," Panneerselvan said, "but she fine-tuned it with a great deal of gender sensitivity." In the early 90s, Jayalalithaa introduced the "cradle baby" scheme that allowed mothers to anonymously hand over their children--usually girls--to the state. Other schemes targetted at women include a maternity kit provided to women who deliver their babies at government hospitals, and a scheme to give gold and cash to women who complete their degrees.

Jayalalithaa might not have groomed women MLAs, ministers or MPs but she is responsible for promoting excellent women collectors and police officers, Panneerselvan said. For women voters, additionally, there was comfort in the fact that the effective Number 2 in the party--Sasikala Natarajan, Jayalalithaa's long-time aide--was also a woman, he said.