Women

Amidst Pitched Poll Campaigns, Bihar Sees a Parallel Drive For Women's Representation

A group called Political Shakti has been leading a campaign backed by women legislators, for more tickets to women.

Mohali: The first phase of polling in Bihar is just a couple of weeks away, and while political parties are in the thick of campaigns, a parallel one is being run by a citizen’s collective to draw attention to women’s representation in the politics of the state.

Political Shakti, launched in 2018, is demanding that all major political parties must give at least 50% of their tickets to women candidates.

A video released by the collective titled ‘Aadha Hamara,’ or ‘Half Is Ours’ has clocked lakhs of views on social media and has grabbed the attention of the likes of Prakash Raj, Richa Chadha and many others from the Bhojpuri and Maithili entertainment industry.

So, how have parties distributed tickets to women so far?

As of October 16, the Mahagathbandhan (comprising the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Congress and Left parties), the Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party have released lists of all their contesting candidates. The Lok Janshakti Party has given the names of only a few.

A look at the list of candidates released, so far, shows that the JD(U) has given the maximum number of tickets to women candidates out of the parties, 18%.

“This is the first time in the history of Bihar, or the history of India dare I say, that a political party has given almost 18% of its tickets to women,” Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Political Shakti said.

Krishnaswamy believes that this may have been a response to their rigorous campaign that her group has been running since July of this year.

Party Tickets given to women Total seats Percentage
RJD 17 144 11.8%
LJP 12 (as of October 16) 68 (as of October 16) 17%
JDU 20 115  18%
BJP 13 110  11.8%
INC 7 70  10%
Left parties – CPI, CPI(M) and CPI(ML) 0+0+1 6+4+19=29  3.4%

But Bihar’s past election trends paint a more complicated picture of the factors that drive women’s representation in the state.

Past trends

In the assembly elections, held in 2015, the Mahagathbandhan, which comprised the JD(U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress (INC) at the time, fielded 10,10 and four women candidates respectively.

The BJP, on the other hand, fielded 14 and the Left parties comprising the CPI, CPI(M) and the CPI (ML) fielded a total of 12 women candidates.

In terms of percentage, the JDU, the RJD and the BJP fielded roughly 9% women candidates each, whereas the Congress fielded around 10% and the left parties lagged behind with only 5% representation.

Of all the women candidates fielded that year, 28 women made it to the assembly. This was a slight drop from 2010, when there were 34 women in the Bihar legislative assembly – highest ever in Bihar’s history.

 

Party Tickets to women
(2015 Bihar polls)
Total seats contested  Percentage of tickets given to women
RJD 10 101 9.9%
LJP 4 42 9.5%
JDU 10 101 9.9%
BJP 14 157 8.9%
INC 4 38 10.5%
Left parties – CPI, CPI(M), and CPI(ML) 2+3+7=12 98+43+98= 239 5.02%

Source: IndiaSpend, ADR

A look at the data from the three assembly elections prior to 2015, collated by IndiaSpend, also shows that for the first time since 2000, a leading party like the JD(U) has fielded almost 18% women candidates.

Why explains JDU’s higher ticket share for women?

Speaking to The Wire, Bhanupriya Rao, a journalist who closely works on gender in politics in India and has worked extensively in Bihar on the subject, explained that JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar has largely prioritised women’s welfare.

However, Rao said that it is also important to note if the JD(U) has fielded women from non-political backgrounds or not. “Women who are from non-political backgrounds find it difficult to finance their campaigns and move up the ladder,” Rao explained, and thus most of the time, “political parties end up giving tickets to women from business families of politically-affiliated families.”

But Rao said that for the JD(U), the 50% reservation for women in panchayats and 35% reservation for women in government jobs have worked well with the fact that in the last two elections, the state saw a high percentage of women voters.

In the 2015 assembly elections, according to the Election Commission of India, Bihar had almost 50% women voters. Of the total 6 crore voters, 3.11 crore were women and 3.56 crore were men.

