Nitish Kumar is Counting on Women Voters. But What Bihar Desperately Needs is Female MLAs
Nitish Kumar is relying on women voters in Bihar to see him through to another victory in the Legislative Assembly | Image credit: Reuters/PTI
Two days before the International Women's Day, all the 28 women MLAs trooped into the well of the Bihar Assembly, holding placards, shouting slogans-- demanding for their reservation in Parliament and the state legislature. They weren't part of a single political party. Women MLAs, cutting across party lines, had collectively planned the protest.
What led to the protest was simple: Male politicians.
Women MLAs have in the past accused male politicians of laughing and mocking them when they raised issues relating to women. They realizing they were outnumbered. This meant, no discussion around sexual harassment, lack of toilets for women, child marriages and safety. Any time such issues were raised by women leaders, the only kind of response they received was of dismissal.
The Bihar elections this year has seen an average increase of 3 percent of tickets given to women candidates. Twenty-two women featured in JD(U)'s list. "This is the first time in the history of Bihar, rather the history of India, that a political party has given almost 19% of its tickets to women,” said Tara Krishnaswamy, co-founder of Political Shakti.
Krishnaswamy believes that the increase comes as a response to a rigorous campaign that her group has been running since July of this year. While political parties campaigned in Bihar, a citizen's collective called Political Shakti ran their own campaigns to draw attention to women’s representation in the state's politics.
One of their campaigns -- a film titled 'Aadha Humara' sends out a powerful message on the missing women in legislatures.
"I have to walk 10 kms to fetch water. How will you see that?"
"Today my doll came to my wedding. How will you see that?"
"There's no toilet for girls in my school. How will you see that?"
The film that's made in four languages that are spoken in Bihar, doesn't have to do much to drive home the point. At the end of 85 seconds, the viewer is left with questions that successive governments have avoided answering. Really, where are the women legislators?
Swati Bhattacharya, the writer of the short film, said that none of the women who featured in it are actors. "They are all regular women who live in Bihar, and that's what makes it more special," she said.
For the Bihar Vidhan Sabha elections, Political Shakti launched more campaigns. They tied-up with local grassroots-level organisations in an attempt to convince political parties to give 50 perecent tickets to women candidates. "Over 120+ local groups including students, farmers, tribal and minority groups, women’s groups, civil society organiations, professors, retired bureaucrats joined hands with Shakti to petition national, regional and local parties contesting the elections to field more women candidates," Krishnaswamy said.
More Women Voters
Over the years, Bihar has seen a steady increase in the number of women voters. The sex ratio of voters (the number of female voters to every 1000 male voters) increased from 715 in the 1960s to 883 in the 2000s. There has been a dramatic increase in women's participation in the elections since the 1990s, while men's participation has remained unchanged.
Krishnaswamy pointed out that this change is largely due to the initiatives taken by the Election Commission of India to increase the share of women voters. "When women expressed they feel uncomfortable standing in closed spaces with men -- women only lines and women booths were initiated. Increased surveillance and improved law and order also helped more women participation in voting," she said.
Women voters, in fact, have proven to have a remarkable effect on re-election outcomes. When the assembly election was held in Bihar, in February of 2005, no political party emerged as a winner to form the government. Within eight months, re-elections were held, in October 2005. The book 'Women voters in Indian democracy: A silent revolution' reveals that in 35 percent of the constituencies, there was a change in the election outcome.
"The results reveal that in these constituencies, the winning political party of the February election was not re-elected in October, and a new political party was declared the winner. As a result of this massive change in election outcomes, a new government was formed in Bihar. Our analysis shows that this change in the election outcomes was fundamentally brought about by the women voters," notes the book.
Political parties, too, have initiated programmes to get more women to vote.
The period between the 2005 and 2015 Assembly polls had seen women voters’ participation increase from 42.51% to over 60%.
The Nitish Kumar government has been trying to woo the women voters. At a recent rally, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said, "The fertility rate among educated girls has come down over the past few years". At various rallies, the JD(U) leader talked about the incentives by his government to girl students, including the much-lauded bicycle scheme, the Rs 55,000 grant and other benefits till graduation, and the 50% reservation to women at the panchayat level and the 35% quota for them in government jobs.
The 15 years of Nitish government also saw the setting up of over 10 lakh women self-help groups, with a combined membership of one crore.
