ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Re-emergence of Gender as a Political Category

Changing electoral dynamics drives the JD(U)’s latest promise of reservations for women students.

 

The recent announcement of the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) (JD[U]) government to table the Bihar Engineering University Act (sic), 2021 and the Bihar University of Health Sciences Bill in the upcoming assembly session has been hailed by the chief minister as a “unique” measure for its provision of 33% reservation of seats for women students in engineering and medical colleges run by the state. However, the government’s press note does not spell out the provisions of the proposed bill in detail, and this, by implication, avoids addressing important legal and political questions such as the provision of subcategorisation within women’s reservation. Even the government’s ability to pass the bill in the legislature and withstand judicial scrutiny remains unaddressed. Although a section of the media welcomed the announcement as a pioneering step, or a political masterstroke towards consolidating a “caste-neutral” constituency, a critical examination of the bill requires us to situate it within the changing dynamics of state politics in Bihar. First, the JD(U)’s intensified efforts to gain the support of women voters comes at a time when the party’s ability to engineer political majorities on the basis of state-constituted categories, such as the Extremely Backward Class (EBC) and Most Backward Class (MBC) has been exhausted of any electoral potential. While these categories signified the legacy of Lohiaite politics in Bihar, and encapsulated a long history of struggle against the monopoly of upper castes in educational institutions, their significance has since been reduced to electoral arithmetic, and situated within a realpolitik of making or unmaking governments. They do not allow for a critical questioning of state policies, but only for a negotiation with the state.

Second, the proposed bill, seen in continuity with the JD(U)’s promise of “Sasakth Mahila, Saksham Mahila” in its manifesto for the Bihar assembly elections in 2020, reflects the party’s official discourse of enhancing women’s empowerment and capabilities. However, assumptions about women’s political and economic behaviour underlying this political discourse need to be critically examined and interrogated. The proposed bill has been presented as increasing the participation of women students and preventing outmigration for education. Seen together with promises made in the JD(U) manifesto, such as financial incentives for completing higher education and for women entrepreneurs, the bill consolidates a shift in the imagination of women’s role in the economy, as questions of loan waivers for self-help groups, mostly run by women, or land redistribution and ownership by women are further marginalised from political discourse. While women are ostensibly at the centre of political discourse in Bihar, their demands have been misrepresented or selectively represented to align with the good governance agenda of the government, or the projection of Nitish Kumar’s image as a non-corrupt leader. A political discourse centred on the image and agenda of the leader has constrained and reshaped women’s demands in new ways outside their control.

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Updated On : 17th Jul, 2021

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