Mamata Banerjee Women Voters: At two public rallies in the West Midnapore district in the run-up to the West Bengal state assembly elections 2021, Mamata Banerjee had invoked the state’s women voters to confront BJP’s hired goons, or the “bohiragotos” (outsiders), with “hata khunti” or ladle and spatula. For the uninitiated, it might seem too rustic or somewhat stereotypical, but the Trinamool Congress (TMC) party supremo knew well that it is only her trusted lieutenants, the women voters constituting 49 per cent of voters in the state, whom she could thus speak with a deeply familial tone. Earlier this year, the Election Commission of India (ECI) released the final electoral rolls for the 2021 assembly elections in the state. According to the new draft rolls, the total number of voters in the state are 7.32 crores, among whom 3.73 crore are male, and 3.59 crore, female.
This emotional resonance with “ma-boneyra” or mothers and sisters of Bengal lies at the crux of the politics of Banerjee, whose party registered a sweeping win in 213 seats out of 292/294 seats on May 2, 2021. This is a resounding victory against the distant 77-seat result of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a much-polarised electoral battle in the state. To “conquer” Bengal, the BJP machinery deployed central paramilitary forces spanning the eight-phase state elections despite a surge in the COVID-19 second wave. Not to forget the mega campaigning machinery spanning 117 days that saw the Prime Minister and his second-in-command the Union Home Minister Amit Shah themselves spearheading more than 75 rallies and roadshows in addition to other BJP top leaders. And, yet, Bengal voted for Mamata Banerjee, who is all set to swear in as the Chief Minister of the state for the third consecutive term on May 5, 2021.
Bengal’s Daughter and Women Voters against BJP Misogyny
Bengal voted for Bengal’s own daughter; one of the TMC campaign pitches was “Bangla Nijer Meyekei Chay” or Bengal wants her own daughter. Bangla or Bengal is the motherland and the State – in sync with the party’s motto “Ma, Mati, Manush” or “Mother, Motherland, People” – that voted for her daughter, who is otherwise the synonymous Didi or elder sister, pitted against the BJP “bhumiputras” or the sons of the soil. It is this feminist pitch that set the tone for the TMC in the Bengal 2021 elections set against the optics in the BJP camp, dominated by male politicians and a culture of toxic masculinity addled by a combination of money, muscle and might. Take Dilip Ghosh, the state BJP president, who remarked that the wheelchair-bound Banerjee should start wearing bermudas as she was showing her half-bare leg to the audience that to his mind was against “Bengali culture” and the proper way of wearing a sari. Ghosh was referring to Banerjee’s sari pulled up to her knee owing to her plaster-cast and later bandaged foot injured in an accident, alleged to be an attack on her. Ghosh’s sexist comment reflected the patriarchal culture of the BJP, a misogynist mindset that the PM himself perpetrated with his “Didi, oh Didi” jibes that never went down well with Bengal’s voters, especially with women voters in the state where the gender dynamics are different from the Hindi-speaking Hindu majority states – the Hindi heartland. Any political rally attended by national media in the last one month showed a massive participation of “vocal” women attendees across Bengal. This shows greater participation of women in the public space, which is also a political space, signalling a greater churn among women voters emerging as decision-makers in the larger Indian political space. Remember Bihar state elections 2020 where women, touted as the “silent” majority, voted for pro-women developmental policies and outnumbered men?
