Nitish Kumar’s undivided constituency of women voters may have deserted him in the current Bihar elections and gone back to traditional forms of electoral choices.
On April 1, 2016, Bihar was declared a dry state. The JD(U)-led government enforced a five-year jail term for first-time offenders. In 2018, the law was amended to introduce a fine for first-time offenders. The sweeping victory in 2015 was attributed to the support of women who felt addressed by Nitish’s push for prohibition in Bihar.
However, the factor may have worked against him this time.
A female voter in Muzaffarpur said, “Liquor is still being sold illegally in the state. Those selling it are getting prosperous by the day and those consuming it are getting ruined. Alcohol is being sold under wraps and consumed in every other house. Families are being devastated. The police are party to this as well. They allow alcohol to infiltrate borders. My son earns and wastes all the money in drinking. There has been no alcohol ban.”
In 2015, Bihar elections saw the highest female voter turnout since 1962. The percentage of women who had voted then was 60.48 per cent against 53.32 per cent men. Experts had opined that women had single-handedly caused a 7 per cent vote swing in favour of Nitish Kumar.
This time, however, women seem to have gone back to their families to decide on their electoral preference.
“I will vote for who my son wants. Our family has 40 votes, all of us will vote for one party,” said the same woman.
In this case, women would mirror choices of the youth and the men in the family. While it is amply clear that the youth has emerged as a caste-agnostic bloc in favour of Tejashwi Yadav, men have viewed the alcohol prohibition rather sorely. Also, with the growing frustration from joblessness and the ongoing pandemic, they may be inclined towards the opposition. Moreover, the liquor ban’s impact on reducing domestic violence, crime and poverty has not been extremely encouraging.
In a letter to the state government last year, the Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies quoted data from Bihar police, National Crime Records Bureau and ministry of transport and highway to press home the point that the liquor ban in Bihar has not reduced crime. The letter states that the ban has also boosted the sale of bootlegged alcohol, fetching profit margins of 400 per cent, while the lucrative opportunity has led to the rise of a powerful liquor mafia.
Another woman voter in the state said, “Prices of commodities and vegetables have soared. My husband and son toil hard to make Rs 300 and waste it all on alcohol. I’ve been crying because of this and we keep sinking further in debt. Last time we voted for Nitish Kumar thinking he’ll do something but all that happened was further inflation and our daily lives got ruined.”
According to the Economic Survey of 2016, Bihar in 2014-15 earned over Rs 3,100 crore from the sale of liquor through excise duty. The budgeted estimate for 2015-16 was Rs 4,000 crore, as per the survey. According to a report, since then, the state “has been losing out on all potential revenue from alcohol sales”. Since the ban on alcohol, deaths due to spurious liquor and drug abuse are on the rise.
According to the same report, since the ban on alcohol, the number of addicts who came in to be treated for drug abuse doubled in just a year. In three years, the report said, those addicted to weed, charas and bhang, increased threefold since 2015-16, a year before prohibition was enforced.
While it was Nitish Kumar who had started the Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojna under which four million girls were given bicycles to ease their commutes to school and the scheme to distribute sanitary napkins to schoolgirls in April 2014, his core constituency is also miffed with their erstwhile favourite chief minister because of his mishandling of the migrant crisis, Muzaffarpur shelter home mayhem, gang rape in Supaul and the state’s inability to tackle acute encephalitis that results in the deaths of hundreds of children every year.
At one of the Jeevika Kendras, aimed at providing better living opportunities to women in Bihar, one of the beneficiaries said, “Our families had to face a lot of adversities during the lockdown. The men were stuck in cities and were not able to return. When they did, there was no work here. The chief minister’s plan to ban alcohol also is merely on paper.”
When women had voted Nitish to power in 2015, that vote share had transcended caste and united on the basis of gender. If that vote share collapses in 2020, this too will transcend caste.
Another voter said, “Nitish Kumar lied that money and ration was distributed. We didn’t get anything. We don’t even have ration cards.”