In Bengal, Female Leadership Has Refreshing Acceptability: Shutapa Paul On Mamata Victory

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Mamata Banerjee’s hattrick victory as Chief Minister tells a decisive story of female leadership in Bengal. After a high-stakes battle with the ferocious Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), she emerged triumphant, backed by a loyal female electorate, tangible work, and longstanding trust she has inculcated among her people.

Commentator and author of Didi: The Untold Mamata Banerjee, Shutapa Paul in an incisive interview with SheThePeople looks at the factors she estimates drove Mamata Banerjee to a third-term win despite the mammoth challenges thrown her way through the recent past up to the election campaign in the run-up to results.

“It was a fantastic win for Mamata,” she says. “One of the most difficult battles in her 40-year career. Mainly because this is the first time we have had national-level leaders coming down here and aggressively campaigning, hitherto unheard of in any state election. While this is a tremendous victory for her, she will now have to make sure BJP does not make any more inroads.”

“Even with their 77 seats, the BJP is Mamata’s main challenger. They have ousted the Left.”

The fact, she says, that the BJP has grown from a measly single-digit seat conquer to double digits in just five years is noteworthy. “This is decisively a vote against BJP’s politics and communalism. Bhawanipore for instance has voted for cosmopolitanism. Exit polls suggested TMC would not do well in North Bengal, but the party has managed to get some new votes there as well. Overall, TMC’s vote share percentage has increased in the 2021 polls.”

But there is no chance the TMC can get complacent. BJP’s focus will be on Bengal for the next few years because 2024 is not that far away.

Post-Poll Violence And COVID-19 Surge: What Will Mamata First Strike At As CM?

Almost immediately after TMC’s massive win, it seems the BJP has found opportunity to take the high ground. Disturbing reports of post-poll violence in Bengal have emerged, with the BJP alleging perpetration by workers from the winning party. While authorities are yet to authenticate the source of unrest, which reportedly includes rapes and vandalism, both the TMC and BJP have cried murder.

“In the electric political cauldron that is Bengal, political violence is common. However, the Bengal administration must act strictly and prevent post-poll violence… Violence of any sort must be condemned,” Paul says, adding, “We do, however, see a proliferation of fake news doing the rounds too. The alleged gangrape in Birbhum has now been called fake news.” Read about it here.

“Let’s not forget what happened in Delhi once the BJP lost – Delhi riots. The onus is on the Mamata government to prevent it and maintain peace in the state. At the moment, the focus of the state and all parties must be to fight and overcome the COVID-19 crisis.”

It is also what Banerjee claimed, right after taking oath as the CM, is her first priority. All eyes seem to be on her leadership in that sphere. Paul, who speaks to us from Calcutta, says, “Things have drastically changed in a month. In Bengal, the election rallies played a massive role in it as COVID-19 super-spreaders… from both the TMC and BJP in the first few phases.”

Data has consistently shown a rise in cases following the charged election campaigns by all parties in Bengal. On Tuesday, the state recorded its highest-ever number of deaths at 107 and one-day spike at 17,639.

The central government’s abdication of swift duty to shift attention to the Bengal turf, even in the face of India becoming the second-worst affected country in the world, has been internationally condemned. How far did lax governance affect BJP’s vote share percentage in the Bengal election? Or did it, at all?

“In the last two phases, the pandemic handling factor would have played a part because it had Calcutta. The urban voter would have been more aware of the crisis ravaging the country – Delhi and Mumbai at the time. The people here would have taken cognisance of that fact.” The local grassroots vote was in all probability driven by other motivations, which Paul discusses later in the interview.

“Even in the language from the central government, there was no caution,” she says. A report by Reuters indicates that scientists cautioned the government of an impending disaster as early as March but to no actionable avail.

The Communal, The Optical, The Catcall: What Went Into The Bengal Campaign

As for Mamata, she was up against the biggest powers this time around. Bigger and different. The aggravated communal speech, gender distinction, power play, none of it was hidden. How could it have been? Political parties were especially outlining it to their advantage. Some things paid off, some didn’t.

Among the most striking out of these was Mamata’s decision to try and stake claim to Nandigram over her traditional Bhawanipore seat. It was a statement of sorts, chiefly to her aide-turned-adversary Suvendhu Adhikari who left TMC for the saffron party only some months ago. He ultimately won the Nandigram seat, but Mamata dismissed her loss as a “sacrifice” in the larger victory.

“It was a brilliant political decision, in terms of optics. Mamata contesting from Nandigram – and only Nandigram – was a very gutsy, Mamata-like move.”

