By Marya Shakil and Shreya Dhoundial
It's not often you hear of a Dalit woman in Naxal-affected Jehanabad, the district that hit headlines after the infamous massacre at Laxmanpur Bathe in 1997, say that her franchise in the upcoming Bihar elections will not be influenced either by her husband, father or village. But 30-year-old Munni Devi is saying just that.
A mother of three, Munni is not falling for any political sweet talk she has been hearing for the last few weeks. Her vote will be for the person who gives jobs for women like her.
In deeply feudal Bihar, where the 46.6 percent women voters are often perceived as political appendages to their husbands, Munni's voice is not just a refreshing change. It echoes what many women across class and caste are saying.
But what about caste? Do women vote for their caste when they vote? Yes and no, says Munni. When all politicians are corrupt, you may as well vote for your own caste and let them reap the benefits.
"In case someone from her caste has a fair chance of winning,why should I pull him down by not voting for him?" she asks.
Jehanabad votes in the second phase of polling on 16 October. She doesn’t say who she will vote for, but her sympathies lie with her "Jaat Bhai" Jitan Ram Manjhi. He's the sitting MLA from Makhdumpur in Jehanabad, who is contesting again from the same constituency in this election.
She says he was ‘cheated by Nitish Kumar and got no time to prove his calibre.'
Munni is fighting battles at multiple levels - caste, poverty and the social stigma of an alcoholic husband - all with a smile on her face.
With rare clarity, she backs Nitish Kumar’s promise of prohibition in case he gets a third term. But she has her doubts.
“Can he really do it?...I don't think so...The government benefits from excise duties on sale of liquor - why will they ban it?” she says.
Women of Nishad/Mallah community in Hajipur share her skepticism. They are backing Nitish Kumar’s prohibition campaign but feel that Nitish with Lalu Yadav is a changed man.
Bihar has changed in the last ten years. Women have increasingly stepped outside the confines of their homes to become participants in the development discourse through their children being provided with bicycles and school uniforms. They fear Lalu’s regime of 1990s - often referred to as Jungle Raj - could return if the Janata alliance is voted to power.
They also argue that with Lalu on his side, Nitish Kumar's decisions will be dominated by caste considerations.
“We don’t know what Nitish will do now. Earlier he thought about every woman. Now with Lalu as his partner - caste will dominate his decisions. He has done a fair job but sometimes change is good,” one of them said.
That's the irony of Nitish Kumar and the state of Bihar. Over three decades of Congress rule with intermittent periods of Jan Kranti Dal and Socialist Party, less than two years each for Karpoori Thakur and Ram Sundar Das, 15 years of the Lalu Yadav-Rabri Devi regime and ten years of the Nitish Kumar government, Bihar is a state that has waited patiently for its leaders to deliver. Unlike say a Himachal Pradesh, it doesn’t vote out an incumbent for the sake of change.
There is a general consensus in Bihar that Nitish Kumar may have failed on many counts - employment being one - but has delivered on law and order, roads and electricity in several parts of the state. But in a state where caste decides everything, he has been forced to do a tightrope walk . His numerical weakness pushed him into the arms of sworn enemy - Lalu Prasad Yadav - but that very act could also alienate the constituency that overwhelmingly backed him in 2010.
Back in Hajipur, we ask the Nishad women if their vote will be driven by caste, family pressure or community. The Nishads last voted for the BJP. In an attempt to bring them over to their side, Nitish Kumar announced that the Nishads and Nonias from the EBCs will now be included in the SC/ST category just hours before the model code conduct came into play. Many see this as a masterstroke by Nitish Kumar. After all Nishad's and Nonia's are the most dominant of the 130 castes that make the EBCs in Bihar.
But will it get Nitish Kusum Devi's vote? “I may be pressurized to vote for a particular candidate but when I am alone in the poll booth, I will do what I want,” she says.
Women in Bihar may not have been equal participants in deciding the future of their families but they are certainly influencing their political views.
At the Patna Golf Course , 47-year-old Bilkis Jehan is candid , as she tees off with her friends. For the 16 percent Muslims in Bihar, security is the biggest issue, and whoever she votes for will be a family decision.
"My husband, family, my sisters and all of us will sit and weigh the pros and cons of voting for party A or party B... Why will I not listen to my husband? He is the one who will be with me in times of trouble, not the netas.. But just as I listen to him he will listen to me," she says.
It's a remarkable evolution when women can break away feudal structures to exercise their franchisee independent of caste, class and family pressures. The elections of 2015 will show us just how far the Bihari Womaniya has come.
Here are the stories they have done on Bihar:
# Can women break feudal barriers & vote independently this time? (See it here)
# Women laud Nitish's pre-poll prohibition promise,but remain skeptical. (See it here)
# Women Voters focus on Security as they prepare to vote for Bihar polls. (See it here)
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Updated Date: Sep 28, 2015 18:57:54 IST