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Bihar’s woman power, from proxies to politicians

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New Delhi: Thirty-five-years-ago, Bhagirathi Devi was a sweeper in the block development office in Narkatiyaganj, a town in Bihar’s West Champaran district.

Picture credit: economictimes.com
Picture credit: economictimes.com

Today, she is a third-term member of the legislative assembly (MLA) of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), representing the Ramnagar (formerly Shikarpur) constituency in northwestern Bihar, one of 34 female MLAs in the 243-member house.

A Mahadalit – as the Bihar government started calling the poorest of low-caste Dalits in 2007 – Bhagirathi Devi joined politics as a reaction to what she saw around her.

“I was angry at the injustice and cruelty meted out to the poor, especially poor women, who came to the block development officer’s office,” said Bhagirathi Devi, 65.

Us din hum soch liye ki rajneeti mein jayenge aur babu logon ko sabak sikhayenge (That was the day I decided to enter politics and teach the officers a lesson),” she said.

Since 1980, when she quit her job as sweeper, Bhagirathi Devi spent the next several years creating mahila sangathans (women’s groups) in Narkatiyaganj block, organizing women and stirring awareness around issues that included domestic violence, violence against dalits and fair wages.

Gradually, she expanded her political activism to other blocks in the district, going to jail in 1991 for organizing demonstrations.

Bhagirathi Devi’s decision to enter politics was not easy for a poor Mahadalit family with six children (her husband is a railway employee). It was particularly challenging to organize her household before she set off every day, traveling to nearby villages.

Such was the strength of her conviction that Bhagirathi Devi separated from her husband for the next five years, taking him back only when he realized that there was no turning back for her.

It took a decade to consolidate her grounds at the grass root level before she entered party politics, and 10 more years before she got a BJP election ticket.

Today, she is seen in the assembly as an MLA who will not be easily silenced.

Bhagirathi Devi’s political journey, while being one of grit and determination, is also a reminder of the difficult choices that women politicians, especially from marginalized groups, have to make and yet be consigned to the margins of political landscape, always spoken of as “proxies” of a male relative.

It is also a reminder of the restricted spaces for women in Bihar’s – and India’s -political parties, unless they are backed by political lineage.

Why Bihar’s women MLAs are not proxies?

Bhagirathi Devi represents, as IndiaSpend reported, a remarkable surge in female MLAs that otherwise backward Bihar has witnessed over the last decade.

Yet, the question that is often asked is: “Are these women MLAs really empowered or are they proxies for powerful male relatives?”

The term ‘proxy’ was largely used for women in panchayats (village councils), put forward by male relatives to contest seats they had to vacate following the 33 percent reservation for women announced in 1992 under the 73rd amendment of the constitution, or when the men became ineligible after criminal convictions.

The term was further made infamous by Lalu Yadav, who installed his wife Rabri Devi as Bihar’s chief minister after his imprisonment in a fodder scam.

If proxies were defined as women put forward to contest elections because their male relatives had to step down, mostly due to criminal convictions, Bihar data now dispels this widely held myth.

Of Bihar’s 34 female MLAs, only six have contested seats vacated by male relatives, usually husbands, according to data published on Myneta.in, a public-interest website run by Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an advocacy that tracks political candidates nationwide.

The majority, 82 percent of women MLAs, have won elections of their own merit.

Yet, the term ‘proxy’ is used for women MLAs with its undertones of gender and class bias. Media stories on female political candidates have often furthered this narrative.

The female proxies who shook off their proximity to their men

Leshi Singh,an MLA from Dhamdaha in eastern Bihar and widow of Butan Singh (against whom many criminal cases have been filed), was called his proxy long after his death, while the well-educated, male politicians who stepped in after the death of their fathers are seen as carrying forth their legacy.

Critics also assume that women with poor educational qualifications are almost always akin to puppets, with the real power lying with male relatives.

Like Bhagirathi Devi, a fifth-class pass, Jyothi Devi, the MLA representing Barachatti constituency in Gaya district of Southern Bihar, disproved that assumption.

