By Jai Prakash Ojha for Youth Ki Awaaz:
In this cauldron of identity politics, gender has not yet made its statement forcefully. Identities have been built around caste, religion, language and of late, class i.e. middle class. But now things are beginning to change as the walls of patriarchy crumble, women are more visible in public domain and the traditional bastions of male supremacy are threatened. The participation of women with 59 percent voting in the 1st phase of Bihar elections was much more in comparison to men with 55 percent. The gender issue has entered the political discourse, gender budgeting has begun and the political parties are not averse to woo female voters as has been evident in the upcoming Bihar elections. The new found confidence and assertiveness of women in urban India and even in some rural parts point towards a new shift in Indian polity. But the conditions, I am afraid, are not yet ripe in Bihar where the Mandal parties like RJD and JDU have been the strongest opponents of the Women Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha along with the other socialist cum Mandal icon Mulayam Singh Yadav. In fact, they advocate the division of women on caste lines, rather than taking women as a whole, which is what their mentor Lohia wanted. The main parties of the state have given 10-15 percent of the tickets to women candidates which are not enough. Women constitute about 50 percent of the state population and it’s high time they are given representation commensurate with their strength.
The previous LS elections in 2014 in Bihar recorded a higher female voter turnout of 58 percent as compared to 55 for males. Compared to NDA and RJD, women voted in larger numbers for JDU. The reasons are not difficult to conjecture. Law and order situation improved during the tenure of Nitish and women found confidence to step out of their houses onto the streets and gain some visibility in public spaces. Nitish provided 50 percent reservation to women in panchayats which was path breaking in the direction of women empowerment at the grass root level. Provision of free school uniforms and bicycles for girls, micro financing of women through self help groups and 50 percent reservation for women in the appointment of teachers were steps that greatly enhanced the stock of the JDU leader in the eyes of female voters. In the upcoming Assembly elections, his promise of providing 35 percent reservation to women in state government appointments and ban alcohol consumption in the state, if re-elected, was made keeping the women voters in mind.
But despite all the magnificent work done by Nitish, the BJP need not despair. The spectre of RJD coming together with JDU may alienate the women voters away from the grand alliance due to fears of lawlessness on the streets. The 2004 and 2009 Assembly elections were contested by Nitish led NDA on the plank of development in which the role of women was solicited, but things may not turn the same way in this 2015 Assembly elections as the divisive caste agenda and the so called right agenda of the grand alliance and the NDA respectively tends to relegate the gender issue to the background. The female electorate may be torn asunder on caste/religious lines doing a great disservice to the cause of gender empowerment. Under the charged up circumstances, it is quite likely that women may vote the same way as men do. The new lows in vocabulary and intemperate utterances have greatly vitiated the entire atmosphere. Issues like safety and opportunities for women in education and jobs are not been adequately addressed by the parties in this volatile atmosphere. The politicians think that lowering the price of essential commodities might fetch them more women votes as it had happened in the past. Can anyone forget how a state election was lost by a ruling party in Maharashtra just because onion prices soared? This time too, the price of pulses has gone up and the grand alliance wants this to be an election issue.
Despite increasing urbanization levels, the population of the state is predominantly rural. For anyone living in the state as I am, it is crystal clear that the rural women of Bihar are not getting opportunities to explore their passions. The rural social structure and concomitant male supremacy tend to reduce the role of women in decision making and confine them to their homes. In the course of my visits to the rural hinterlands of the state, I have often come across dedicated women panchayat members who can’t take their own independent decisions because of patriarchy. Whether it is Bihar or UP, the sight of Pradhan Patis or Pradhan Pratinidhi is common in the meetings of panchayats. Empowerment at the grass root level has been mere superficial without altering the gender power equations.
Gender issues like equal opportunities for women in public employment and education, their economic empowerment and material well being etc. do come up in rhetorical speeches but in this divisive shrill election campaign, it remains to be seen if any political party is listening to the women voters. The real issues that are dear to women are hardly present in the core of present electoral discourse. Though Rabri Devi of RJD ruled the state for a considerable period of time, the seeds of women empowerment were not sown. It has been men all the way. Even at present, there is hardly any female political heavy weight in either camp that can espouse the cause of women effectively and set gender agenda.
Bihar Elections With Ojha’ is part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s special coverage of the Bihar 2015 elections.