Updated: May 7, 2021 9:08:34 am
With an impressive victory in the intensely contested West Bengal Assembly elections that defied most poll predictions, the All-India Trinamool Congress under Mamata Banerjee has assumed power in the state for the third time. Winning 213 of the 292 West Bengal Vidhan Sabha for which elections were held, the party garnered 47.94 per cent of the state’s vote share. While support for the Trinamool Congress was spread across geographical regions, including those that had voted for the BJP in 2019, and identities, the massive support of women voters proved critical in securing the party’s victory. Early post-poll analysis has pointed to a substantial gender gap in electoral preferences that will consolidate the salience of women voters for both political parties and election analysts.
The West Bengal election outcome also needs to be considered in the context of the other recent elections in India where women emerged as a distinct electoral constituency. Women’s votes were crucial for the BJP’s victories in these elections, leading PM Modi to credit his party’s win to the “silent voters”. The popularity of welfarist schemes has been offered as the key factor in explaining women’s support for the BJP and the TMC.
Such electoral stakes have also transformed cash transfer schemes into sites of fierce inter-party and Centre-state competition. The vast range of conditional cash transfer schemes targeting women and young girl-students offered by the TMC government, however, established it as a clear favourite among its beneficiaries. In particular, Mamata Banerjee’s direct association with the conception, naming, implementation, and propagation of the schemes reinforced her popularity among women and girls in the state.
Despite charges of localised corruption in the distribution of welfare, Banerjee held on to her existing support base among women; enhancing it through the administrative outreach initiatives of her government such as “Duare Sarkar” (government at the doorstep), and “Didike Bolo” (Tell Didi), which appears to have succeeded in countering anti-incumbency sentiments among the general electorate and women in particular. Importantly, the election manifesto promised new initiatives such as universal basic income for the women guardians of every household, working women-hostels, widow-pensions, etc. which deepened women’s support for the party.
While the welfarist infrastructure of the Trinamool Congress government has emerged as a frequently-cited factor in explaining women’s support for the party, others such as the symbolic appeal of Banerjee’s self-fashioning as a benevolent Didi and the strong visibility of women leaders in the Trinamool Congress have proved to be equally crucial in delivering a decisive electoral mandate for the party. Banerjee’s status as a single woman professing total commitment to political activism, her cultivated image of a “street-fighter” yet caring leader of the people with an austere lifestyle, her emotion-laden anti-elite political rhetoric, and the absence of male mentors have consistently garnered her electoral dividends.
On the eve of the elections, facing perhaps the toughest challenge in her political career posed by an ascendant BJP, Banerjee, in association with the political consultancy Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC), undertook a strategic refashioning of her political persona. Her rebranding as “Banglar nijer meye” (Bengal’s own daughter) presented Banerjee as an icon of nativist Bengali pride against the New Delhi-based leaders of the BJP. Appealing in particular to women voters, this rebranding also highlighted her vulnerability and need for protection in the context of personal attacks on her leadership by her opponents. The element of vulnerability was further accentuated by her public appearances in a wheelchair after she sustained a leg injury in an accident during the campaign.
The third factor that has ensured women’s support is the party’s mobilisation of women voters and promotion of women as candidates. The Trinamool Congress has had a consistent record of fielding women as candidates on a scale higher than the national average — a record it has maintained in the 2021 elections, with tickets to 50 women in its candidate list. As authors Gilles Verniers and Maya Mirchandani have argued in their recent study on gender representation in the Trinamool Congress, the party’s policy of promoting women as candidates is located in its strategic recognition of the winnability of women candidates instead of ideational commitments to gender parity. This is borne out by the available statistics on women candidates in the 2021 elections. Out of the 49 women candidates (Sarala Murmu, the Trinamool Congress candidate from Habibpur defected to the BJP), 33 have won the elections of whom 16 have been re-elected. In addition to fielding more women candidates, the party also launched special women’s fronts (Bongo Jononi/Mother Bengal) aimed at mobilising women voters in favour of the state government and against the policies of the central government. Women supporters of the party were consistently placed in the front row in Mamata Banerjee’s public rallies, and she would frequently address them as “mothers and sisters” during her speeches. Banerjee also held massive women-led rallies in protest against price rise, which are being interpreted as having influenced the party’s electoral victories in BJP strongholds in North Bengal.
The results of the 2021 Assembly election in West Bengal will mark a major methodological transition in conventional election analysis in terms of centering gender as a critical variable. It remains to be seen whether the salience of women voters will influence political parties to undertake a regendering of their respective institutional cultures, but it is undeniable that the “silent voters” have delivered a resoundingly clear electoral mandate.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 7, 2021 under the title ‘Her vote for Mamata’. The writer is a PhD Candidate at Dublin City University under the EU Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global India Fellowship.
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