In Bengal, the X factor — women and welfare

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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 final year from Ahmedabad and expressed diffident improve for Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi — despite the fact that he used to be less certain approximately whom he would improve in the high-stakes election battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the state. We asked him if he received any help all over 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.”

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A remarkable proportion of women we met all over the election crusade in Bengal were enthusiastic in improve for Banerjee and the TMC, and, ceaselessly, their views differed from men in the household. Unlike any other election state, Modi’s welfarism used to be rarely discussed in West Bengal and a lot 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 is going to want to win the improve of almost two-thirds of voters from the Hindu community because it is going to win few votes a number of the Muslim community — approximately 30% of West Bengal’s electorate. In an effort to pull it through, the TMC is banking on women’s improve as a bulwark against observably high Hindu-Muslim polarisation.

Only the results on May 2 will help ascertain if women’s improve used to be sufficient to retain the TMC in power. But regardless of the outcome, the West Bengal election signals a major shift in the role of women in electoral politics. Privately, psephologists and party workers propose that the difference in women’s and men’s voting preferences in the state is likely one of the highest they have got 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 and every one of us.” And a few highly publicised unlucky comments approximately women by BJP leaders were mentioned in addition to those derisive of the CM and her identity. But the kind of improve one sees on the ground goes beyond the basic rubric of identity-based improve. To unpack this further, one needs to take a look at how the TMC has designed welfare benefits.

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First, the TMC has made women the overwhelming beneficiaries of its schemes. Two schemes have been noteworthy: Kanyashree, which gives naughty 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 naughty families whether an underage marriage does not take place.

The scheme design is important as mannered. There is less chance of corruption or keep an eye on by men because the money is deposited as a right away 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 keep an eye on over remarkable financial resources and plausibly engenders greater bargaining power inside the household.

Equally as important has been the branding of these schemes. Because of the universal nature of the scheme, and the mode of direct transfer, even BJP supporters admit that they have got received these benefits. Armed with remarkable ground presence, and the branding of Mamata Banerjee as “Bengal’s daughter,” each and every person we spoke to attributed these schemes, and other TMC schemes, to the CM.

Indeed, this can be a phenomenon paying homage to PM Modi’s campaigning around gas cylinders. But provided the sheer scale of welfare benefits provided the TMC government, people rarely speak of Modi’s benefit schemes — the truth that all central schemes have not been implemented by the state government possibly adds to this a story dominance. This has allowed the TMC to position itself as the only party that can deliver remarkable benefits to the women of Bengal.

A section of analysts have retreated to antiquated notions of gender, arguing that women nearly all the time 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, a lot more than other states in India. In reality now and again it’s the women influencing the men.

Back in the village in Nabadwip constituency, it used to be time to move to our next destination. As we left, after hearing his wife and mother sing praises of Mamata Banerjee, the young man in any case 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

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