As part of its manifesto released on Thursday, the BJP has vowed to make 10 million women in Bihar self-dependent in the next five years through self-help groups (SHGs). It has also promised jobs to 3.5 lakh women teachers in schools, high schools and universities. The JD(U) promises to give women clearing class 12 Rs 25,000 each, and every graduate Rs 50,000, apart from promising financial aid to boost women-run businesses.
In the 2015 assembly polls and 2019 general elections, women outnumbered men in voting.
Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, who is fighting a 15-year anti-incumbency, has often been given the credit of carefully carving out a separate women vote-bank for him after delivering on promises such as bicycles for women, and reservations for them in local bodies.
Women who comprise 47% of the state’s electorate, have remained loyal to Kumar since 2010, and their voting percentage has steadily increased in successive elections. While the major pro-women plank of Nitish Kumar's campaign is prohibition, he has not made it the focal pitch of his campaign.
According to political analyst Sajjan Kumar, Nitish Kumar responded to women’s needs, and came up with policies that had a qualitative impact on not just their lives, but also in the way they think. He said it was more about who the women relate most to, as opposed to what political parties announce during elections.
“My hunch is that, with the autonomy that women have within caste and class considerations, Nitish Kumar still has the edge because every now and then he has done something for them. Parties such as LJP and RJD are also talking about women, but the question is if the others have credibility in the popular psyche of a Bihari female voter.”
“Giving bicycles was about increasing their visibility, after which reservation for them in local bodies followed. Before that there was never an attempt to address them as voters. In 2015 when the election became identity centric and governance took a back seat, there was nothing specific for women, but all credit to him, as soon as he came to power, he brought up prohibition. Even if his popularity took a dip because it was not a fiscally prudent decision, he did that. Many women, particularly from lower castes, saw value in it.”
He admits that while Nitish Kumar is facing the worst anti-incumbency, he will have an edge, particularly among the vulnerable sections. “Apart from the upper caste communities and Yadavs, there is a large section of lower OBCS, the EBCs who are vulnerable. These communities are wary of the BJP and RJD, but more of the RJD which is why the soft image of Nitish Kumar helps, particularly for women voters.”
Tara Krishnaswamy, founder of Shakti, a women’s collective passionate about female leaders in politics that works in Bihar, said unlike other groups such as farmers, for women to trust Nitish Kumar, he has delivered and has not based his popularity on promises alone. “There are proven percentages based on research that there is a women’s vote that has gone to Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik, Mamata, and also Nitish regardless of caste.”
She added that the last two times Nitish Kumar could structure women’s issues more strategically. “This time, unemployment is at an all-time high. The question is whether the work he did for women will outweigh the anti-incumbency, and I think, most likely it won't."
She said it is a welcome sign that parties are giving more tickets to women, although the numbers are nowhere close to critical mass. “The percentage of tickets that political parties give women hovers under 10%. But this time, every party has improved its tally –– BJP and RJD has 11% female candidates, as opposed to 9% last time, and JD(U) has a substantive 20%."
But it may not be all that good, this time for Nitish Kumar is facing questions on lack of development, economic distress, migration and threat to safety of women that he has never faced before.
RJD spokesperson Nawal Kishore told ET that a large part of the narrative that Nitish has done a lot for women is just a “myth”. “He says he has given cycles for girl students, but 70% of the school buildings have no computers in them. The quality of teachers in the state is pathetic as most of them got recruited in 2006 as part of Kaagaaz lao, naukri pao..Women need safety, economic empowerment which Nitish has not provided.”
Kishore said when it came to prohibition, nearly one lakh men were jailed in the last 20 months which has led to anger among the poor.
Trying to woo over 4.5 lakh contract teachers, the RJD manifesto promises to do away with the contract system and implement “equal work for equal pay”. Tejashwi Yadav has been highlighting the struggles of teachers and health workers on contract. The Jeevika programme was launched by the state government with assistance of the World Bank in 2006, and it promotes rural livelihoods. According to official figures, there are more than eight lakh self-help groups in the state that employs lakhs of Jeevika didis who play an important part in mobilising women for government programmes. “We have identified 1.5 crore such women workers whose remuneration has remained static for 15 years and we have promised to not just double it, but also regularise them. Apart from that, our employment scheme will directly benefit educated women and we have promised to deliver that as soon as we come to power,” Kishore added.
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