In an official programme in Patna last week, when some women complained about the widespread alcoholism in rural areas, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was quick to respond, “These women are correct about alcohol. If I come to power, I will have it stopped.” Since then, many have pointed out that the idea of alcohol prohibition is futile as such experiments have failed miserably in the past. Kumar is perhaps aware that the prohibition regime does not work. So what was his motive behind this announcement? Was this just an empty promise of a politician or a calculated move by an incumbent?
In our view, Nitish Kumar’s response not only signals the increasing importance of women voters in Indian politics but also provides a glimpse of his electoral strategy for the upcoming assembly election in the state. He has been continuously nurturing a constituency of women voters in the past through a series of policies, such as the reservation of 50 per cent of seats for women in panchayati raj institutions, distribution of bicycles to girls, making Bihar the first state to implement 35 per cent reservation for women in the police force, among many others. And by showing his intention to listen to and act upon the complaints of ordinary women, he has certainly added more supporters to his party.
In the caste-entrenched politics of Bihar, it may be hard for many to see the importance of women voters for the upcoming polls. However, Kumar is certainly not one of them. In recent elections in Bihar, women voters not only outnumbered men in turning out to vote, but they clearly seemed to have somewhat different political preferences compared to men. Such a trend is emerging in other parts of the country, too. The data presented in Table 1 shows that the gender gap in voter turnout in Bihar is continuously declining. While the turnout
figures among women lagged by 16.3 percentage points during the 2000 assembly election, the voter turnout among women was higher than men in the 2010 election. Women voters again outnumbered men during the 2014 Lok Sabha polling in the state.
Similarly, the data from a series of opinion polls conducted by Lokniti-CSDS in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections provides unambiguous evidence showing that women voters in Bihar have started making political choices that are different from men. The pre-poll survey conducted in March 2014 asked respondents if they thought Nitish Kumar could become the prime minister and whether he would make a good PM. The data presented in Figure 1 shows that Kumar is more popular among women voters than men. Approximately 17 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women thought that Kumar could become the next PM after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Similarly, 28 per cent of men and 32 per cent of women felt that he would be a good PM. It is clear that Kumar retained his popularity among women voters in Bihar, despite an overall poor show by his party.
Respondents were also asked who they would prefer between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi as the PM. Though Modi was way ahead in the race, there were clear differences in preferences among men and women. While 59 per cent of men in Bihar preferred Modi as the PM candidate, only 50 per cent of women did so. In case of Kumar, 20 per cent of men and 27 per cent of women preferred him as the PM candidate. This popularity among women voters was also reflected in the voting patterns during the Lok Sabha polls. While Kumar’s party was relegated to the third position in terms of vote-share, the data presented in Figure 2 from Lokniti’s post-poll survey clearly shows that the JD(U) had more support among women voters than among men.
Women voters in India are showing signs of emerging as an independent political group and Kumar is surely not the only politician who foresaw this development. His bête noire Narendra Modi has been continuously making attempts to reach out to this constituency by talking about Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, by making appeals to build toilets for girls in government schools, by commenting on female foeticide and discrimination against girls in his Independence Day speech, to name a few.
We will have to wait and see if women voters become the centre of the political battle in the Bihar elections this year. However, as India develops, more and more women will become educated, economically independent, and politically assertive. Politicians can then ignore this constituency only at their own peril.
Verma is with Lokniti-CSDS and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US. Gupta is with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi.
(This article appeared in print under the headline: ‘There’s a method to Nitish’s madness’)