MP: How Chouhan is banking on women voters to retain power

Ladli Behna Yojana and the new excise policy are seen as women welfare schemes

43-women-from-Balaghat-display-a-giant-rakhi-made Women from Balaghat display a giant rakhi made for Chouhan to thank him for the Ladli Behna scheme.

FEBRUARY WENT BY in a flurry of felicitations for Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. While many of them were initiated by BJP leaders, some were organic. Former chief minister Uma Bharti, too, had planned one on February 25, but it was cancelled owing to a road mishap the previous day in Sidhi district that killed 14 people. He visited her residence on February 27, where she felicitated him; she also held a public felicitation on March 11.

The public praise for Chouhan came in the wake of two announcements by his government. The first one was the Chief Minister’s Ladli Behna Yojana, announced on January 29, that aims to provide Rs1,000 per month to women from economically backward groups. The second one was the new excise policy, announced on February 19, which called for a closure of ahatas (open drinking places linked to liquor shops), and increased the distance between liquor shops and religious and educational establishments from 50m to 100m.

The two decisions seem to have hit a chord with women, with many tying Chouhan rakhi in person or sending the thread and greetings by post. An elated Chouhan took to social media to share the greetings and gratitude he had received. Then the civic bodies―all 413 of them―joined in, organising felicitation programmes to thank Chouhan for the new excise policy on February 22. Even Bharti’s felicitation was an appreciation of the new excise policy. Her endorsement is significant because she had been up in arms against the government’s old liquor policy. Some say the change in policy was because of pressure from her.

Flower shower: BJP leader Uma Bharti felicitates Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Bhopal for the government’s new excise policy | PTI Flower shower: BJP leader Uma Bharti felicitates Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Bhopal for the government’s new excise policy | PTI

Chouhan claims that the Ladli Behna Yojana was brought in to financially empower women and the new liquor policy to discourage drinking. He said the government plans to spend Rs60,000 crore on the Ladli Behna scheme in five years. About one crore women are likely to benefit from the scheme. The government has allotted Rs8,000 crore for the scheme in the 2023-2024 budget. More than Rs1 lakh crore of the Rs3.14 lakh crore budget is for women’s welfare, said Chouhan. He has also been holding ‘Ladli Behna’ camps across the state, and held an outreach programme at CM House in Bhopal on March 22. Political thinkers have termed Chouhan’s strategy as yet another masterstroke that might help the BJP win the assembly elections.

Of the 5.40 crore voters in the state, 2.60 crore (more than 48 per cent) are women. The turnout of women voters has consistently risen over the years, and in the 2018 polls it stood neck to neck, at 74.3 per cent, with that of men (75.9 per cent). No wonder, the BJP is going all out to woo them.

Though the strategy is a game-changer, it is not new. As political commentator Manish Dixit said, Chouhan had launched flagship schemes like Ladli Laxmi Yojana (financial support for education of girls) and Kanyadan Yojana (marriage support for girls) ahead of the 2008 assembly polls, too―the first he faced as chief minister. “Not only did the schemes help Chouhan beat anti-incumbency but they also gave him the enduring image of ‘Mama’(maternal uncle) that stood him in good stead for the next elections (2013), too,” said Dixit. “Therefore, it makes sense for him to make these pro-women political moves at this juncture.”

In the run-up to the assembly polls, scheduled for this November, the ruling BJP has several challenges, the foremost being anti-incumbency. The party has been in power for nearly 18 years; it was marginally defeated in 2018 but returned to power in March 2020 after a section of Congress leaders, led by Jyotiraditya Scindia, defected to the BJP. Chouhan has been chief minister for 16 of those 18 years.

Though the party has been making efforts to strengthen its base―from projecting a hardcore hindutva face to wooing crucial tribal and dalit voters through multiple sops―and focusing on developmental works, sources said the feedback of its internal surveys as well as response to the government’s Vikas Yatra have made the BJP somewhat jittery.

The Vikas Yatra was organised from February 5 to February 25, with ministers, MLAs, BJP leaders and workers reaching out to the electorate with the government’s development works and welfare schemes. However, the yatra faced people’s ire in many places, much to the glee of the Congress. Former chief minister Kamal Nath claimed that there were protests in at least 160 places and it clearly showed people’s mood.

Thus, reaching out to women voters is as much a safety bet as it is a well-thought-out political decision. “The voting trends of past few years and the analyses by prominent psephologists show that the women voters’ turnout is increasing year by year,” BJP state secretary Rajneesh Agrawal told THE WEEK. “Also, there is clear indication that women voters lean towards the BJP. So, on the national spectrum as well as in the state, we make efforts to take pro-women decisions.”

The Congress, however, termed the recent announcement, especially the liquor policy, as eyewash. “The BJP government has actually managed to double the number of liquor shops in the state by opening composite shops of foreign and country liquor,” state Congress chief Kamal Nath told THE WEEK. “The BJP policy is simple: offer cheap liquor and expensive ration, and indulge in the usual theatrics while doing it. As for the cash assistance scheme for women, it remains to be seen how effective the implementation is.”

But the scheme does seem to have rattled the Congress. On February 27, Nath told the media that the Congress, too, would give monthly allowance―Rs1,500―to women who were homemakers as proposed at the Congress plenary session in Raipur, and cooking gas cylinder at Rs500 if it came to power. It would be included in the poll manifesto, he said.

Moreover, women seem to have welcomed the Ladli Behna scheme, but are apprehensive when it comes to the new excise policy. Bharti Thakur, 28, a domestic help residing at Banganga in Bhopal, said, “The Rs1,000 cash assistance will certainly be helpful for me as prices of essential commodities are rising day by day. I only hope my husband does not take this money, too, away from me.”

Thakur’s husband Sunil, a driver, is an alcoholic and tends to spend all available cash on alcohol. So, she is wary about the decision to close down ahatas. “At present, he does not drink at home and yet sometimes gets violent with me and my two young sons,” she says. “If ahatas close and he starts drinking at home, it will be a very bad influence on my boys and I also fear an increase in his violent behaviour.”

Somvati Kondar, 34, of Ranipur in Panna district, too, sees the Ladli Behna scheme as a blessing for her five-member family that earns its living by farming a small piece of land and doing manual labour. “I would probably be able to give a little bit of better food to my three children and meet some sudden expenses,” she says. She hasn’t given much thought to the new liquor policy as her husband is not addicted to alcohol, but she, too, thinks that closing down ahatas could lead to men drinking at home.

But there are some misgivings about the Ladli Behna scheme, too. Activist Sachin Jain says that the big question is whether the scheme will bring about any sustainable change in the socioeconomic condition of women. “Rather if the same amount is invested in schemes for higher education, self-employment generation, health care and other empowerment measures, there can be long-term, sustainable change possible for women,” he said. Citing the state’s economic situation, he felt funding of other welfare schemes might get curtailed because of the new scheme. “When the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi (cash assistance to farmers) worth roughly Rs72,000 crore was launched, diesel and fertiliser subsidy to farmers worth Rs2.5 lakh crore was discontinued,” he said.

Social activist Upasana Behar said that as women are not decision-makers in their household, the money could easily be misused. As for the liquor policy, she said that half-baked measures like closing down ahatas or merely increasing distance of liquor shops will not prevent access to liquor and therefore will not stop violence and compulsive spending of money on liquor.