The fact that as many as 59.5% women turned out to cast their votes in the first phase of assembly elections in Bihar compared to a mere 54.5% men is indeed a good news. It clearly shows women’s growing faith in the festival of democracy. The fact that women’s representation in the state assembly too has been going up is reassuring. It seems the girls who used to cycle their way to schools not long ago have started cycling their way to polling booths as well.
But the celebratory picture of long queues of women at polling booths should be seen alongside the depressing pictures of many Bihari out-migrants working at construction sites or in factories in trying conditions outside of their states. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data, an overwhelming 62% of all Bihari out-migrants, nearly three times the national average, are residents in other states. And a majority of them (56.5%) do so in search of employment. Since a fair majority of them are men, there aren’t enough males back home to take part in elections.
It is not the first time that women have outnumbered men in exercising their franchise. It has been happening in Bihar for a long time now. However, the gap of four percentage points this time suggests that other than the usual factor of male out-migration, it is also a result of women empowerment. Does it signal advantage Nitish Kumar-led “grand alliance”? Perhaps yes, if Nitish’s promise of prohibition of sale of liquor if re-elected to power has appealed to women.
Nitish Kumar has been working on the constituency of women for a long time. Just a year after he became the chief minister in 2005, he launched Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojana. The number of beneficiaries of the free cycle for school girls scheme totals 4 million till date. Some of the earlier beneficiaries of the scheme would have become full-fledged voters now. And it is likely that they may be favourably inclined towards Nitish-led alliance.
While out-migration in search of employment may have been a reason behind relatively higher turnout of women, tepid job growth has led to disenchantment among young voters. According to ground reports, the participation of aspirational young voters was somewhat muted this time compared to last year’s Lok Sabha elections. It will cause some worry in the ranks of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as the same segment is believed to have overwhelmingly voted for the alliance in the Lok Sabha elections. But these are early days and there are four more phases to go.
Other than this, it is premature to draw any conclusion based on the 57% voter turnout figure. Two assembly elections took place in the state in 2005. While the one held in February threw up a fractured mandate, the October-November elections proved to be a decisive one, resulting in the end of Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal regime after 15 long years. Surprisingly, the anti-incumbency verdict came on the back of very low voter turnout.
Five years later, the people of Bihar favoured status quo with higher voter turnout. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections, however, saw heavy reverses for the incumbent with higher voter turnout, higher by the state’s standard. So the theory of high turnout means anti-incumbency does not hold true in case of Bihar. At least, that is the picture one gets after seeing voter turnout-actual verdict relation in the last five elections in the state.
Bihar has followed the general trend of growing awareness resulting in increase in voter turnout in recent elections. It has also benefitted from improved law and order situation prompting even the marginal sections, including women, to take part in the electoral process.