Why Baishakhi Banerjee and Sujata Mondal Khan are ‘unruly women’ of Bengal’s party politics

Despite lip service to gender representation, the two women's stories show political cultures across the spectrum continue to limit female aspiration.

ByProma Ray Chaudhury
Why Baishakhi Banerjee and Sujata Mondal Khan are ‘unruly women’ of Bengal’s party politics
Kartik Kakar
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Women have emerged as a salient electoral constituency in India in recent years and are poised to cast a decisive influence on the outcomes of the upcoming state assembly elections. In poll-bound West Bengal, women constitute 49 percent of the electorate and, consequently, are courted by all major political parties with welfarist policies and symbolic representation, among other promises.

Given the lack of reservation for women in legislative bodies, parties such as the Trinamool Congress, or TMC, have announced voluntary quotas for women aspirants in their candidate lists, the implementation of which has nonetheless fallen short of the proposed target. Despite the adoption of formal progressive measures such as gender quotas, orthodox informal codes on gender roles and relations within the institutional spaces of party cultures continue to limit women’s political aspirations.

An interpretive analysis of two recent situations involving political defections by women party members in West Bengal illustrates how the dynamics of gender and power within political parties shape the stereotypical representations of “appropriate” or “acceptable” women in Indian party politics.

In recent years, marital discord at the level of the party elite has generated turmoil within the institutional spaces of the TMC and the BJP, leading to inter-party defections. Political defections by prominent party members have also, in turn, been the cause of marital discord. Instances of both kinds of defections include the protracted and emotionally charged political scandals that ensued from the respective cases of the alleged extramarital liaison between Sovan Chatterjee and Baishakhi Banerjee in the TMC, and the marital troubles between Saumitra Khan and Sujata Mondal Khan in the BJP. Both cases centred around party defections and continue to receive sustained and sensationalised reportage in Bengali news media.

The first situation involved the alleged relationship between Sovan, a longstanding lieutenant of Mamata Banerjee and former mayor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, or KMC, and Baishakhi, a college lecturer at Kolkata’s Milli Al Amin College. Sovan had been married to Ratna Chatterjee, daughter of a locally influential TMC leader in south Kolkata. Till date, he has chosen to refer to Baishakhi as his ‘friend’ and ‘well-wisher’. During his tenure as mayor, Sovan’s growing closeness to Baishakhi had, alongside allegedly affecting his marital and family life, been interpreted by the party leadership, including Mamata, as jeopardising his professional reputation as well as the TMC’s public image.

Mamata’s personal opposition to their alleged relationship, coupled with the long-drawn series of allegations and counter-allegations within the TMC, and media sensationalism, culminated in his resignation from mayorship in 2018, and eventually from the party in 2019. The political scandal also affected Baishakhi’s career as she resigned from her college lectureship after alleging institutional harassment by her colleagues.

On the eve of the state election, Sovan and Baishakhi were approached by the BJP. The duo joined the BJP in 2019 where they, nonetheless, continued to face censure and function uncomfortably within the BJP’s institutional space. After Sovan was denied a ticket for his preferred seat, Behala Purba in south Kolkata, they quit the BJP while also criticising the party for not giving a ticket to Baishakhi. Meanwhile, Ratna, the estranged wife of Sovan, has been fielded as a TMC candidate from Behala Purba.

The second situation involved TMC turncoat-turned-BJP MP Saumitra Khan and his wife and erstwhile BJP member Sujata Mondal Khan. Commonly perceived to have been instrumental in campaigning and securing the electoral victory of her husband in 2019, Sujata left the BJP in late 2020 and joined the TMC. This defection resulted in Saumitra serving a divorce notice to her on the same day, at a dramatic press conference, and Sujata eventually being fielded as a TMC candidate from Arambagh in Hooghly district.

Blaming the TMC for "breaking his family", an emotional Saumitra conveyed his negative perception of his wife as a “quarrelsome, suspicious woman”. In a similar vein as the media coverage of the Sovan-Baishakhi case, the political defection and subsequent separation also received its share of media sensationalism.

Baishakhi’s association with Sovan and her subsequent representation as the quintessential “other woman” in the mainstream media and popular culture implied that she, along with Sovan, could never, perhaps, be conveniently integrated into the institutional cultures of either the TMC or the BJP, and remain as “bodies out of place”. Within the TMC, Baishakhi continues to be represented as a “homewrecker” and the reason for Sovan’s failure to perform his public role as mayor. The BJP, which had inducted Sovan and Baishakhi into their fold as per their electoral calculations, held an uneasy public stance on the duo’s relationship until their recent departure from the party.

Similarly, Sujata’s defection from the BJP to the TMC, her consequential separation from her husband, and the TMC’s strategic selection of her as a candidate for the upcoming election, have facilitated her representation within the BJP’s institutional spaces and in the mainstream news media as a “quarrelsome” woman who could not be content “with being the MP’s wife”. Sujata’s political ambitions were interpreted as having caused the end of her marriage and, consequently, she was perceived to have transgressed the conventional standards of “acceptable” gendered behaviour in politics.

Within the larger context of Bengali political culture, the two cases illustrate the informal gendered codes of respectability and appropriateness which structure the idealised models of political femininity endorsed by political parties such as the TMC and the BJP, and limit women’s political participation. The political defections and related experiences of Baishakhi and Sujata highlight the interactions between the demands of electoral pragmatism that the TMC and the BJP respond to, and the pull of orthodox gender norms that continue to inform the respective institutional cultures of the parties.

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