Will women help Mamata Banerjee retain Bengal?

It is likely that whichever party wins over more women will form the next government in Bengal.

ByTalha Rashid
Will women help Mamata Banerjee retain Bengal?
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As Bengal prepares to elect a new government, the incumbent Trinamool Congress and the rival BJP are working hard to rally women. The Trinamool’s slogan – “Bangla Niljer Meyeki Chay”, meaning Bengal wants her own daughter – and its focus on welfare schemes such as Swasthya Sathi, Rupashshree, and Kanyashree shows how important women voters are to the chances of Mamata Banerjee staying put as chief minister.

The support of women, who constitute about half the electorate, proved pivotal to Mamata’s success in the last two state elections, and her party is banking on them once again.

The centrality of women to Mamata’s electoral strategy can be gauged from the fact that she mentioned “mothers and sisters” no less than 23 times in a 34-minute speech she gave last month to a public meeting in Kalna. Her party has nominated as many as 50 women to contest the Assembly election. In the 2019 general election, the Trinamool had fielded women on 41 percent of the seats, the most by any party. The party has also sought to connect with women by promising doorstep delivery of rations and a basic monthly income support for 1.6 crore households. Mamata’s image makeover during this campaign from “Didi” to “Beti” is also calibrated to enhance the identification of women voters with her.

The precise factors shaping the political choices of women in Bengal merit interrogation. At a fundamental level, it’s about political approach. The Mamata government has cultivated women as a vote bank, primarily through welfare schemes such as Rupashree and Kanyashree, under which they get direct cash assistance.

This has pushed rival parties to evolve their own approaches of targeting women voters. The BJP, lacking a singularly powerful woman leader, is leveraging its formidable organisation to reach out to women on the ground. The party’s women leaders such as Locket Chatterjee and Debasree Chaudhauri have been touring the state since November to get its message out to the women voters. A key component of that message is accusing the Trinamool of presiding over an erosion of women’s safety.

Another component is countering the appeal of Trinamool’s welfare spending by talking up Narendra Modi government’s schemes such as the Ujjawala Yojana of free LPG connections which they claim have markedly improved the lives of women.

How women vote in Bengal

Seeing how women have voted in previous elections in Bengal throws up interesting trends. A study done after the 2014 Lok Sabha election by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that 42 percent of the women had voted for the Trinamool, a 12 percent jump from the 2009 election. The table below strongly suggests that the party that manages to attract women voters largely emerges as the winner. The change in power from the Left to the Trinamool follows the shift in the preference of women voters between 2009 and 2014. The women voters who were solidly behind the Left until 2007 deserted it in 2014.

In the last assembly election in 2016, the BJP lagged behind the Trinamool wherever women’s turnout was higher. On the other hand, the Trinamool enjoyed tremendous support from women across the state. This explains the BJP’s plan to dent the goodwill Trinamool enjoys among women and its emphasis on reaching out to female voters.

We see a similar trend in how women voted in general elections from 1996 to 2019. When the Left was in power in Bengal, it led vastly among women as compared to national parties such as the Congress and the BJP. The support enjoyed by Mamata surpasses even the Left’s back when it controlled the state.

However, the jump in BJP’s vote share to 40.6 percent in the 2019 general election from 17 percent in 2014 certainly indicates that the Hindutva party attracted a large cohort of women. This is a big challenge Mamata faces this time, to bring back the women voters who went over to the BJP two years ago. It is very likely the party which wins over more women will form the government in Bengal after May 2.

Talha Rashid is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Graphs are by CPR researcher Abdul Najah.

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