Less Women Legislators
In 2015 Bihar Assembly Elections, the Mahagathbandhan -- which comprised of Kumar's JD(U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) fielded 10 women candidates each while the Congress (INC) which was also part of the coalition at the time -- fielded four women. The BJP fielded 14 while Left parties comprising the CPI, CPI(M) and the CPI (ML) fielded a total of 12 women candidates.
Of all the women candidates fielded that year, 28 women made it to the Assembly. This was a drop from 2010 when there were 34 women in Bihar legislative assembly – the highest ever in the state's history.
"The problem is that higher women voters have not translated into women candidates fielded by parties. Only 1 percent of independent candidates, whether men or women, win in elections. This means candidates need a party to bank on to win elections. After 72 years, men still get 92 percent of the tickets, women get a mere 7-8 percent," Krishnaswamy said.
So why don't parties give more tickets to women? It's not the lack of winnability factor. Women's rate of winnability is much higher compared to men, as per the Election Commission. "There's just not enough women that political parties want to field. It's a patriarchal masculine setup," she added.
Political Shakti was formed in 2018 ahead of the Lok Sabha Elections to create a sort of 'citizen pressure' and in turn, create a momentum to get more women in political decision-making spaces.
In the second phase of the Bihar elections, the group ran a 'Selfless Selfie' campaign where female Mukhiyas and Sarpanches from across Bihar's districts were asked to send selfies demanding 50% tickets to women from political parties. The group also reached out to Bihar's women MLAs to raise the issue within their own parties; 16 of them did.
"During elections, there are conversations around everything-- who said what, which party is good or bad, from Pakistan to temples--everything except that 50% of the electorate is not represented. Through our campaigns, we have given everyone a reason to begin that conversation," the co-founder of the collective said.
Krishnaswamy said it is these conversations that led two major political parties-- BJ(D) in Odisha and AITMC in West Bengal to field 33% and 42% women candidates. "As a result, we have 78 women in Parliament, which is a historic high. It is still far away from being half or even one-third, but it's still significant," she said.
The collective also champions women politicians to create more voter awareness, regardless of their party or politics. "Women candidates don't get any spotlight, especially around their agenda. Almost always the focus is on how they look, where they come from. We have tried to change that and set the narrative," said Krishnaswamy.
In their last campaign, they promoted women candidates contesting the Bihar elections.
Sushumlata Kushwaha from JDU is the only female candidate contesting from Jagdishpur. She previously made news for campaigning while pregnant and giving birth to a baby girl ahead of the elections. Her agenda for the 2020 elections focuses on increased employment for women, along with entrepreneurial ventures for women such as sanitary napkin-making.
Pushpam Priya Chaudhary is partaking in the Bihar Elections with her newly formed party Plurals. An alumnus of the London School of Economics, she is a contender to Nitish Kumar's seat.
Shreyasi Singh, the BJP candidate from the Jamui assembly constituency, is a Commonwealth Games gold medallist in shooting and an Arjuna Award winner.
Ritu Jaiswal, who is contesting the state elections on an RJD ticket, has been the Mukhiya of the Gram Panchayat Raj Singhwahini in Sitamarhi, since 2016. In 2018, she was awarded the prestigious Champions of Change award, and in 2019, went on to win the Flame Leadership Award. Jaiswal is a prominent public speaker; she has given talks on women’s safety. She is currently leading the fight against Covid-19 by placing village women at the forefront of money-making.
Bhagirathi Devi, a four-time sitting BJP MLA from Ramnagar in Champaran, is hoping to win this election too. A Padma Shri awardee, Devi is most notably known for her journey from being a low-income sweeper in Bihar to a politician.
These are just some of the names in what Krishnaswamy calls "a list of some extraordinary women" who are contesting this Bihar Assembly election.
"How can we expect India to become a glorious country if we leave half the talent out of the decision-making table?" Krishnaswamy said, responding to why there's a need for more women in Parliament and across state legislatures. "Women's perspective, lived experiences are quite different from men's. Children's need, hygiene, food, malnutrition, transport, education, wage gap, women as farmers not owning lands-- these are issues that women live through. And when you don't have them in the decision making, you miss these issues as well," she said.
"Not just Bihar, the country needs more female politicians," she added.