In Assam, BJP tries to woo 1.21 cr women voters with schemes, ‘fake forms’

There seems to be a rise in women voter turnout in Assam. CM Sarma, meanwhile, is trying to fashion himself as the uncle of girl children.

WrittenBy:Pratyush Deep
Johra Khatun (right) with other SHG members.

Gitarthi Bora, a 43-year-old resident of Bharti village in Assam's Sivasagar district, received a message last week on a WhatsApp group for the self-help group she is part of. It was from a senior, and invited her to attend chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s public meeting. 

“Attendance was said to be compulsory, but I couldn’t attend,” she said, alleging that the message promised that a sum of Rs 10,000 – under the BJP government’s Lakhpati Baidew scheme – would be distributed among SHG members during the meeting.

Bora is among thousands of women who are part of SHGs in Assam, which has nearly 1.21 crore women voters and where schemes aimed at women and SHGs may help the BJP attract a larger share of the vote pie.

It also has to do with CM Sarma’s pitch; he had nicknamed himself ‘mama’, or uncle, ahead of the assembly polls in 2021, and said the state’s girl children were his responsibility while families could look after the sons.  

In 2019, the BJP wrested nine of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam. This time, the party and its allies hope to win more after the delimitation exercise. CM Sarma had credited women voters and the BJP government’s schemes for the party’s 2021 assembly election victory.

The major schemes

Among the two major schemes the BJP has counted on is the Mukhyamantri Mahila Udyamita Asoni scheme, or Lakhpati Baidew, which aims to empower women part of SHGs to become “lakhpati” or millionaires by setting up businesses, imparting them skills, and helping them earn Rs 1 lakh per annum.  It promises to hand out an initial amount of Rs 10,000, followed by a sum of Rs 25,000, and forms have been circulated.

This scheme is the local rendition of the ‘Lakhpati Didi’ scheme, which was announced by PM Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech last year and among the women-centric initiatives mentioned in Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget speech.

The other prominent programme is the Arunodoi scheme, which was launched in 2020 and provides financial assistance of Rs 1,250 per month to at least 27 lakh women beneficiaries.

It was the Udyamita Asoni or the Lakhpati Baidew scheme whose forms were distributed in January this year when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra entered Assam, with the party accusing the BJP government of trying to exploit SHGs as an electoral constituency.

Operated by the National Rural Livelihood Mission, the structure of SHGs has village organisations at the bottom, cluster level federations in the middle, and SHGs at the grassroots level. These SHGs are entitled to various benefits, including access to revolving funds and loans from banks, with the goal to empower women economically. There are 3.27 lakh SHGs in Assam, covering over 36 lakh families. 

Apart from the Udyamita Asoni for SHGs and the Arunodoi scheme, Sarma’s government has offered several other benefits for women. 

In this year’s budget, the Assam government announced the Nijut Maina scheme with direct benefit transfers to girl students. An amount of Rs 10,000, Rs 12,000 and Rs 25,000 is stipulated for those enrolling in senior secondary school, and undergraduate and postgraduate courses, respectively. This is expected to benefit a total of 10 lakh beneficiaries and may help the government target young voters.

There was a significant participation of women at the BJP’s public meetings attended by Newslaundry in Upper Assam where participants seemed satisfied with such women-centric schemes. 

Krishna Kutum, a BJP worker at a party meeting in Neul Gaon of Jorhat segment, claimed the Udyamita Asoni scheme has made an impact on women voters. “All members of the SHG I belong to are present here today to attend our meeting. Women are very pleased with the government, primarily because of two schemes: Udyamita Asoni and Arunudoi.”

Meanwhile, amid the Lok Sabha poll campaign, a flurry of messages have circulated on social media, claiming that WhatsApp groups of these SHGs are buzzing with invitations to join election meetings of BJP candidates.

The politics of women-centric schemes 

On April 6, the Chief Election Officer of Assam issued a show-cause notice to the state BJP president, Bhabesh Kalita, over an alleged violation of the Model Code of Conduct, based on a complaint from CPI-M’s Assam unit. The complaint alleged that the BJP was distributing forms across the state during its campaign under the pretext of a socioeconomic survey, but that it actually aimed to increase the number of beneficiaries under the Arunodoi scheme.

When Newslaundry reached out to Assam CEO Anurag Goel for comment, he disconnected the call saying he is not responding to any “individual on phone”.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties are trying to counter the popularity of the BJP’s women-centric schemes.

Assam Congress president Bhupen Bora recently announced that his party would start a scheme named Na Lakhimi to increase the monthly allowance to women.

Akhil Gogoi, an independent MLA and a prominent opposition figure, has been taking a dig at the Lakhpati Baidew scheme, alleging that the government is attempting to bribe women into voting for the BJP using its direct benefit transfers.

