The BJP is a hegemon in national politics. But India is so large, the party’s hegemony is still being contested in many states. In Battleground States, Scroll’s reporters will fan out across the country to dissect the politics of states where the BJP faces a strong contest from the Opposition.

“The entire country has seen what happened in Sandeshkhali,” Narendra Modi said at a rally in West Bengal on May 12. “Their goons are threatening women because the offender’s name is Sheikh Shahjahan. Though bombs and guns have been seized from his house, the TMC is giving him a clean chit to appease its vote bank.”

Modi was referring to an ongoing criminal investigation into cases of lang grab as well as sexual assault against local Trinamool Congress leaders Sheikh Shahjahan, Shibu Prasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar in a village on the West Bengal-Bangladesh border.

Using the case as part of its political campaign, the BJP hopes to reverse its greatest weakness in Bengal: a relative lack of support from Bengali women for the party. As Modi’s speech illustrated, the party has concentrated on allegations of sexual assault and highlighted the name of Shahjahan rather than other two accused, who happen to be Hindu. This gender-communal intersection, the party hopes, will help it reach out to Hindu Bengali women voters.

The reason for this politics? While the BJP has done well to attract large numbers of male voters from the Hindu community in Bengal, its rise is still stymied by the fact that Mamata Banerjee still commands substantial support among Hindu Bengali women.

‘I vote for didi’

Sujata Roy sat in her ramshackle corrugated tin hut funnelling tobacco into dried tendu leaves to make biris. For every batch of 1,000 biris, which could take two days to roll, Roy gets a measly Rs 180. “My husband, Kumaresh, is a farm labour and gets very little pay during some months,” she said, explaining that they were landless. “So then this [biri making] is what runs the house.”

The Roys are Bangladeshi-origin Dalits. Sujata’s parents crossed over into India during the 1971 Liberation War. They live in Chougacha village, 20 minutes from the Bangladesh border in Nadia district. Like many Bangladeshi-origin Dalits, her husband, Sujata said, supports the BJP.

What about her? “Ami to didi ke vote di,” she said. I vote for didi, elder sister – as Mamata Banerjee is commonly referred to in Bengal.

The reason, it emerged from our conversation, was simple: Roy was grateful for the Banerjee government’s minimum income scheme, Lakshmir Bhandar. Launched in 2021, the scheme provides Rs 1,000 per month to the female head of every household. For Roy’s precarious domestic budgeting, the money is critical.

Sujata Roy

As Scroll travelled across South Bengal – the populous, politically critically section of the state – it found this was a common sentiment. The Rs 1,000 a month that came directly into bank accounts was a powerful factor in deciding how poor women voted.

Bandana Birbonshi in Birbhum district’s Muluk village is from the Dom community, one of Bengal’s most marginalised Dalit castes. Birbonshi works as a domestic worker for houses in the village, earning Rs 1,500 per month. For her, Lakshmi Bhandar is a bonanza, nearly doubling her income.

Birbonshi is guarded when Scroll asks her who she supports – a common response in Bengal given the fear of political violence. But her appreciation for Lakshmiri Bhandar is easy to see. “We are very happy with this money,” she said. “It was earlier Rs 500 and is now Rs 1,000. Mamata has done a good thing.”

In contrast, Birbonshi has no idea about Sandeshkhali – a common response among many lower income women Scroll encountered.

Bandana Birbonshi

Vote bank

The Trinamool’s women-outreach using Lakshmir Bhandar is part of a long legacy of the party’s hold on Bengal’s woman vote. According to a post poll survey done by Lokniti at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, in the 2011 election that voted Banerjee into power, 49% of the Trinamool’s vote was female compared to 46% for the Left, 45% for the Congress and 44% for the BJP.

This edge was driven possibly by the fact that at least some women voters voted for Banerjee on gender identity. After she came to power, Banerjee turbocharged this connect, launching flagship schemes which were focused on women. Two of the Banerjee government’s biggest welfare schemes in her first term – cash incentives to students and bicycle distribution – were aimed at girls. Later, she would provide financial assistance to women getting married followed by, of course, income assistance in 2021 for all women in the form of Lakshmir Bhandar.

Class and Hindutva

Given so much of the Trinamool’s hold on the woman vote bank is based on the pull of welfare, it also varies by class. Twenty five-year old Deepannita Biswas says she has not even applied for Lakshmir Bhandar. “If I do, I will be beholden to the party,” she said. “And I do not want that given the party has been involved in anti-woman activities like Sandeshkhali.”

Part of the middle class in a small town in North 24 Parganas, Biswas is strongly influenced by Hindutva and repeats many of the BJP’s talking points. “Today Modi has taken India to the international stage,” she says. “Those are the things I will vote for, not some money.”

Aparna Khan, a housewife from Birbhum district, is angry with the Trinamool for Sandeshkhali. “There wouldn’t be so much violence when the Left was here,” she said. “We want to vote against this sort of hooliganism.”

However, she also appreciates the support that Lakshmir Bhandar provides – but without it letting it affect her vote for the BJP. “The next government will also give [Lakshmir Bhandar],” she said, with a smile, when asked if she fears the loss of the money in case the Trinamool loses office in the future.

Old tricks

Maya Mondal runs a general store along with her husband in Nadia district. The couple are strong supporters of the BJP and, like Deepannita Biswas, included by the BJP’s talking points. “We need Modi to protect the country,” she said.

Mondal avails of Lakshmir Bhandar but it is clear that the money is a small portion of her family income and easily overridden in importance when it comes to the vote.

Maya Mondal

She has heard of Sandeskhali but is only vaguely aware of the details. Her husband, Montu, on the other hand, jumps in at this point to tell Scroll he does not believe all the allegations. “Sandeshkhali is 12 annas truth and four annas false,” he said, referring idiomatically to the British Indian rupee, which was divided into 16 annas. “The land grab allegations might be true but I think there is some politics over women’s safety.”

His views come even as a videos emerge allegedly showing local BJP functionaries claiming that rape allegations in Sandeshkhali were untrue. On May 9, one of the three women who had accused functionaries of the Trinamool Congress of rape, withdrew her complaint.

This scepticism, however, makes little difference to the Mondals’ vote which is strongly driven by Hindutva. “The Trinamool is a Muslim party,” Montu Mondal says. “If they are allowed to remain in power, Muslims will sit on our heads.”

Sandeshkhali might have generated a media storm, but as the Mondals demonstrate, the BJP will have to depend on its old strengths to actually get votes and wean women away from the Trinamool and its welfare apparatus.