“This phenomenon pre-dates Nitish Kumar,” Rao said. She explained that women were seen as a crucial vote bank and so voting was made accessible to them.

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar at a campaign rally in Aurangabad. Photo: PTI

Is the ‘winnability’ of the seats restricting women’s representation?

Data shows that while the JD(U) has always given more tickets to women, the Left parties have lagged behind among the major parties.

In the current elections, the three Left parties combined have fielded only one woman candidate.

Speaking to The Wire, Kavita Krishnan, a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninst) Liberation [CPI(ML)] said, “I will give no excuses for this.”

She added, “We had to drastically reduce the number of seats we contested. In the past, we have contested around a 100 seats but not this time. I won’t say we have fielded an optimum number of women [now or in the past]. There is certainly scope of fielding more women.”

Krishnan said that they did tell their coalition partners, the RJD and Congress, to field more women since they are contesting on a greater number of seats.

Also read: COVID-19, a Cornered Nitish and a Teetering Opposition: The Talking Points of Bihar 2020

“Since we have been reduced to only a section of seats, we have fielded our senior leader, Shashi Yadav who has done a lot of work with working women, like the ASHA workers, in Bihar. Having said this, I want to say that the hard work [in ensuring proper representation] must begin even before the elections,” she said.

Winnability is a big factor during polls and often the work needed to make a leader out of a woman is not put in, feels Krishnan.

“It’s not as if you can just field a woman candidate, you must also look at whether she is a natural leader from that area,” she said, “I will admit that not enough work has been done on this by us. And not just us, most political parties need to do this.”

“If you don’t actively encourage women to become leaders, they will remain absent from politics,” Bhanupriya Rao added in this regard.

Krishnan added that when parties feel they are restricted to a section of seats which they are more likely to win, then automatically the cause of women’s representation takes a hit.

Patna: Lok Janshakti Party workers celebrate after being separated from NDA ahead of Bihar Assembly Elections, in Patna. Photo: PTI

Political Shakti’s Krishnaswamy said that the Left parties have never given fair representation to women. “For this election, it’s the JD(U), RJD and BJP which will determine the number of women in the Bihar assembly,” she said.

Speaking to The Wire, Dr Suheli Mehta, spokesperson for the JD(U) said that her party has been working for the last 15 years to develop women leaders.

When asked as to how much decision-making power women have in the party, Mehta said that in the panchayat level her party has empowered women to take independent decisions.

“Earlier only 20% women would make independent decisions, their husbands or brothers would be involved mostly, but now 80% women make decisions on their own,” Mehta claimed.

However, the current Bihar cabinet has only two women ministers. “You are right that there’s less women’s representation at the top level, but since we are making progress at the ground level, I am hopeful that such a change will reach the top soon,” Mehta said

What women think about representation

Back in March this year, right before the pandemic struck India, women MLAs cutting across party lines staged a protest in Bihar demanding 33% reservation for women in the Bihar legislature.

Speaking to The Wire over the phone, Poonam Devi Yadav, a JD(U) MLA from Khagaria said the protest, of which she was a part, was a justified one.

Political Shakti’s campaign notices the effort by women legislators to make their voices heard.

“We reached out to all 28 sitting women MLAs and asked if they agree with our demand and if they’re willing to put it in front of their parties’ top leadership and they said yes,” Krishnaswamy said.

She added, “We knew we can’t get reservations for women in the state elections, the bill has to be debated in the parliament first, so we put forth the demand to field more women first.”

Poonam Devi Yadav is one who has lent support.

Krishnaswamy said that they sent petitions to the leaders of 25 national and regional parties to give 50% tickets to women. The petitions were signed not just by volunteers working with Shakti but also eminent personalities from Bihar.

More than 120 organisations from various districts signed the petition.

“When such a petition, signed by various sections of people representing the people of Bihar reaches a Nitish Kumar or a Tejasawi Yadav, they are bound to think it over and realise that people do want to see more women to be fielded in the elections,” Krishnaswamy said.

Shakti’s volunteers also collaborated with the elected sarpanches and mukhiyas to run a selfie-campaign.