A battle that has only just been joined

Hum toh zabardasti bolte hain. Hum na Lalu se darte hain na (Chief Minister) Nitish (Kumar) se. Vote janta deta hai. Bus hum sirf usi se darte hain (I insist on speaking. I am neither afraid of Lalu Yadav nor Nitish Kumar. I am only accountable to the electorate that elects me)” said Bhagirathi Devi, when asked about the space for women to speak and intervene in the assembly.

While some female MLAs are indeed fronts for male relatives, they are – as we noted – a minority. Dismissing the rest as “proxies” will not serve the cause of governance.

(By Bhanupriya Rao, IANS)

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Why JDU & BJP Coalition Will Remain Intact

JDU knows that this 15-16% votes is not enough to help the party and for the BJP too, only the 17% votes of upper castes are not sufficient

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Nitish Kumar with Narendra Modi.
Nitish Kumar with Narendra Modi.

By Sagarneel Sinha

There have been lots of discussions among the political circles that JDU led by Bihar Chief
Minister Nitish Kumar is upset with the BJP and trying to send signals to erst allies — RJD and the Congress. This led to speculations that Nitish may once again join the Grand Alliance (GA) leaving the NDA camp. Already, RJD’s new commander Tejasvi Yadav has clearly stated that Nitish led JDU will not be welcomed in the GA. Despite all the odds, if (suppose) GA partners accommodate Nitish, he wouldn’t be the driving force of the alliance as in 2015. Also, Nitish cannot afford to go alone like in 2014 when his party fetched only 2 seats!

Then which is the correct way for JDU? It is to go with the BJP in the upcoming 2019 polls.
JDU’s advantage in this case is the present situation of the BJP. Currently, the saffron party is not in a strong position as the party would be facing anti-incumbency from a strong RJD led alliance in the state. BJP’s traditional voters are the upper castes who account for 17% of the electorate. This votebank is not enough for the party to help to win elections. The main opposition party — RJD still commands over a larger votebank than BJP. RJD is still a dominant force among the Yadavs and the Muslims who account for 31% of the population. It means BJP has to minus the 31% votes and rely on the rest — 69%. Out of these, 16% are the Mahadalits — a large portion of whom generally hail Nitish Kumar as their leader. Also, there are Kurmis, an OBC group consisting of 4% votes — considered as the supporters of JDU. Nitish Kumar himself is also a Kurmi.

Nitish Kumar Invited to Join NDA by Amit Shah After JDU-BJP Tie-up in Bihar
Nitish Kumar Invited to Join NDA by Amit Shah After JDU-BJP Tie-up in Bihar.

JDU knows that this 15-16% votes is not enough to help the party and for the BJP too, only the 17% votes of upper castes are not sufficient. However, if these votebanks are joined together they form around 31-32%. Plus, to gain the extra votes, both the parties have the option to rely on the personal charisma of Nitish Kumar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, there is a power tussle between the two allies to get a respectable share of seats.

This power tussle is because of a strong BJP which earlier used to be a junior ally. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections changed the political scenario of the state where BJP emerged as the largest party in terms of vote share and seats. JDU knows the reality of a new emerging BJP, though it is pushing hard to gain a respectable share of seats for the Lok Sabha elections. Instead, Nitish Kumar has another option — giving the bigger chunk to the BJP for the Lok Sabha elections and the latter playing the junior partner for the 2020 assembly elections if held timely. Given the current situation in the country, in a crucial state like Bihar, BJP can hardly reject JDU as the later still commands over 15-16% votes — a very crucial votebank for winning maximum seats in the 2019 polls. Importance of JDU can also be explained by BJP president Amit Shah’s visit to Patna to have breakfast and dinner with Nitish Kumar. Though in politics there are no permanent friends or foes, so any perfect prediction is impossible. But given the current situation, JDU and BJP parting their ways seems unlikely as both the parties are in need of each other as already highlighted by Amit Shah that the two allies would fight the Lok Sabha elections together. Smiling face of Nitish Kumar was also an indication that the meetings with Amit Shah were fine.