The structure of political networks and relationships have consequences for how communities are governed; for the quality of public schools, the construction of infrastructure, and the fairness of access to public benefits.
Political networks in Bihar, India vary across the state and are in transition from traditional clientelist relationships and caste-based identities to looser connections based on media campaigns and the profile of ‘performing’ candidates. All of these systems, however, have been dominated by male-dominated political networks and large gender inequalities in political participation. However, in recent years the political market has been shaken-up by the entry of tens of millions of women, empowered by economic change, new technologies, rapidly evolving norms and active government programmes. Many of these women are engaging with the political system for the very first time.
With distinct preferences, experiences, and skills to men, this inclusion of women has the potential to radically alter how politics is conducted in Bihar. If women form new networks outside of the purview of traditional clientelist networks, the quality of local governance could improve and accountability gaps in local schools and clinics, leakages in social programmes, and capture by local (predominantly male) elites could be rapidly reversed. Yet, given women’s historic exclusion from political spaces and networks, how new women voters will engage in politics remains uncertain – women may simply be coopted into the same relationships of dependency, patronage and identity that have long characterised male politics, or remain disconnected from other groups of women, limiting their ability to exert new pressures for policy change.
At present, there is a window of opportunity to understand how women are first mobilised and to identify the consequences of such mobilisation for political networks, information flows and governance. We study an existing government scheme in Bihar – the Jeevika programme – that promoted women’s Self-Help Groups in Bihar since 2012. The scheme was rolled out to randomly target some Gram Panchayats in six districts, enabling us to examine how that mobilisation has changed political networks and governance in those villages that first received Jeevika. Our study uses a range of measures to capture the different dimensions of political engagement:
- Household surveys of both men and women to evaluate the impact of women’s mobilisation on political attitudes and relationships,
- A census of selected villages to allow us to construct complete mappings of social and political connections in order to evaluate changes in political networks;
- Audio recordings of Gram Sabah meetings, providing insight into how women express their political voice and how men react;
- Administrative data on local public policies to measure any ultimate impact on differences in how villages are governed.
The findings contribute to academic debates around how the individuals we talk to and associate with matter for influence over policy, and help policymakers identify the indirect consequences of the design of women’s mobilisation programmes for political inclusion and local governance.