West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee during a padyatra in Nadia. (File Image: @AITCOfficial)
When the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) central leadership held meetings with its West Bengal unit in 2020, it instructed party workers to focus on one key constituent to help the party in the 2021 polls — women.
A decade ago, centring an entire political campaign on women did not make political sense and was unheard of. The historic 2011 assembly election that ended the three-decade-long Left rule and brought the Trinamool Congress (TMC) to power, was fought keeping lots of ‘politically’ important groups in mind — but even then women failed to make it to the priority list of any party.
The upcoming assembly elections is different in that sense. A female Chief Minister has been ruling the state for the past 10 years. Hoping to wrest power from her is a political party that recognises the power women hold as a demographic and is focussed on increasing its popularity among women.
Consequently, women’s voices and issues have not just become important in elections, they have acquired centre stage, making this one a one-of-a-kind election where gender politics will truly matter.
Winning Women’s Votes
Women may have voted for both the BJP and the TMC in the past, but this election is unlikely to be a cakewalk for either party. That’s because, this time around, the 35.9 million Bengali women (constituting nearly 49 percent of the electorate) can vote either way.
What’s more, with the percentage of women voting on polling day being higher than men in the last two assembly elections, their voting preference will matter, and could likely influence the final outcome. In fact, the TMC’s stunning victory in the 2016 polls can be partly attributed to women voters, who data shows tend to vote more for the TMC than the men.
Given this, it’s no surprise that both parties are doing their best to court women voters. TMC leader and Chief Minster Mamata Banerjee has been assiduously cultivating this demographic since she came into power — giving more tickets to women candidates, focusing on women and girls through various policies and encouraging her party’s women MPs to speak fearlessly. In this election too, Banerjee has fielded 50 women candidates, five more than the 2016 assembly polls.
The BJP, on its part, has mobilised Mahila Morchas in the state, organised padyatras and cycle rallies by women workers, and promised women 33 percent reservation for women in government jobs if voted into power.
Party leaders have also gone all out, attacking the TMC on lack of implementation of central government schemes, and taking it on for its record on the safety of women, alleged discrimination in Amphan relief, and corruption in government.
Rise Of The Woman Voter
With the gender gap turnout contracting rapidly, and an increasing number of women voting outside the influence of husbands or family, women’s rising participation in the political sphere is a trend that has been in the making for a while. In Bihar, it is believed that their ‘silent’ vote tilted the balance in favour of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, despite anti-incumbency. The BJP’s renewed focus on women voters in West Bengal also comes from this victory.
The emergence of this trend, though, seems to be a culmination of larger structural changes taking place in India. Expansion in female literacy coupled with greater access to information means that women are politically more aware today. The increased participation in political activities is also due to reservation given to them in local elections — translating to millions of them leading panchayats and local bodies.
One of the biggest reasons for women’s increasing political participation can be attributed to the sharp rise in turnout among rural women voters — up by 13 percentage points from 53 percent in 1971 to 66 percent in 2014. For the longest time, women had failed to acquire the critical mass required to introduce gender perspectives in political decision making, but political commentators say that the rising influence of the long-neglected rural women voter may have finally forced political parties to include the demographic in their electoral strategy.
What we are witnessing in West Bengal isn’t just business as usual, but a process of feminisation of Indian politics, whereby it is becoming clear to political parties that in order to win an election, the support of female voters of their state is crucial.
It’s a promising development — one that augurs well for Indian women and Indian democracy. In West Bengal, as in many other states, political parties are finally beginning to understand the importance of women’s vote. While it remains to be seen which party the women voters of West Bengal choose, one thing is clear — they are likely to be politically empowered either way.