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Bihar's Electoral Secret: How Nitish Kumar Created Women's Vote Bank With Women-Centric Policies

When the Narendra Modi government introduced the Women’s Reservation Bill, it was seen as an attempt to polarise women voters towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but, when it comes to polarising women voters, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is way ahead.

Women Power: Women dance in Patna after the ban on liquor was enforced
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Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was attending a programme on women at the S K Memorial Hall in Patna on July 9, 2015—just four months before the assembly elections. When the programme was almost over and Kumar was about to leave, a group of women suddenly broke protocol and wanted to say something to him. The organisers stopped them. Commotion followed. Nitish then intervened and asked the women to say whatever they wanted to say. The women said in unison in an appealing tone, “Mukhyamantriji, kripya karke sharab bandh karaiye. Humara ghar barbad ho raha hai (chief minister, please ban liquor. Our families are being ruined).”

This appeal was not only by a few women, but thousands of women wanted to say the same. Kumar, without wasting time, walked back to the dais and announced: “Apki mang zayaz hai. Agar is baar hamari sarkar bani, to hum sharab band karenge (Your demand is justified. If I come to power this time, I will prohibit liquor).” Hearing his announcement, the women clapped and thanked him.

It seemed at that time that he had spoken only to pacify the women. But his announcement was a calculated step. The focus was on women voters, whom he had successfully co-opted in his 15-year tenure as chief minister.

In the 2015 assembly elections, Nitish’s Janata Dal United (JDU), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress alliance won 178 seats and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) managed to win just 58 seats. Soon after the win, Kumar announced that the prohibition law would be implemented in Bihar from April 1, 2016.

He did what he had promised. The Bihar government implemented the anti-liquor law, and the next day, thousands of women came out on the streets and congratulated each other by applying gulal. It was an early Holi for them.

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Women Power: Girl students riding on bicycles provided under a state government scheme Photo: Getty Images

So what prompted him to fulfill the promise so quickly? Perhaps it was the voting figures, which showed that about 60.57 per cent women of the state came out of their homes and voted, which was about seven per cent more than men, and it was believed that women had voted in favour of Kumar.

When the Modi government introduced the women’s reservation bill—which gives one-third reservation to women in the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies—it was seen as an attempt to polarise women voters towards the BJP. But when it comes to polarising women voters, Kumar is way ahead.

The assembly elections of 2015 were very crucial for the JDU and the RJD, as both socialist parties had faced a shameful defeat at the hands of the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Sunita Devi, president of the Pragatisheel Mahila Manch, a non-profit active in the Rohtas district, who has been campaigning against liquor along with other women since 2013, says, “Just before the 2015 assembly elections, Kumar promised to bring a prohibition law. A hope was awakened among women and Kumar got the benefit of this. Women voted for his party in the 2015 elections.” Analysts say that it was socialist leaders who saw women as a strong and influential vote bank and initiated the process of taking beneficial steps to earn their dividends.

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Way back in 1992, the then chief minister, Lalu Prasad Yadav, had announced to give a two-day menstrual leave every month to government women employees. This two-day leave was in addition to the casual leave sanctioned in the government calendar.

Figures show that about 60.57 per cent women came out to vote, which was seven per cent more than men, and it was believed that women had voted in favour of Kumar because of the liquor ban.

However, this leave was not easily obtained. On the call of Leftist employees organisation, government employees went on strike in Patna for 52 consecutive days. As the administration came to a standstill due to the strike, Yadav had to accept their demand. CPI (ML) Liberation leader, Shashi Yadav, who has been associated with the movement to provide menstrual leave, says, “Even if it is for vote bank, if any government takes any decision in the interest of women, then women vote in favour of the ruling party. When the government decided to grant menstrual leave, women government employees strongly supported Lalu Prasad Yadav. Though, it is also true that this decision had no impact on common women.”

