In Bengal, the X factor — women and welfare
On a sweltering afternoon in a village in West Bengal’s Nabadwip constituency, a young man in his 20s called us into his home for a respite. He had returned to the state before the lockdown last year from Ahmedabad and expressed diffident support for Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi — although he was less sure about whom he would support in the high-stakes election battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the state. We asked him whether he received any help during the lockdown. He didn’t answer.
His newlywed wife, who had been listening from a distance, quickly interjected, “We received rations from Didi (big sister, a standard moniker for chief minister Mamata Banerjee).” Her mother-in-law, the young man’s mother, added, “Didi gives us everything,” before rattling off government benefits offered and schemes launched by the incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC) government. As the conversation turned to PM Modi, the young woman made a sour face and answered curtly, “I don’t like him very much.”
A significant proportion of women we met during the election campaign in Bengal were enthusiastic in support for Banerjee and the TMC, and, often, their views differed from men in the household. Unlike any other election state, Modi’s welfarism was rarely discussed in West Bengal and a number of women expressed strong disapproval with him — likely the political fallout of a public rivalry between the CM and the PM.
By now, it is no secret that for the BJP to win West Bengal outright, it will need to win the support of nearly two-thirds of voters from the Hindu community because it will win few votes among the Muslim community — about 30% of West Bengal’s electorate. In order to pull it through, the TMC is banking on women’s support as a bulwark against observably high Hindu-Muslim polarisation.
Only the results on May 2 will help ascertain whether women’s support was sufficient to keep the TMC in power. But irrespective of the outcome, the West Bengal election signals a major shift in the role of women in electoral politics. Privately, psephologists and party workers suggest that the difference in women’s and men’s voting preferences in the state is among the highest they have ever seen. And this has forced all parties to treat women voters as a separate political entity to be targeted with schemes and reservations — much like caste in North India.
So what accounts for Banerjee’s popularity in this constituency? Certainly, there is the notion of identity, as Banerjee is the only woman chief minister in India. Indeed, a woman shopkeeper in Pandua constituency pointedly told us, “Mamata Banerjee is in each one of us.” And some highly publicised unfortunate comments about women by BJP leaders were mentioned as well as those derisive of the CM and her identity. But the type of support one sees on the ground goes beyond the basic rubric of identity-based support. To unpack this further, one needs to look at how the TMC has designed welfare benefits.
First, the TMC has made women the overwhelming beneficiaries of its schemes. Two schemes have been noteworthy: Kanyashree, which gives poor households a one-time grant of ₹25,000 for educating women up to the age of 18, and Rupashree, that gives another ₹25,000 to women in poor families if an underage marriage does not take place.
The scheme design is important as well. There is less chance of corruption or control by men because the money is deposited as a direct transfer into the beneficiary’s bank account, just like in many central schemes. The scale of money transferred to women in poorer families immediately gives them control over significant financial resources and plausibly engenders greater bargaining power within the household.
Equally as important has been the branding of these schemes. Due to the universal nature of the scheme, and the mode of direct transfer, even BJP supporters admit that they have received these benefits. Armed with significant ground presence, and the branding of Mamata Banerjee as “Bengal’s daughter,” each person we spoke to attributed these schemes, and other TMC schemes, to the CM.
Indeed, this is a phenomenon reminiscent of PM Modi’s campaigning around gas cylinders. But given the sheer scale of welfare benefits given the TMC government, people rarely speak of Modi’s benefit schemes — the fact that all central schemes have not been implemented by the state government perhaps adds to this narrative dominance. This has allowed the TMC to position itself as the only party that can deliver significant benefits to the women of Bengal.
A section of analysts have retreated to antiquated notions of gender, arguing that women almost always vote as their husbands or fathers would wish of them. I have been doing fieldwork around elections in West Bengal for over a decade. And I have long noticed that women espouse independent political preferences, much more than other states in India. In fact sometimes it’s the women influencing the men.
Back in the village in Nabadwip constituency, it was time to move to our next destination. As we left, after hearing his wife and mother sing praises of Mamata Banerjee, the young man finally offered an opinion, “It’s probably best that Mamata Banerjee stays as the chief minister.”
Neelanjan Sircar is an assistant professor at Ashoka University and senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal