Husband follows wife’s footsteps as women change Panchayat politics in Bihar
A former commissioner of Central Vigilance Commission is set to contest election to Raj Singhwahini panchayat in Sonbarsa block of Sitamarhi district in Bihar, following the completion of his wife’s successful stint as the Mukhiya of the same panchayat.
As celebrity mukhiya Ritu Jaiswal—winner Champions of Change and Deen Dayal Upadhyay Panchayat Sashaktikaran Puraskar (DDUPSP) 2019-- aims higher with her ambition to enter state-level politics, her husband Arun Kumar will look to cash-in political currency she earned as a Mukhiya. It is a rare case of a husband following into wife’s footsteps in politics and thereby, also shatters the stereotype of power-wielding men fielding women as proxies in politics.
Bihar was the first state to provide 50% reservation to women in 2006 in grassroots politics and Ritu could well be cited as an example of what the empowerment initiative aimed to achieve as she earned plaudits and recognition for her work in an area primarily considered a male bastion.
Apart from winning multiple national-level awards, she was also selected by the Central ministry of panchayati raj among five mukhiyas from Bihar for capacity building programme for sarpanch and panchayat secretaries in New Delhi. Her sharp rise led to her being fielded in the last Assembly election on a Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) ticket. While she narrowly lost the polls, she still managed to break through into state-level politics.
“She wants to move on to do state-level politics but people of the panchayat do not want her to leave. I have been working with her and that brings me into picture. I think panchayat can be an effective way to bring about lasting change in the society,” said Kumar, who took voluntary retirement and mentors civil services aspirants with his online Magnus IAS programme. He had cleared civil services in 1995.
While Ritu and Arun Kumar’s story may be considered an isolated case, it points to a change in mindset. Ritu had won her panchayat election from a non-reserved seat by beating men. The statistics this year also indicate that more women are interested in jumping into the election fray even on non-reserved seats, showing a readiness to go beyond the comfort of the 50% quota to carve political space for themselves.
While the demand for 33% reservation for women in Parliament remains stuck, one of India’s economically most backward states is heralding a change through women empowerment at the grassroots.
Woman candidates have outnumbered men in the forthcoming panchayat elections by a good margin in the first two phases and the trend is likely to continue, considering the growing awareness among women in the rural areas, which was reflected during the last panchayat elections as well as in Assembly and Lok Sabha voting patterns.
In the first phase, 15,328 candidates filed their nomination for different posts, out of which 9,093 were women- about 52.79% of all nominations. Out of the 76,279 nominations filed for the second phase, 40,168 were filed by women, which is 52.65% of all nominations.
Bihar has 71,046 women among the 136,573 panchayat representatives after the 2016 panchayat polls. This comes to over 52% representation of women in panchayati institutions.
“It shows that the gender imbalance in Bihar’s rural governance has ended and gender stereotypes are breaking. It would gradually end whatever apprehensions regarding women being proxies for their husbands. Women’s empowerment has started making a difference, as it will gradually help change the male-dominated climate, not only in grassroots politics, but also in improving their much-needed participation in the workforce,” said Bihar information and public relations minister Sanjay Kumar Jha.
Jha also gives Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar credit for empowering women in every field, including police, teaching and other government jobs.
Female literacy in Bihar has gone up from a mere 37% in 2005-06 to 60% in 2015-16. Though still the lowest in the country, it is expected to go further up in the new census, as girls have been outnumbering boys at the secondary level also. As per the National Statistical Organisation report released in 2020, the female literacy rate in rural Bihar stood at 58.7% while it was 75.9% in urban areas.
Despite constituting less than 9% of the total number of candidates in the fray, women voters in Bihar showed far greater enthusiasm than their male counterparts during the Lok Sabha elections as 60% of the 57.46% votes were cast by them, even though Bihar has an adverse sex ratio.
In the 2020 assembly election too, 60%, women voters exercised their franchise compared to 54.6% for men.
“The reservation to women at the panchayat level has certainly contributed to their empowerment, as their voting behaviour has changed since 2006. Women have outnumbered men in voting consistently since 2010. It has strengthened the democratic process through gender participation and equality and now their participation in grassroots politics will created upward pressure and make more room for them with or without reservation,” said former DM Diwakar, former director of AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies.
Diwakar said though proxy woman candidates were a reality in the initial stages, things were changing, and now women were coming into panchayat politics with plenty of exposure as teachers or Jeevika volunteers.
“If their representation was over 52% last time, don’t be surprised if it touches 55% this time. Some woman mukhiyas have also made a mark for themselves in an otherwise male-dominated field. They are now enthusiastically participating in the political process at the grassroots and will certainly make their way up,” he added.