Mamata Banerjee Victory
Banerjee was the only female sitting CM in India at the time of campaigning. And her “ma-boneyder” clarion call was sealed by her image of leading a frontal opposition to BJP’s aggressive march and a chest-thumping display of masculine entitlement. This is also the reason why Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath’s proposal of setting up an anti-Romeo squad against perpetrators of love jihad, like in BJP-ruled UP where crimes against women are notorious, didn’t go down well with Bengal’s female voters who outnumbered male voters in some of the phases of the long-drawn out 2021 assembly elections. Projections like women are not safe in Bengal are rooted in the BJP’s nationalist projection of India as the motherland that needs to be protected against male violators that is also deeply communal. These ultimately didn’t find favour with Bengal’s women voters despite the BJP’s manifesto promises of providing free education till post-graduation level and free state transport to women. Best to surmise, the claims were not backed by the right messaging and optics wherein the party leaders with all the privilege kept on passing misogynist jibes, taunting and insulting Banerjee, a formidable leader with strong “street fighter” credentials that sets her apart in a male-dominated political system where streets are traditionally masculine spaces. So, when Banerjee urged her loyal voter base to bring out ladle and spatula, in her trademark populist style, she was urging them to bring out their everyday “weapons” against the mighty men. This weaponisation of everyday women, was significant considering they were directly pitted against the “Jai Shri Ram” war cry of the BJP in the state where goddess Durga is worshipped with much fanfare and industry every autumn. Ghosh had gone as far to say that Durga’s genealogy was not known while Ram is universal; well, this posturing couldn’t override local sentiments among goddess-worshipping Hindus. So, as much as the BJP failed to factor in the 30 per cent Muslim population of the state that consolidated its vote share behind the TMC amid a dreaded prospect of CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) if the party came to power, it failed to woo the women voters who wanted agency and not patriarchal protection.
Mamata Banerjee and the Women’s Welfare Agenda
Women voters have been rooting and hooting for Banerjee ever since she came to power in the state in 2011, uprooting a 34-year-old Left Front rule marked by Leftist intellectuals and a bhadrolok culture that often made classist and sexist jibes at her grassroots-driven image.
According to the Election Commission data in 2016 assembly polls, 48 per cent women voters supported Mamata Banerjee and TMC. Under Banerjee’s reign, reservation for women in panchayats has expanded from 33 per cent to 50 per cent, as per the state government. In fact, TMC fielded 50 female candidates in this assembly polls, which is its highest ever. In the closely watched seat of Nandigram, there were reports that scores of women voted for Banerjee even as the male members of the family voted for the BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari. Adhikari won the seat. Banerjee has always been a leader with mass appeal and with numerous women-centric developmental schemes, she has nurtured her women voter base well. One of her most popular schemes, Kanysharee Prakalpa, is a conditional cash transfer scheme for unmarried girls (including a one-time grant of Rs 25,000) to deter child marriages in the state and incentivise economically backward families to let the girl child study. The scheme earned international acclaim from the United Nations Department of International Department and the UNICEF.
In the closely watched seat of Nandigram, there were reports that scores of women voted for Banerjee even as the male members of the family voted for the BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari.
The pre-poll initiative of Swasthya Sathi healthcare scheme where the card was issued in the name of the matriarch of the household, as part of the Duare Sarkar programme, sent the right messaging once again to women voters, especially to women of rural Bengal and urban poor demographics.
In the early days of the polls, a state BJP leader had Tweeted about “beti” or daughters being “paraya dhan” or foreign/ outside property referring to the custom of daughters leaving their homes once married, a jibe at the TMC slogan “Bengal Wants her Own Daughter”. Firstly, this derogatory term equates women with objects, sees them in need of male protectors and projects them as custodians of the family’s values and honour. Banerjee turned it against BJP; her identity of Bengal’s daughter who was fighting against the BJP power machinery single-handedly spoke loud and clear. She made it resonate with her women voters, whom she, in turn, invoked to confront the outsiders. So much so, that it overturned whatever discontent or anti-incumbency sentiments that the party had been facing against its leaders at the local levels. The narrative of a female CM being heckled and taunted by strongmen politicians sufficiently invoked the anger and passion of Bengal’s women voters. The BJP forgot that the “silent” voters held the power of the mandate all along.
Now, it remains to be seen how Banerjee translates this sweeping mandate in her third term to continue with the women empowerment narrative. We will have to wait and see if populist welfare schemes also weave in long-term integrated developmental policies right from the bottom tier and in the far-off hinterlands where period talk is still a taboo and no one talks about women’s health, higher education or happiness. “Mothers and sisters, you are my biggest asset. The woman is the guardian of the family. Let me bow down and touch the feet of my mothers and sisters who came here,” Banerjee had said at a rally. Let us see if five years down the line women voters are still called “silent”, no matter how powerful that potentially might be, and emerge as beyond the image of domestic Durgas.
Sanhati Banerjee is an Independent Journalist and Editorial Consultant. The views expressed are the authors own.