In 2005, when Lalu Prasad Yadav was dethroned and Nitish Kumar became chief minister in alliance with the BJP, his attention was drawn to women voters, who are also called ‘silent voters’ in political terminology. So, the first step that Kumar took to make women a separate and influential voting bloc was a 50 per cent reservation to women in more than 8,000 Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs). Kumar announced the reservation in 2006, just months after winning the assembly election in 2005. Bihar has about 2.50 lakh posts in PRIs, including panchayat chiefs, ward members among others.

He did not stop there. The Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana was aimed to target girl students. Under this scheme, a girl student is entitled to get Rs 2,000 upon passing 8th standard to buy a cycle. The scheme was launched in 2006 and the target was to minimise the school drop rate of girl students, but its hidden motive was to groom a strong women vote bank. The girls who were availing this scheme were going to become voters in the next 5-6 years.

The scheme was a hit. Data shows that 1.63 lakh schoolgirls benefited from this scheme in 2007-08 which increased to 4.36 in 2009-10. In his blog in 2010, Kumar wrote about the impact of this scheme, “Prior to the launch of this project more than three years ago, it was rare to find a schoolgirl riding a bicycle even on the streets of Patna. But now, you can watch scores of confident-looking schoolgirls pedaling away with gusto everywhere—from the narrow lanes of a remote village to the bustling roads of the cities across the state.”

In 2007, Kumar launched JEEViKA, an project for women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation, with financial assistance from the World Bank. JEEViKA is like a self-help group with women members. It focuses on the financial empowerment of women of poor rural families.

“When Kumar implemented the bicycle scheme for school students and made a provision for 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayats, women voted for Nitish Kumar’s party with great enthusiasm. In many houses, women went against the political inclinations of their male members and voted in support of Nitish Kumar’s party,” says Shashi Yadav.

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Though analysts say that Kumar, through women-centric initiatives, has successfully created a women’s vote bank, but it cannot be assumed that they will remain loyal to one party forever.

After the 2020 Bihar assembly elections, Ritambhara Singh of the Centre for Law and Policy Research wrote in her blog: “All these (schemes of the Nitish government) seemed to have played an important role in influencing the women voters. Additionally, his government has been keenly implementing numerous central government schemes aimed at women’s welfare.”

Though political analysts are of the view that Kumar, through women-centric initiatives, has successfully created a women’s vote bank, but it cannot be assumed that they will remain loyal to one party forever.

An important factor to take into account is the way any scheme is implemented. About 50 per cent reservation to women in panchayat posts have seen some serious malpractices at the panchayat level. In many panchayats, women representatives are still used by their husbands as rubber stamps, and the husbands take all the decisions. Moreover, it is the husband who issues official statements. The interference of husbands is so much that mukhiyapati (husband of mukhiya) has become a recognised post, and Hindi newspapers use this term in their news reports.

Similarly, after the implementation of the prohibition law, illegal liquor business started flourishing in the state, and about 200 people—mostly from poor and socially-backward communities—died after consuming poisonous liquor. There were serious allegations against the police of committing excesses under the guise of the prohibition law, but despite this, a large section of women have heaved a sigh of relief. In many cases, the women themselves informed the police and got their drunken husbands arrested.

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The availability of illegal liquor has resulted in some sort of anger among women. Rooma Kumari, who lost her father Harendar Ram due to the consumption of spurious liquor on December 13 last year in Saran district, says, “We have not got any benefit from the liquor ban. Those who sell liquor get the benefits, but I lost my father.”

“We were not against prohibition. We were against alcoholism, due to which the backward society was being ruined. With the introduction of the prohibition law, liquor is no longer available, but illegal liquor trade has taken its place. Hence, there is resentment among women,” says Sunita Devi.

Patna-based senior journalist Kanhaiya Bhelari says, “With women-friendly steps, a vote bank of women has definitely been created. Kumar has created a women vote bank by unveiling different schemes for women, which has benefited him during elections. However, it is also true that the loyalty of a vote bank is not permanent. There has been a decline in the women vote bank of JDU,” he adds.

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