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Politicians woo women's groups with cash, goodies
Rakesh Prakash in Bangalore | May 08, 2008 14:12 IST
Call it the negative spin to women's empowerment. In Karnataka, women's self help groups have become the new vote banks for politicians!
From making direct cash payments to distributing freebies, aspiring MLAs have chosen to repress their chauvinistic instincts in the run-up to the legislative assembly elections and are 'pampering' women voters, especially members of the Stree Shakti SHGs in the state.
This is different from the traditional path where candidates used to lure voters by hobnobbing with religious heads or distributing money through community leaders as part of their campaigning. "Priorities have changed this poll season."
When we enter a village to muster support, we first summon the leaders of Stree Shakti groups to the negotiation table," a candidate in Mulbagal constituency in Kolar district said.
The coming election, in fact, has turned the spotlight on the Stree Shakti groups. While political parties are promising the sky to women voters, individual candidates have been found distributing sarees and insurance certificates, apart from household articles like pressure cookers, jewellery and television sets.
According to political sources, candidates have been offering each of the Stree Shakti groups between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 cash (the amount depends on the number of voters who are part of the group).
Each Stree Shakti group has an average of 20 members and there are two to three groups in each village. If four candidates in a constituency offer cash to a Stree Shakti group, the latter's finance base widens significantly. In many places, the loans taken by the members have been waived because of the sudden inflow of cash from politicians.
Stree Shakti groups, set up in 2000-01 as part of the government initiative to empower women and make them financially self-reliant, have witnessed a steady growth in the last five years. At the start of 2008, there were about 200,000 Stree Shakti groups (including those run by private organisations) with a membership of around 3.5 million, mainly those from the below poverty line families.
Stree Shakti groups which emphasise thrift and societal participation, are promoting a sense of collectivism among rural women and creating an increased confidence in them to run homes without support from their husbands.
As the Stree Shakti gro-ups grew numerically, politicians began to realise their importance in the electoral process. The female voter population has risen from 18.9 million in 2004 to 19.6 million in 2008. The women are also turning out to be vote catalysts. Convincing a woman is likely to lead to winning over an entire family, political circles believe.
With word spreading, more groups are finding the elections to be a money spinner. In several places, these groups have been telling candidates to distribute money to them directly instead of handing it over to their husbands. A JD-S candidate touring Channarayapatna area in Hassan district was in for a surprise recently when a group of women demanded money from him for their votes.
"These women have really become very aggressive, and they are too demanding. But the worst part is that they do not tell who they will vote for," he said.
In some constituencies such as Chitradurga, Stree Shakti groups have decided to keep politicians at bay. But that has resulted in touts pocketing the money by promising candidates the votes.
Former chief minister S M Krishna, who facilitated the setting up of Stree Shakti groups in the state, says: "These Stree Shakti groups were created to achieve loftier aims. But it is sad to see what is happening today. We should not encourage such illegitimate activities, political parties should stop misusing these groups."
The Election Commission, which is coming down heavily on electoral malpractices, has expressed helplessness in regulating these groups. State chief electoral officer M N Vidyashankar said: "These Stree Shakti groups are voluntary, and we cannot regulate them.
"They can participate in campaigning. We can intervene only if some anganwadi workers, who are government employees, take part in campaigning as members of these groups," he said.
The bottomline, however, is that women will no longer find themselves at the periphery this election.