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Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Female voters have a big role to play in deciding Bengal’s future

Sometime in 1973, a woman approached Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with her husband. She wanted to contest the next assembly election. Her confidence impressed the then prime minister and, a few weeks later, the Congress gave her a ticket for an assembly constituency in a backward district of Uttar Pradesh. At the time, she had no idea what difficulties she would have to face to accomplish her goal.

While campaigning, she had to ensure that only the youth or elders of the family sat in her jeep. She had to return home before dusk. She continued to campaign despite the heat of people casting aspersions on her. Being a woman, she had only one privilege—she could enter any house during the campaign and reach out to veiled women. On election day, people were surprised to see that many more women were exercising their franchise than before. That woman could not win the election, but this was the first time since 1952 when the Congress was able to save its deposit due to the kind of participation of these female voters. This was the only silver lining in an otherwise hopeless atmosphere of defeat.

Time has changed a lot.

Without going too far back, let’s look at the results of the Bihar assembly election held last year. In this politically sensitive state, where 54.45% of male voters cast their votes, 59.69% of the female voters turned out on election day. Even though their turnout was less than the previous elections, Bihar’s women played a larger role in the formation of the government.

This could happen because soon after coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi implemented schemes such as Ujjwala, toilet for every house, bank accounts and free treatment during pregnancy that were directly related to homemakers. His honest and hard-working politician’s image also contributed to this. Women have proven to be the BJP’s trusted voters in most previous elections, but the election in West Bengal is going to be an ordeal for the BJP.

The biggest reason is that about 35 million female voters of Bengal can play a big role. A female chief minister has been ruling the state for the past 10 years and she is well aware of the importance of female voters in elections. Even though the BJP won 18 seats in the 2019 general election, Mamata Banerjee gave 40% of the seats to female candidates of the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Since the performance of her party was comparatively poor in that election, she launched a new wing of the TMC, the ‘Banga Janani Bahini’. Now the members of this female brigade go door-to-door to explain Mamata’s policies and also take to the streets as per the requirement.

Trinamool has nine female MPs in the Lok Sabha. They are often given the opportunity to speak. The speech of first-time MP Mahua Moitra on the presidential address during the budget session of Parliament is a good example of this strategy. The party gave the opportunity to Mahua instead of a senior member like Saugata Roy at such a crucial point. Anyway, Banerjee is known for providing candidature to women from the gram panchayat to the country’s largest panchayat. She has tried very hard to strengthen this ‘vote bank’ by providing maternity childcare leave, besides various other schemes.

The TMC knows women like Modi as a leader, hence party leaders are trying to prove that the BJP is anti-women by selectively picking and publicizing alleged anti-women statements of BJP leaders. The saffron party is aware of this strategy. No wonder, earlier last week, while addressing a public meeting at Hooghly, the PM said in a satirical manner, “The Centre has provided water connections to more than 36 million households since the launch of the Jal Jeewan Mission, but the number in West Bengal has only gone up from 200,000 to 900,000. Out of the 17.5 million houses (in West Bengal), only 900,000 have piped water. The way the state government works... no wonder how many more years it will take to deliver water to the poor. This shows that the TMC is doing injustice to ‘Bengal Ki Beti’. Can they be forgiven?"

During public meetings, BJP leaders are trying to prove with a lot of data that Bengal is not only lagging behind in development but also nothing has been done for women’s welfare. Equipped with a lot of statistics, they are trying to say that despite a female chief minister, women are insecure. In such a situation, it will be interesting to see whose work or slogans will convince the female voters of West Bengal, but for me, it’s an empowerment of half the population, rather than any electoral defeat and victory.

It is clear that since the reservation for women in panchayat elections, political awareness has increased among them. Figures also support this. In 2019, Narendra Singh Tomar, the then Union minister of rural development and Panchayati Raj, told the Lok Sabha that there are 4.1 million public representatives across 253,380 gram panchayats, of whom 46% are women. However, they have yet to register their mark in the highest positions of power. There are currently only 78 female MPs in the country’s highest panchayat.

It is all set that, like Bihar, the assembly election of West Bengal will also strengthen the political empowerment among female voters.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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