“You can call me a fan of Didi,” smiled Lokkhi Banerjee, 40, of Bishnupur town. “I was a fan in my father’s house. And I remain so in my husband’s house.”

Banerjee underlines that last bit since the rest of her husband’s family, like much of the town’s middle class, now leans towards the Bharatiya Janata Party. But she and her younger sister-in-law, Dolon, are Trinamool holdouts in the otherwise saffron Banerjee household. “We are in a democracy, right? We each can vote the way we like.”

Dolon, 32, who had till then let her older relative speak, nods: “Mamata stands by us [women], so we vote for her.”

Lokkhi and Dolon are not alone. Didi, or elder sister, as West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is called, has a distinct female support base. The Trinamool leader has introduced the politics of gender in the state, using both the identitarian appeal of a female chief minister and, more significantly, hard-nosed gender-focussed welfare to attract Bengali women.

For the past two years, however, the rise of the BJP has made things tougher for Banerjee. Even as the Trinamool tries to emphasise the gender identity of Bengali women, the BJP has highlighted their religious identity as part of its Hindutva push. While this has seen some traction, Banerjee’s lead among women voters still remains large enough for her to emerge as the female favourite in the 2021 polls.

Lokkhi Banerjee

Female favourite

According to a postpoll survey done by Lokniti at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the 2011 Assembly Election – which saw Mamata Banerjee come to power for the first time – had marginally more men vote for the Trinamool than women. Of the Trinamool’s total votes, 49% was female. However, this was significantly more than other major players: 46% for the Left, 45% for the Congress and 44% for the BJP.

Even before she came to power, therefore, Banerjee had a significant gender edge, driven perhaps by her own identity as a female politician. However, after she took charge of the state government, she converted this into tangible benefits for women.

In 2013, the Trinamool government launched Kanyashree. Similar to a 1994 programme in Bangladesh, it was aimed at preventing child marriage by providing cash incentives to girls studying in school. In 2015, the West Bengal government started a bicycle distribution scheme called Sabooj Sathi with a focus on schoolgirls, providing them a safe way to travel to school.

While the Sabooj Sathi bicycle scheme is open to all schoolchildren, there is distinct focus on girls both in messaging (as can be seen in the above government image) and in actual allotment, with more cycles being awarded to girls as per West Bengal government data accessed by Scroll.in. 

Both schemes proved to be extremely popular, resulting in the school dropout rates among girls falling to half that of boys. Driven partly by this, from 2018-’20, Bengal ranked first in decline of dropout rate amongst all the states in the Indian Union.

In 2016, the Trinamool reaped the benefit of this women-centric welfare with as many as 52% of its votes coming from women, as per CSDS-Lokniti survey data, as it swept the election. In 2019, faced with an ascendent BJP, this came down marginally to 51%. But even then the Trinamool was pulling in far more female votes than any other party: 47% of Bengal’s women voted Trinamool while only 38% went with the BJP.

Given that overall more men voted BJP than TMC, it was Bengali women who ensured that the Trinamool remained the largest party in West Bengal’s 2019 Lok Sabha tally.

‘Women get more’

As the state heads into the 2021 Assembly elections, signs of this female support for Mamata Banerjee and her female-centric welfare are easy to find.

Twenty-four year old Pallabi Ghosh, who runs a general store-cum-tea shop in Hooghly district along with her husband, clearly admires Banerjee. “Did has done a lot of work for women,” she argued. “Kanyashree, Ruposhree, cycle – in Bengal, women get more [than men].”

Ghosh’s family has personally benefited from this given that her niece is a Kanayshree recipient.

In Murshidabad’s Farraka Assembly Constituency, only a few kilometres from where the Ganga splits into Bangladesh’s Padma and West Bengal’s Hooghly, Tinku Sheikh complains good-naturedly that his daughter does not listen to him. “I told her to vote Congress but she refused,” he said. “I have got so much from Mamata, why will I vote for the Congress, she said.”

Sheikh’s daughter has received both the school stipend, Kanyashree as well as Rupashree, a one-time grant awarded to women if they marry past the age of 18.

Tinku Sheikh

Like Lokkhi Banerjee and Tinku Sheikh’s daughter, North 24 Parganas’ Taslim Khatun’s political prefences are also driven by her gender identity. “Young boys will vote for Abbas but girls for Mamata,” said the second year English (honours) student from Belpur village.

“Abbas” refers to a popular Islamic leader and the head of the Indian Secular Front, a new party which appeals to Muslims in South Bengal. While his Muslim identitarian image gets him a substantial amount of support amongst young Muslim men in North 24 Parganas, this hits a gender wall when confronted with Mamata’s women-centric welfare. It is thus unlikely that Muslim women in the area will switch their votes away from the Trinamool.

Not everyone is happy, though

However, if welfare has got Mamata female supporters, it has also alienated a section of women. The largest bloc here belongs to women from Dalit or backward Hindu castes who feel that the Banerjee government has favoured Muslims when it comes to the distribution of welfare and public works.

In Malda, a Muslim-majority district which has saw substantial Hindu consolidation in favour the BJP in 2019, Sondha Basak, a 55-year old backward caste woman, dismisses the idea of supporting the Trinamool. “Mamata has no Mamata,” she said, punning on Banerjee’s first name which refers to a mother’s love. “Our children get nothing. So how can we [Hindu women] like her if she only does work for Muslims?”

Sondha Basak

In Murshidabad, Basanti Mondal, 53, from the Dalit Konai caste also argues in a similar vein. “What has she done for women?” she says. “Nothing for us. Only Muslims.”

In urban areas, often upper caste middle class women will also turn away from Banerjee, having little use for her welfare. “Mamata did a good job building a super-speciality hospital,” said Sudipta Banerjee, a housewife from Bishnupur town. “But she has not created jobs. That’s why we need the BJP.”

Sudipta Banerjee

Uphill climb

Much of this pattern of support and opposition resembles the situation in 2019, when an ascendant BJP had, as per Lokniti-CSDS postpoll survey data, increased its share of the woman vote by 28 percentage points compared to 2016, going up from 10% to 38%. However, this was less than the increase in its male vote which went up by 32 percentage points. At the same time, the Trinamool’s own female vote bank remained intact, going down only marginally from 48% of the woman vote in 2016 to 47%.

With the BJP facing some success in attracting women voters using the plank of Hindu identity but conscious that it has to do significantly better should it want to win the 2021 election, the party has pushed hard on welfare. In its manifesto for the 2021 Assembly elections, the BJP has laid out a veritable bonanza, promising 33% women’s reservation in state government jobs, free healthcare, free education till the masters level, free public transport and a Rs 2 lakh grant for any unmarried women who clears her higher secondary examination.

But as the BJP pushes for the critical women vote, it is hobbled by the fact that more than a fourth of women in West Bengal are Muslim. They are unlikely to vote for it. Trinamool retains a substantial lead among women voters as the election enters its final phases.