The rise of women voters
This time in Bihar assembly elections, women voters outnumbered their male counterparts. If one goes by trends, the number of women casting vote has been on the rise for sometime.
They came out to vote in large numbers in the 2010 assembly elections as well as during the 2015 Lok Sabha polls. Like Bihar, other parts of the country had also witnessed high women voter turnout in the last few elections.
Women and voting patterns
Both this time as well as in the last parliamentary polls, the voting pattern of women voters had no clear-cut direction. In this assembly elections, their high turnout is keeping experts and political analysts guessing over the results.
Bihar had the highest percentage of women legislators (14 per cent) in 2010. But the state is known for its low female literacy rate (52 per cent) and skewed sex ratio (935 females per 1,000 males).
The trend of women voters coming out in large numbers to participate in elections has been observed in the past five years. In the four states that went to polls in 2013—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi—the participation of women in the election process increased when compared to previous polls. Analysts say this is due to the increasing number of women voters.
This time in Bihar, women voted more than men in all the five phases except phase 3. In the rest of the phases, women outnumbered men by around 5 per cent. In the last phase, women registered a record polling percentage of 64 per cent, which was 8 per cent more than male voters. In the first and second phases, women voted five per cent more than men whereas in the fourth phase they voted 6 per cent more than their male counterparts. In the fifth phase, women voted 8 per cent more than men. However, the third phase witnessed just around 2 per cent more participation of women than men.
The table below shows the percentage of women voters in the five-phased Bihar polls.
|No of phases
Are women-centric policies drawing the fairer sex to booths?
For the first time in the 2010 assembly elections, women voters of Bihar outnumbered their male counterparts by 3 per cent.
At that time, the Janata Dal United (JD-U) and the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) fought the elections together and got three-fourths majority. The interpretation was that the BJP-JDU alliance won due to women choosing to vote for them.
In the 2014 parliamentary elections, women voted 3 per cent more than their male counterparts. This time, the JD-U and the BJP fought separately.
“It is an overstate to claim that women are voting for a particular party only,” Sanjay Kumar, a Delhi-based psephologist with the Center for the Study of Developing Society, a leading centre on social research, said. “Votes are distributed and all the parties are getting more or less out of it,” he added.
It is possible that the incumbent government was quite pragmatic in coming up with women-centric policies which supposedly politically empowered them.
On the basis of these programmes, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is claiming for his alliance a lion's share of women's votes.
Kumar first came up with 50 per cent reservation for women in the panchayat elections. He also promised scholarships, cycles and school uniform schemes for girls and a dedicated women police battalion in the state.
All these policies are dedicated to benefit women. In this election too, the party manifesto promised 35 per cent reservation for women in state government jobs.
However, experts feel that all these schemes are neutral to caste and class and have universal appeal. “Kumar has crafted a women's constituency in the past 10 years as chief minister of the state. Some of these schemes (women-centric ones) had paid him dividends in the 2010 elections too,” Shiabal Gupta, the director of Bihar-based non-profit Asian Development Research Institute, said.
According to Gupta, all these initiatives are caste and class neutral and helped women across the state. Another explanation of women voting more is the changing nature of rural demography. There is large-scale migration taking place from rural areas to urban centres. Men are migrating to big cities in search of livelihood, leaving the women behind.
“When we visited villages, we generally met elderly women and children. The male members had migrated to other parts of the country, especially big cities, and left behind the women to vote accordingly,” Daisy Narain, a rights activist who teaches history at the Patna University, said.
A large number of women are engaged in government schemes like the mid-day meal scheme. They also look after anganwadis, work as health workers and run self-help groups. The presence of women in the Panchayati Raj system also motivates them to vote.
“Infrastructure development like building schools, roads, mid-day meal kitchens in schools and improved public distribution schemes are making women participate more and more in the voting process,” Narain added.