Quite separate from caste arithmetic and loyalties, if there is one constituency that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has courted, it’s been that of women. So much so that his controversial decision to impose prohibition in the State in 2015 was also guided by the opinions expressed by his female support base.
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This section has remained loyal to Mr. Kumar since 2010, and has also seen a steadily increasing voting percentage in successive elections: from 54.85% in the 2005 election to 59.92% in the 2015 polls, to nearly 60% again in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Male polling rates increased from 51% in 2005 to 54% in 2015. Women comprise 47% of the electorate of the State, and 24% of these voters are in the 18-29 age bracket.
This increase in women’s voting and much of it coming Mr. Kumar’s way has been one of the main reasons for his success.
In most of his public meetings, Mr. Kumar brings up his government’s focus on reservations for women in government jobs and panchayat posts as well as welfare programmes like Jeevika. He hopes that programmes like Jeevika, a skills and livelihood-based self-help group (SHG) project, will help him sail the choppy political waters he finds himself in currently.
The programme has enrolled 60 lakh households so far, extending credit to women who had very little access to it in the rural countryside.
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Premsudha, a Jeevika member from a villa near Gaya, had a difficult domestic situation with a husband who had barely any income. “On top of it, my father felt that my husband’s family had mislead him as to his economic situation and wanted me to come away. I said that I was already married and would like to stay with my husband,” she said.
In 2011, five years after she was married, Ms. Premsudha’s mother-in-law asked her to join an SHG with a contribution of ₹10 per week.
“In 2012, I became a committee mobiliser, a ‘beat mitra’ and after that a micro enterprise consultant. I have availed loans upto ₹3,25,000 and bought a kirana shop for my husband,” she said.
In Mr. Kumar’s home ground of Nalanda, support for him among women is strong. In Kul-Fatehpur panchayat in Nalanda, Lakhia Devi, says that she has availed an SHG loan to buy cattle and start a small dairy business.
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“I took a small loan for ‘pashu palan’ (animal husbandry),” she says.
Sushila Devi, who availed ₹75,000 as loan under Jeevika to add a couple of rooms to her house admits that while the welfare measures and reservations in jobs are moves that she is grateful for, the poor implementation of prohibition, with its spawning of bootlegging enterprises and local administrative collusion is not so good.
“ Yeh prashaasan ko theek se karna thaa (The administration should have looked into it properly),” she says.
The complaint is not a vehement one as it was a demand from women voters that led to prohibition, but the dissatisfaction could be the reason why Mr. Kumar hasn’t been selling prohibition as an achievement in his campaign.