It is true that if you invest in a girl, she will make you proud. The young women voters of Bihar - graduates of Nitish Kumar's famous 'pink' schools, beneficiaries of his free bicycles, school uniforms, text books, mid-day meals and college incentives for the last 10 years - have carried the day. Along with their mothers, these young women voted the Grand Alliance, comprising the Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, to power.
Nearly two out of three women voted in the recently-concluded Bihar assembly polls; more women than men cast their ballots. The overall turnout of women voters was 60.57 per cent, against 53.41 per cent of male voters. Many of these women were enrolled in school for the first time under Kumar's regime, and have now come of age. Many of them got jobs or held office in the panchayats for the first time during the JD(U)'s tenure.
Women have voted for their right to participate in the public spaces which are now open to them. They have voted to keep intact Kumar's food, housing, health and education subsidies which gave them and their daughters a future. These newly-educated women in the public space were alarmed by the implications of the Bharatiya Janata Party's annual Union budget, presented eight months ago. The budgetary allocations for the Ministry of Women and Child Development was decreased by almost 49.3 per cent in absolute terms.
Narendra Modi's government reportedly planned to phase out shelter homes for single women, one-stop crisis centres and hostels for working women. It had cut the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya boarding school budget (run along with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan) drastically, reduced allocations to the Integrated Child Development Services and mid-day meal schemes and to the gender budget for school education by 8.3 per cent. These were the schemes that pulled girls and women out of destitution to set them on the path towards economic and social stability.
In addition, the increase in indirect taxes has led to a sharp hike in their expenditure on daily items such as dal, thus creating more difficulty for working women. To add insult to injury, Modi allocated Rs 100 crore for an international branding exercise called the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Abhiyan, with little spent on actually educating the girl child.
The last straw for the poor, marginalized mothers was when they heard that the Union cabinet had approved amendments to a bill on child labour that would make the evil practice legal in some spheres, and that the National Commission for Women wanted to legalize sex work. They wondered how they would protect their children from exploitation, and how would they educate them if schools shut down and mid-day meals were not available.
They were relieved to see that the Bihar government kept the mid-day meal scheme, schools and the distribution of cycles and uniforms alive and running against all odds. Thus, they refused to be fooled by the BJP's attempts to fuel religious and inter-caste hatred. They talked about how tax money was being spent on Modi's international tours, fancy suits, grandiose meetings and smart cities rather than on efforts to increase literacy and lower infant mortality rates.
The women of Bihar saw that instead of helping the poor, the BJP was doing more harm to them. It did not care about providing sustainable and dignified work for women, and was pushing formerly self-sufficient groups out by acquiring land for mines, factories, and multi-national agro-businesses. The women understood that the BJP hardly values female citizens, but it values poor female citizens even less. Thus, by voting to keep the BJP out of power in Bihar, the women have voted for a future of possibilities.