Mamata’s politics did not change, some of her methods did, Paul says. One of those was brought about by the injury she sustained in Nandigram on March 10, after filing her nomination from the constituency. More on that here. There was no clear answer on it from the Election Commission (EC), but the incident tied the TMC supremo to a wheelchair for the rest of her campaign.

“She is big on padayatras. Even on regular days, she walks for 1.5 hours on the treadmill. This time given her injured foot, there was a wheelchair padayatra… that was quite unique and ultimately went in their favour. It was sentimental – Bengal’s most loved political leader injured and catcalled and still going around on a wheelchair,” Paul says.

The Narendra Modi-led didiii… o didiii call, deemed a “catcall” by opposition leaders and women, not just in Bengal but countrywide, has collectively been pegged as a dud that did more to dent the BJP’s image than invoke disfavour towards the country’s only woman CM.

To her knowledge, Paul says, many people were initially inclined towards voting for the BJP for the sole reason that Mamata had served two terms already. “As if they were looking to try a new drink.” But the winds swayed them over to the other side when the catcall attack began.

“She is called Didi in the state for a reason. She is like that elder sister, mother, grandma figure with tender love and care for her people. Didi o didi pretty much means eve-teasing. The women definitely did not like it,” she says.

On the appeasement front, both primary political contenders were accused of erring – the BJP’s rhetoric was communally inflamed, while Mamata’s was laden with hyper-Hinduism. She played up her “Hindu girl” identity in retaliation to the opposition’s “Hindu card” tactics. There were public repetitions of the Chandi Path and other religious chants, something Paul says the CM is actually well-versed in “having learned them and performed pujas for years, ever since she was a young girl.”

“While the BJP has benefitted from the SC/ST, Dalit and OBC vote, TMC has obviously benefitted from the minority vote… A lot of upper-caste vote has gone to Mamata too, at least by what early trends show,” she says.

Female Leadership In Bengal That Women Relate To And Were Not Looking To Change

The fervourous support Mamata enjoys in her home state, and most markedly from the women of Bengal, is not without context. She has emerged as a cultural icon, a leader of the masses, an accessible figure of both power and relatability for her people. And so, the vote has spoken. Her big win shows that female leadership in Bengal is held up to pride.

The status of adulation she enjoys can, in fact, be likened to the kind the South’s most cherished woman leader enjoyed.

“With Jayalalithaa, it was at another level. In both states, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, there is acceptability, and it’s a refreshing quality, of female leadership. Maybe it’s the cultural mindset, progressiveness, safety of women. The difference in the outlook of the cow belt and a state like Bengal is apparent,” Paul says.

And in a state where the female electorate, approximately 49 percent, is anything but the “silent voter” and is treated as an important, separate entity that needs to be won over, the punch of assertion was felt.

“She had already solidified that vote bank… The women of Bengal definitely have a strong connection with Mamata because they identify with her – her garb, getup. She wants to be a commoner like them. For the kind of relationship, they share with her, the BJP’s campaign would have angered them,” the author says.

When she won, people said that Bengal is the land of Maa Durga, you cannot get away with insulting a woman leader.

Even so, the grassroots vote share that led TMC to victory was far removed from this discourse, Paul says. “They were not looking to change Mamata. They have been given access to government schemes, agri-schemes for farmers, increase in paddy procurement. Social, health, and unemployment indices are doing better in Bengal than the national average.”

Her leadership that sailed the state through the turbulence of the Amphan Cyclone in May last year, with its rehabilitative action, and management of the COVID-19 crisis thus far too can be considered factors contributing to her popularity. “So, she couldn’t have got a third term only because Modi said didi o didi and people got angry. The local level voter does not care about what parties say but about what they’re receiving from the government.”

“Is there room for improvement? Of course.”

Paul mentions the lack of industry is a space Bengal has repeatedly faltered on. “But the national economy has generally been down. Experts say the service industry in India is saturated. What we need to concentrate on is manufacturing. Mamata can definitely relook at startups a bit more… and their retention in Bengal.”

After TMC swept the polls, a quote by Congress leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale from the Indian Independence movement almost a century ago, and uttered by Modi recently while rallying for a win in the eastern state, surfaced online: What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.

While it clearly didn’t manifest for the saffron wave in Bengal, Gokhale’s words have the latitude for opportunity and motivation to the woman once again in power, as well as the entire spectrum of political oppositions that witnessed the phenomenon of BJP’s male muscle losing to female leadership in Bengal.

“The entire might of the BJP was unleashed and they pumped immense resources and cabinet ministers into the campaign. In spite of all that, Mamata – the one-star campaigner of TMC – was able to decisively defeat them,” says Paul. “This should come as encouragement to other parties that the BJP is not undefeatable.”