Photo: Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times
Photo: Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times

Women voters behind Nitish’s success?

Education, a life free from the fear of crime are among factors seen behind the emergence of the woman voter

New Delhi: It was in 2010 that a watershed moment in Bihar assembly elections occurred.

For the first time, the turnout of women voters (54.85%) was higher than that of male voters (50.70%). In 2015, the trend continued with 59.92% of women voters exercising their franchise in the five-phase election as opposed to 54.07% male voters.

It is a remarkable achievement considering that till 2000, the gender gap in voter turnout was around 20%. From migration of Bihari men for employment to unemployment of the female agricultural voter owing to reduced rainfall to improved law and order situation, there are several reasons put forth for the increased and even enthusiastic participation of women voters even though the state suffers on indices such as female literacy rate (52%) and skewed sex ratio (935 females per 1,000 males.)

Catch’em young is clearly Nitish Kumar’s motto when it comes to securing the loyalties of women voters. Since being sworn into power in 2005, Kumar has launched several schemes aimed at the welfare of girls as well as women.

He started the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojna under which four million girls were given bicycles to ease their commute to school. The scheme to distribute sanitary napkins to school girls was also launched under him in April 2014.

Both of these were aimed at reducing the dropout rates of adolescent girls from school. His government has also ensured 50% reservation for women in the panchayati raj system.

In August, he was quoted as saying that the development of the state is not possible without the development of women. It’s a move that seems to have paid off for him with the spectacular showing of not just the Grand Alliance but also Kumar’s own party, JD(U) in the elections.

“Women have increasingly become the agent of change in Bihar. In 2005, JD(U) came to power because of RJD as people were tired of the lawlessness and violence. Nitish recognized this and it reflected in his policies which were different such as the cycle scheme," says Shamika Ravi, fellow at Brookings India, a think tank.

Even in its current manifesto, the Grand Alliance has promised 35% reservation for women in all government jobs. In rallies, Nitish Kumar has also dangled the carrot of prohibition for women voters though there were fears whether his joining hands with Lalu Prasad’s RJD will alienate women voters.

The BJP too, in its manifesto, promised two-wheelers to 5,000 girl students who clear their 10th grade with distinction, thereby signifying the increased importance with which the female electorate was being viewed.

“More and more women are taking independent decisions about their voting. This is happening not just in Bihar but a few other states also. We can see this as the fruits of reservation for women in the panchayati raj system which was intended to increase women participation in the public sphere," says Sanjay Kumar, director, Centre for Study of Developing Societies, another think tank.

While there are several factors that have contributed to the victory of the Grand Alliance in these elections, the large turnout of women could be one of the strong variables, according to him.

In an interview to NDTV, chief election commissioner Nasim Zaidi revealed how the commission had launched a comprehensive programme to increase enrolment of women voters. “Fifty lakh more women voters were brought onto the electoral roll compared to 2010," he said. This increased the number of registered women voters from 14 million to 19 million.

“Education, a life free from the fear of crime, a decision making role...all these are factors that have contributed to the emergence of the woman voter in Bihar," says Shashi Sharma, head of the department of political science at Patna University.

Credit, according to her, is also due at the “gram mukhiya star (village headman level) who did a lot to energize women voters. Earlier, women would refuse to go or vote as a bloc but with increased literacy, they know the importance of vikas (development), they understand its variables and more importantly, how it has the power to change their lives as well as that of their children."

Two trends have stood out when it comes to Indian elections over the past decade and more. These are increasing participation of women and the role played by youth in elections.

“When you look at the vote of the young male, it broadly follows the pattern of the older men. The women’s vote stands as an independent corrective. It does not always follow the trend of the older men’s vote," Balveer Arora, political science professor with the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, said in the context of the Bihar elections.

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