With hope in their eyes, 54% of Bihar's 2.5 crore female voters — 10% more than in the 2005 election — cast their votes in the recently-concluded assembly elections. This, by all accounts, was a watershed event for a state that has been known for its lawlessness. Women, in fact, are gradually changing the face of politics in the state by participating more enthusiastically than men in the Panchayati Raj institutions, thus helping to weed out corruption.
In the last few years, the Bihar government has taken many steps to improve the status of women in the state. Many would not know, but Bihar, often mocked and discredited as a "backward" state, was the first to give 50% reservation to women in the panchayati raj institutions in 2006. Along with this, in the last three years, the government has spent nearly Rs 175 crore on cycles for nine lakh school-going girls, leading to a three-fold increase in the enrollment figures and halving of the dropout rates. There is more good news in store. In the last six years, Bihar's sex ratio has been better than the country's average.
Perhaps it is the improved law and order in the state that played a prominent role in drawing women to the polling booths. Whatever it may be, the increased participation of women in electoral politics signals a significant change in Bihar's patriarchal society. It shows that they no longer mirror the choices of their husbands, but instead have started to take baby-steps as independent political entities.
Their improved participation also shows the beneficial effects of the reservation made in 2006. In fact, last year when the women's reservation Bill seeking 33% seats for women in Parliament was moved in the Rajya Sabha, former chief minister and RJD chief Lalu Prasad opposed it, but two-time Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar supported it whole-heartedly. In fact, Kumar was among the few leaders in the Hindi heartland who supported the Bill.
The ongoing development progress in the state combined with the electoral turnout in Bihar should send a message to opponents of the reservation Bill in Parliament like Lalu Prasad and Sharad Yadav. On its part, the UPA should also try to ensure the passage of this crucial Bill in the Lok Sabha. In order to expedite the reform process and provide good governance, the Union government must do much more to include women in the mainstream and in decision-making bodies.
It's high time to put our preconceived notions aside and take a cue from Bihar. If other states want to write a similar growth story for themselves, it is imperative to realise that women have a key role to play in the rebuilding process.
(Ranjana Kumari is director, Centre for Social Research, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal)