In a bylane of Digha near Patna, a crowd gathered around a bicycle mounted with banners announcing the seven “Nitish nishchay” and a megaphone, which was playing out Phir se Nitishe, the grand alliance’s campaign song. More than the bicycle, what had grabbed the crowd’s attention was the campaigner who had brought it there.
Saroj Devi, 30, held a pink notebook, red-and-yellow pamphlets and calendars in one hand as she addressed residents of Durga Ashram area of Digha constituency. A voice in the crowd asked why she was doing this.
“Mahila aaj kal kya nahi karti hai?” she replied. A few people nodded but many others laughed, as if amused. “She is a woman and working during a festival,” one said.
Other women on this task, too, have been greeted with incredulity. “Some residents, including women, have asked us what we get out of this kind of time-pass work,” said Pratibha, who has been campaigning in Kumhrar constituency, 20 km from Digha. “One woman asked us, ‘How can you go from one house to another asking for votes?’ We told them, ‘Come join us. Why are you sitting at home cooking? Isn’t that time-pass?’”
All-women teams to reach women voters are a strategy decided towards the end of last month, JD(U) women’s wing members said. The first two phases of the Bihar election have shown women as keener voters than men, with a higher proportion turning out on both days.
“We did campaign earlier but that was in groups along with men,” Pratibha said. “Prashant Kishor’s team said only women can reach the kitchen and convince women voters. Some women might not even open the door to men visiting their home.”
Pratibha’s team went from door to door in Kumhrar’s Chitragupta Nagar area. She pasted a sticker of Nitish Kumar on the mobile phone of a woman resident. “You can call this toll-free number and listen to Nitishji’s seven resolutions,” she told the woman. “You will also get an update on any meeting in your constituency.”
In Digha, 10 to 15 women are working with bicycles, the JD(U) government’s mascot for women empowerment. The first day Saroj Devi went campaigning with her bicycle, she said, someone tore up the calendar and pamphlet she had given him. On another day, a woman neighbour asked her if she didn’t find it embarrassing to ride a bicycle.
“I told her this is the kind of inhibition one needs to overcome,” she said. “Although we are trying to speak to voters about women’s issues, a lot more needs to be done.”
She parked her bicycle against a wall, made sure it was locked and walked to the nearest house. She was carrying a list of around 50 names, with phone numbers and signatures. “Our daily target is 80 people, and we list them,” she said.
By 2 pm, she had met her target for the day. At the last house, she had told a woman, “Bihar is like a family, a household. We have to choose a mukhiya who takes care of each member of the family. Nitishji has done a lot for women, especially for girls’ education. One of his seven resolutions is to give women 35 per cent reservation in government jobs.”
The day’s work done, Saroj Devi could count only 30 women among the 80 names in her list. “We wish we could get to talk to women more openly,” she said. “Some of us have come out of our houses, but a large section of women in Bihar has not been able to.”
Rather than ride the bicycle, she pushed it along the way back. “I am scared that I will fall. I do know how to ride a cycle but the banner at the back makes it heavy,” she said.
Saroj Devi’s family hails from Bihar’s Ara district but she grew up in Ghaziabad. She moved to Patna 10 years ago, having married a daily labourer who also works as a painter. She joined the JD(U) four years ago.
“I am trying to do as much as possible to help Nitishji,” she said. “I don’t know if my voice will reach him, though.”