When a few women from nearby villages met Nitish Kumar recently over the issue of widespread alcoholism in rural areas, he was quick to respond, “These women are right. If I return to power, I will have it (alcohol) stopped.”
Many thought of it as a poll gimmick or a not so serious quip by the seasoned politician, but those who have followed the Chanakya of Bihar politics know that he was targeting a very valuable vote bank i.e. the women voters of the state. In similar fashion, Nitish announced that almost 3.5 lakh contractual teachers will get on to a pay scale, which amounts to a pay hike from August 1. Point to be noted: half of the teachers are women.
The message is clear. In Bihar where political fortunes rest on caste, having the support of women voters can change the game for Nitish. Nitish doesn’t want this time-tested vote bank to slip away from his hands.
Women think politically too
In a caste entrenched society of Bihar, women voters are ‘caste neutral’. Generally, it is perceived that women vote in a similar fashion as their male family members. But such an assumption is clearly unfair to their mature political understanding.
In the February 2005 elections, no party emerged as winner and President’s rule was declared in Bihar. JDU (then a part of NDA) managed to bag 55 seats, BJP 37 & RJD 75. Re-elections happened in the month of October, but within 8 months JDU had managed to increase its tally to 88 & BJP to 55. RJD went down from 75 to 54.
Interestingly in that election, the voting percentage of male voters had come down by 3% and that of women voters had gone up by 2%, changing equations drastically for the NDA. In a traditional and patriarchal society, this was an amazing political and social evolution.
Women were a loyal vote bank for JDU in the 2009 Lok Sabha and 2010 Assembly polls too. In 2010, 54.5% of women voters cast their votes in comparison to 51.5% of male voters. JDU’s seat tally crossed 100 for the first time. The trend was repeated in 2014 general elections too. While covering the elections, I would often see long lines of women outside poling booths, most of them voting for Nitish, though in the end other factors contributed to the party’s poor showing.
Banking on Nitish
One of the victims of ‘Jungle Raj’ of Lalu Prasad was women. The lawlessness and lack of employment affected them the most. Women of Bihar saw a hope in Nitish and ensured his victory in 2005. Then it was pay back time and Nitish didn’t disappoint them either.
In 2006, Nitish govt, in a historic decision, announced 50% reservation for women at panchayat level. It not only strengthened his vote bank, but also gave confidence and a feeling of equality amongst the oppressed women of Bihar. Today, you will find women mukhiyas and sarpanchs in many villages.
Under the ‘talent and tool’ scheme, women from schedule castes and Muslim communities were given training in almost two dozen vocational courses. In 2008, Nitish distributed free land to the women of Mahadalit and Muslim communities.
Last year the JDU government also announced a scheme which give Rs 150/- annually to girls to buy sanitary napkins. A scheme under which girl students of 9th and 10th standards were provided free bicycles also won laurels for Nitish. It helped check the school drop out rate significantly.
One of the most visible signs of women empowerment in Bihar can be seen at the traffic signals in Patna. Women enjoy 35% reservation in the police force in Bihar. Almost every important traffic signal in Patna is today managed by women police constables.
BJP changes strategy
Realising the potential of women voters, BJP chief Amit Shah has directed all his MP’s and ward workers from Bihar to gift the ‘Pradhan Mantri Bima Suraksha Yojana’ (an insurance scheme) to as many ‘sisters’ as they can. Shah is keen that the insurance scheme and the ‘Sukanya Smridhi Yojana’ be pushed aggressively in Bihar before model code of conduct kicks in.
Narendra Modi has been continuously making attempts to reach out to women, by talking about his campaign Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao. His appeals to build toilets for girls in government schools have found some resonance.
Problems for JDU
Nitish’s biggest worry will be his tie up Lalu Prasad, whose misrule women dreaded. Nitish’s claims of ‘su-shashan’ (good governance) have been dented. Which is why Nitish is now making renewed efforts to reach out to women. BJP on its part is leaving no stone unturned in highlighting the ‘return of Jungle Raj’ or ‘Jungle Raj-part 2’. In the coming days this rhetoric is going to grow louder.
Whether Nitish manages to keep this vote bank with him or whether Modi manages to eat into it, one thing is very clear – the ‘womaniya’ of Bihar have the power to change the equations of these elections.