“Chachi, who are you going to vote for? ” asked a Patna hotel manager when he went to his village in Hajipur distict. “Who is standing here?” She asked him. “It is Phool (lotus) versus Panja (hand),” he informed her. “But I want to vote for Nitish Kumar,” she said. “He has done so much for women and now he will do more and give women naukri.”
The manager explained that in that case she should press the button on the “panja”(Congress), which was in partnership with Nitish Kumar. “But will the panjawala remain with Nitish after the elections?” she wanted to make sure. Her caste? She was a Rajput.
There are several mystifying factors about the Battle for Bihar. If it is a Nitish election just as 2014 was a Modi poll, as straws in the wind are increasingly indicating, unexplained are the large crowds at Narendra Modi’s meetings. Also unexplained is the large turnout of women voters, outstripping the male turnout, in all the four phases where polling has been completed—in the fourth phase it was as much as a 6 percentage point difference—and this has provoked a great deal of speculation.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley attributed it to “migration” from Bihar — he was using it to take a swipe at the Nitish government for not creating enough jobs in the state—with more women left behind in Bihar. Others have talked about migrant women coming back to the state for “Chatth” pooja, yet others about the closure of brick kilns leaving them with more time on their hands. Some say that the BJP has worked hard to bring out the forward caste women to vote, which normally they do not do to the extent that their OBC, EBC and dalit sisters do, and in several of the phases there were longer queues seen on polling day in rural areas than in cities. And, then, of course there are those who dismiss any “woman factor”, maintaining that women vote as much on caste, community, class lines as do men.
And yet, even as most women will vote on these lines like their menfolk, it is a fact, and acknowledged by many an observer, that there may well be round 5-6% women in Bihar today who vote as a “category”, just as there is a Yadav vote, or a Kurmi vote, or a Bhumihar vote.
Women have over the decades not managed to emerge as a vote bank in India. They had voted for NT Rama Rao on the issue of prohibition in Andhra Pradesh. They voted for Ram Mandir in the early nineties in Uttar Pradesh, and there used to be a joke that the women in Mulayam Singh’s family had also voted for the construction of the Ram temple even as he battled the BJP at the time.
During the ten years of his rule, Nitish Kumar has managed to create a “women’s constituency”. Vote or not--and we will know on Nov 8 the extent to which women have supported him this time -- most women praise him for the improved ‘mahaul’ in the state. They feel safe to go out even after 8 pm. Had that not been the case, their daughters would not have been able to go to college or school — and he has provided them uniforms and slates — on the cycles he has provided them. Or the far-reaching step he took to give women 50% reservation in panchayats, to enhance their political participation. Or that, now, Nitish Kumar has promised them 35% reservation in government jobs, if he comes back to power. Some were undoubtedly worried about what the return of Lalu Yadav would entail. Others perturbed about the soaring prices of ‘dal’.
Bihar has a skewed sex ratio (916 women to 1,000 male), and women comprise only 46% of the voting population. Women are still 20 percentage points behind men in literacy. Bihar continues to be a feudal —though highly politicised-- society. Despite this, if women outnumber men in the exercise of their franchise, it shows that a certain empowerment has taken place in recent years, and they are now putting it to good use to elect who they think will do well by them.
Each side is claiming that enhanced voting by women indicates a tilt in its favour. Women were soft towards Nitish Kumar in 2010. But they showed an inclination for Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014.
More women voting than men in Bihar is not a new trend, and has been evident in the last two elections. This, say experts, is a trend not just in Bihar but also in half a dozen other states of India. And it calls for a deeper study into this phenomenon.
Neerja Chowdhury is a senior journalist. The views expressed by her are personal.