Women as a vote bank: Not a win-win for politicos

By Amulya Ganguli

Women are now being courted by some politicians who sense that their appeal to Dalits, backward castes and Muslims is dwindling in the absence of providing more and more sops, or that their rivals are more successful in cultivating these vote banks.

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In the Hindi belt, for instance, the support base of the Yadavs, the most dominant of the backward castes, has become the monopoly of Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in U.P.

Interestingly, these bases are not transferrable across the boundaries of the two states. Evidently, the Bihari Yadavs are not enamoured of the leader of their caste group in U.P. and vice versa.

It is this watertight division which made Mulayam Singh break away from the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) in Bihar last year and ring the death knell of the proposed Janata “parivar” comprising remnants of the old Janata Dal.

This brittle and unreliable aspect of the social scene appears to have persuaded Nitish Kumar to court a new support base – that of women, which presumably cuts across caste lines though not the class barriers.

The Bihar chief minister’s compulsions are understandable. As a leader of the small caste group of Kurmis, who make up a mere 3.8 percent of Bihar’s population, he must have felt at a political disadvantage vis-a-vis his friend-turned-foe to uneasy friend again, Lalu Prasad, leader of the Yadavs who comprise 14 percent of the state’s population.

To offset this drawback, Nitish Kumar has tried to rally the women to his side by implementing prohibition. The annual price which he is willing to pay for this policy is Rs.4,000 crore, which used to be the earnings of the excise department.

Apart from the revenue shortfall, which cannot but affect Bihar’s development, there are other problems associated with prohibition, viz. criminalisation of the liquor trade via bootlegging, bribery of the police and excise officials and the conversion of law-abiding drinkers into dissemblers and liars about their habits.

Unlike Bihar, which is yet to shed its BIMARU or sick label because of a sluggish economy, the far more advanced state of Goa has also become a victim of the political tactic of wooing women as a vote bank.

Instead of banning liquor to save the fair sex from abusive husbands/boyfriends, a section of the women in Goa is seeking to outlaw casinos to prevent the men folk from squandering the hard-earned money of their families.

Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar is, therefore, considering legislation to ban Goans from entering the casinos, introducing a kind of apartheid in the state.

Earlier, identity politics was focussed on entire castes or communities. Now, the spotlight is on a gender-based group. It is no secret that differentiations of this kind tend to pit the chosen category against the others.

Therefore, it is possible that a policy based on “guarding” women against ill-behaved men is not a recipe for harmonious family relations. Although the law against domestic violence has the same objective, it is meant to act as a warning. The policy on prohibition pre-empts the issue by assuming that all those who drink alcohol are louts.

Since this is patently not the case, the policy penalizes not only those men who are not guilty but also those women who drink. Aimed at checking a few anti-socials, the ban on liquor tars everyone with the same brush.

It may also be promoting class antagonisms, for the denizens of the cocktail circuit may believe themselves to be at the receiving end for the misdemeanours of a few among the lower-middle and working class.

Not that the upper strata do not have their black sheep – the murderous evening in Kathmandu’s royal palace in 2001 is an example. But worldwide alcohol consumption has become a part of social life just as imbibing soma and sura was in ancient times.

The breeding of ill-feelings between caste groups is a known aspect of identity politics. It was to obviate such bad blood that the Dalit czarina Mayawati changed her earlier slogan “Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maro jootey char” (beat with shoes the Brahmins, banias and thakurs) to “Brahmin sankh bajayega, hathi aagey jayega” (the elephant will go forward to the sound of the Brahmin’s conch shell). The elephant is the BSP’s poll symbol.

To what extent the prohibition-induced wall between men and women will jeopardize their relationship is difficult to say. But it cannot be of any help in fostering amity at a time when drinking at parties and in the home has become much more common than what it was, say, half a century ago.

Prohibition will be strongly resented by a much larger section of the population than what the Bihar government imagines.

It will be the same in Goa if the locals are kept out of casinos on the plea of ensuring moral health and curing the spendthrift gambling addicts.

Since women are supposed to be behind these official initiatives, men will not be overly pleased. A not inconsiderable portion of the votes which the proponents of the bans will get from women will be negated by the contrary votes of the men.