Nitish Kumar hoped that prohibiting the sale of liquor in Bihar would earn him wide support among women voters. This assembly election is a litmus test.
Justifying the 2016 ban, the chief minister had said it would make women safer and empower them? So, four years on, what do women voters think?
Aarti Jha, who is preparing for a bank job exam at a private coaching centre, sat with her friends at the Langat Singh College, Muzaffarpur. Asked how she saw the situation of women in Bihar, Aarti said, "Lockdown was new for you men. Women were always confined to the four walls of home. Our going out has been restricted for a long time. Look, it is not even four in the evening and I'm getting calls from my mother to come home. A lot has been said about women’s empowerment during Nitish Kumar's rule, but little change is visible on the ground."
Her friend Ragini Gupta disagreed. "This government has been alright as far as the situation of girls is concerned,” she said. “Whether through the liquor ban, the bicycle scheme or the programme to give money to girls topping board exams, women have benefitted under this government. In the hope of getting prize money, families of girls are letting them study at least."
Much has gone wrong as well, though, Ragini was quick to add. Referring to the Muzaffarpur shelter abuse, she said, "So much happened with the girls at the shelter home. Nobody is talking about it in this campaign. No political party is raising the issues of women properly."
The revelation of the horrific abuse of girls at the had shamed the Nitish government nationally, and even led to a minister’s resignation.
Given this context, one would expect women’s safety to be a key campaign issue in this election, particularly in Muzaffarpur. Is it?
"The shelter home issue is old, nobody remembers it,” Ravindra Shah, 48, a sweetmaker, said. “This time we will vote on the issue of employment."
Indeed, Manju Verma, who was forced to resign as Bihar’s social welfare minister when her husband was revealed to be one of the key accused in the shelter abuse case, has been fielded again by the Janata Dal United.
The BJP-JDU alliance, which has governed Bihar for 15 years except for a brief period after the last election, claims to have empowered women by giving them reservation in panchayats, banning alcohol, and launching welfare schemes for girls. In response, it’s said, women powered Nitish Kumar’s victories in 2010 and 2015.
A Lokniti-CSDS survey paints a different picture, however. Detailing the findings of the survey in a recent BBC Hindi article, CSDS director Sanjay Kumar writes, “JDU-BJP got its biggest victory in 2010. The alliance got 39.1 percent votes then. Many related this victory to the massive support of women. But according to Lokniti-CSDS figures, the NDA got votes of 39 percent women, which was similar to their average vote percentage.”
Newslaundry went on the ground to get a sense of how women viewed Nitish Kumar's 15-year rule.
Anita Devi, 35, who lives in Kishanganj’s Sonar Patti, was at Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's campaign rally in the area on November 3. Her daughter was with her. They just wanted to “see Rahul Gandhi in person”, and had no intention of voting for his party. “We will vote for Nitish. We have benefited during his rule. My daughter got money for a bicycle last year,” Anita said. “He gave us rations during the lockdown. What more is needed?"
Anita Devi with her daughter.
Nitish started the scheme to provide bicycles to girl students in 2007-08. By 2019-20, about 70,10,387 girls had received either bicycles or money to purchase them. Primarily, the scheme was aimed at reducing the high dropout rate among high school girls over fears of safety.
How effective has the scheme been in meeting its primary objective? The answer depends on whom you ask.
Juhi Khatoon, who lives in Kishenganj's Line Garhi, is a beneficiary of the bicycle scheme. She was married as soon as she passed Class 10 in 2016. Now she is the mother of a 2-year-old.
“What changed? I was married off right after passing Class 10. Now I cook for my in-laws and look after my child. My family didn't allow me to study further," Juhi said when asked if and how getting the bicycle had helped her.
Her mother, Khalida Begum, tried to cover up her Juhi's disappointment. “The times aren’t good for girls. We didn’t have the money to send our daughter far away for further studies. We see all these horrible stories these days on TV." She mentioned the grape and murder of a Dalit girl in Uttar Pradesh's Hathras by upper caste Thakur men to back up her point.
The BJP-JDU alliance’s leaders have long painted the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s rule from 1990 to 1995 as “jungle raj”, from which they have rid Bihar. To buttress their argument, they often cite the situation of the state’s women. But Bihar remains notorious for crime against women. According to data from the police, the state reported 1,450 cases of rape in 2019.
After the nationwide lockdown was imposed in March 2020 to contain the pandemic, people were largely confined to their homes. Yet, there was no let up in rapes. According to the police, 82 rapes were reported in April, 120 in May, 152 in June, 149 in July, 139 in August. This averages out to 4-5 rapes daily during the lockdown. In fact, several videos of gangrape went viral during this period.
Nitish Kuamr had also launched a campaign against dowry, but it was not very effective. Reports of women being burnt alive for dowry continue to fill local newspapers.
Still, crime against women isn’t a major campaign issue. "Nobody is talking about women’s safety in this election,” complained Ambika Rashmi, an athlete in Darbhanga. “Some people do talk about women empowerment. They talk about making working spaces safer. But the way from working space to home is also unsafe. We can't return home at night. If travelling isn't safe, how will we work?"
Sharing her own problem, Ambika said, "My sister and I are sportspersons. Our academy starts at 5.30 am. Now winters are coming, and it is still dark outside at that time. We can't go to the academy now because it isn’t safe to travel in the dark. We can't even go to classes unaccompanied by our father or brother. Leave alone policemen, there aren’t even streetlights on the roads. How do you talk of women’s empowerment without their safety?"
“Prohibition is just a joke in Bihar. Earlier, you had to go out to buy liquor. Now you can get it delivered at home," quipped a journalist in the capital Patna when asked who effective Nitish’s liquor ban had been.
The ban was imposed with much fanfare. A strict law was enacted and several offenders jailed under it. It was said that Nitish had secured the votes of a large population of women by declaring prohibition. But several women Newslaundry spoke with were dissatisfied with the decision.
“You have alcohol in every home. How is it available if there is a ban?” complained a woman at a campaign rally held by Nitish in Darbhanga. “Alcohol that cost Rs 50 earlier goes for Rs 200-300 now. I think the ban should be lifted, at least it will save us some money. In any case, people who drink aren’t going to listen."
Samastipur resident Renu Devi echoed the sentiment. "Earlier, men went out to drink. Now they have it at home. It has become even more difficult. There's no work. They even sell household stuff to buy liquor."
Not all women are dissatisfied, however. Anita in Kishenganj agreed that liquor was still sold in the state but “at least people no longer make a scene on the road after getting drunk since it may invite police action now”.
Considering their varied views on the alcohol ban, how likely are women to support Nitish this time?
"It is difficult to say Nitish will get the same level of support from women as he did earlier,” said Sadhika Tiwari, a journalist who has travelled across Bihar during this campaign season. “There are many reasons for this. First, the government’s own records show they have cut spending on schemes meant for women. Second, nothing new has been done for women in the past five years. Schemes like bicycles for girls and 50 percent reservation in panchayats are now old. They have not been very effective either. The bicycle scheme is for class 9 students. Many girls who belong to financially weaker families quit studies even before reaching class 9. Reservation in panchayats was aimed at increasing women leadership. That too has not happened."
A version of this story was first published in .