“If you examine the Arunodoi forms distributed by the BJP, they bear a lotus symbol. If it were an official government form, it would feature the Ashoka symbol, not the lotus. Additionally, there is no provision to write your account number on these forms. Therefore, the BJP overlooked the fundamental requirement of the Arunodoi scheme, which is the bank account, when creating these fraudulent forms,” Gogoi could be heard telling his audience during an election meeting in Sivasagar district.

But not everyone in the audience agrees.

Minu Gogoi, a 60-year-old from Lukhurakhon village in Jorhat, said she had “received a house and PM-KISAN benefits from the government”. “Honestly, I attend every political meeting in hopes of also receiving Arunodoi,” she said.

A BJP booth-level worker in Dhekargarha panchayat, in the same district, emphasised that while it’s relatively simple to mobilise those who are yet to receive Arunodoi, those who have received it are hesitant to attend meetings.

Deep-rooted SHG network

In Nagaon district's Moirabari panchayat, Johra Khatun has been involved with SHGs since 2005 and currently oversees around 140 such groups as a community resource person, or CRP.

Khatun, who has been a CRP since 2011, emphasised that the structure and organisation of SHGs have become more regulated over the past few years. “There was a time when people used to chase us when we visited homes to inform women about the importance of SHGs. Now, almost every woman is part of one or the other SHG.”

“The new positions such as VO were established after 2018. Previously, the regulations were lax, and one could apply for a loan solely in the name of an SHG by listing out certain members. Now, consent from all members is required for such actions,” Khatun claimed. “If you mention the name of an SHG, I can provide you with the name of its VO. Regular meetings and WhatsApp groups enhance cohesion.”

Regarding the influence of CRPs over SHG members, Khatun said, “If a CRP advises against attending a particular event, none of them would go. For instance, if there’s a meeting, they would inquire whether their presence is necessary or not. CRPs play a significant role."

But she asserted that SHGs are not involved in political activities. “On April 23, we were instructed to conduct rallies to raise awareness about the election. This is not for the promotion of any particular party. Therefore, we only engage women in public programmes mandated by the project manager at the block level.”

The Election Commission has also involved members of SHGs to reduce the gender gap in voting and provide voter education. SHG members are also selected to work at women's help desks during the elections.

Marina Begum, an SHG member in Moirabari, stated that politics has never been a focal point of discussion among women. “The conversations in our meetings mainly revolve around schemes and financial management.”

She acknowledged the government’s role in the functioning of these SHGs but underlined that “this control is not politically motivated”. “Once an SHG is registered, the government provides us with Rs 25,000, which does not need to be repaid. A few months ago, the government also provided assistance of Rs 50,000 to SHG groups.”

According to Begum, SHGs are empowering women from all sections of society, particularly those belonging to minority communities. “Previously, women relied on their husbands for money. Now, husbands rely on their wives, and women are the ones paying their children's school fees. They have become more aware of schemes and are less susceptible to deception.”

We also filled out the forms for the scheme, but who knows when or if we will receive the money. It was also assured that our microfinance loans would be waived, but that’s yet to happen.

Marina Begum, SHG member in Moirabari

Begum believes that although the BJP is perceived as anti-minority, the government has never deprived the community of any schemes. “As a Muslim woman, I have received all government benefits. Many others like me are also benefiting from government schemes. Therefore, it doesn’t matter who forms the government; what matters is good governance.”

While most women Newslaundry met expressed satisfaction at the Udyamita Asoni scheme, some like Gitarthi Bora had doubts.

“We also filled out the forms for the scheme, but who knows when or if we will receive the money,” said. “It was also assured that our microfinance loans would be waived, but that’s yet to happen.”

Bora was referring to the BJP government’s failure to fulfill its 2021 poll promise of waiving loans taken by women through microfinance institutions such as SHGs.

A severe microfinance crisis had unfolded in 2020 in Assam, where the indebtedness of microborrowers is more than double the national average of 3 percent. Indebtedness is calculated as the percentage of borrowers with debts exceeding Rs 1 lakh – the sum microfinance loans were capped at until October 2018 when this was revised to Rs 1.25 lakh.

After winning the 2021 assembly elections, the BJP government has provided financial aid totaling over Rs 2,000 crore to 12 lakh women who had taken loans from microfinance institutions. This is nearly half of the approximately 26 lakh women in the state who borrowed a staggering Rs 12,500 crore from these microfinance institutes.

Bora and many others, whose loans are yet to be repaid by the government, had previously staged protests in Guwahati demanding the same. 

Debarshi Das, a professor of economics at IIT-Guwahati, who studied the 2021 assembly elections, maintained that the announcement to waive off microfinance loans could have played a significant role in that election, especially in upper Assam where such indebtedness is high.

“In the 2021 assembly polls, there was a perception that there was anti-CAA sentiment and the opposition would capitalise on it. However, the opposition failed to do so. One of the major reasons for this is the beneficiaries of these schemes.”

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