That women voters likely form the biggest support base of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her party, the Trinamool Congress, has been analysed threadbare. Now, in its bid to dethrone ‘Bengal ki Beti’ (Bengal’s Daughter), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has predictably focused its attention on this vote base in its manifesto for the upcoming assembly elections, maintaining that women will be the flagbearers of ‘Ashol Poriborton’ (Real Change) in ‘Sonar Bangla’ (Golden Bengal). Women constitute close to 49 per cent of the state’s 7.2 crore electorate.
After coming to power in 2011, Mamata Banerjee has concentrated on a raft of women-centric schemes like Kanyashree Prakalpa (which won the United Nations Public Service Award in 2017), Rupashree Prakalpa, Sabooj Sathi, etc.
To weaken Mamata’s hold over the female vote base, the BJP too has given a lot of prominence to empowering women in its Sankalpa Patra, or manifesto, unveiled on Sunday.
Speaking to News18, political expert Kapil Thakur said, “We have seen how women voters turned out to be a big factor in the recently held Bihar assembly elections. They emerged as a saviour of Nitish Kumar because of his various women-centric schemes, including the key decision to ban liquor in the state. Similarly, women voters are a decisive factor for all political parties in Bengal. This is the reason why Mamata Banerjee personally oversees all schemes meant for women. BJP too paid a lot of attention while preparing its manifesto and said that women will be the flagbearers of the real change in Bengal. So all these things signify how women voters, besides caste factors, are very important this time.”
While releasing the Sankalpa Patra, union home minister Amit Shah said that women have been at the forefront of the central government’s development agenda. “We will launch Mission Atmanirbhar Mahila with a corpus of Rs 5,000 crore to help women become economically independent,” he said, also promising a 33 per cent quota for women in government jobs.
In the past, the BJP has focused on social protection for women through various central programmes such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana, Ujjwala, etc, and policy initiatives such as Maternity Benefit Act and capital punishment for rape. But Bengal-specific schemes under Mission Atmanirbhar Mahila are a bid to counter Mamata’s attempt to reach out to women in the state with plans for access to quality healthcare, education and employment opportunities.
“Women will be the flagbearers of Ashol Poriborton in Sonar Bangla. Besides 33 per cent quota for women in government jobs, we promised to create a Rs 2,000 crore Mission Atmanirbhar Self Help Group (SHG) fund to provide one-time financial assistance up to Rs 20,000 to new and existing women-run SHGs and a revolving fund of Rs 3,000 crore to provide interest-free loans up to Rs 3 lakh to women-run SHGs in the state,” Shah said.
After an excellent performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Bengal, the BJP started raising issues related to women’s plight in the state, while the TMC defended the allegations by giving examples of the purported lack of women’s safety in BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh.
The eight-phase polling in Bengal will start on March 27 and the results will be declared on May 2. “It will be naive to underestimate 3.15 crore women voters (out of total 7.17 crore voters) in this election. They are indeed a big factor in Bengal’s politics which no political party can afford to ignore,” Thakur said. “The BJP’s manifesto is to counter Mamata’s various initiatives including Bongo Janani after the 2019 Lok Sabha poll debacle.”
Till 2007, women in Bengal supported the Left Front, but after the anti-land acquisition movements in Singur and Nandigram, they shifted their loyalties towards Mamata Banerjee.
During the 2016 assembly elections, the TMC had fielded 45 women candidates compared to the BJP’s 31.
In the 2019 parliamentary polls, a sizable chunk of women voters gravitated towards the BJP, even though the saffron party fielded only five women candidates while the TMC fielded 17. Paying attention to their core issues, the BJP has highlighted many areas in its manifesto which it’s promised to implement on winning the polls.
In healthcare, to counter Mamata’s Swasthya Sathi insurance cards aimed at the women of Bengal, Shah promised free healthcare for all women including out-of-pocket expenses and advanced treatments.
The manifesto also talks about providing collateral-free loans up to Rs 20 lakh to women-run SHGs and Atmanirbhar Kendras in each block to procure products from women-run SHGs of that area and link their products to national and international markets.
“We will increase the cash incentive for maternity benefit under the PM Matru Vandana Yojana to Rs 9,000 from the existing Rs 5,000. We will distribute Ma-Santan Pushti Kit, which will include iron and folic acid, zinc and multivitamin tablets, through the Anganwadi system in order to combat malnutrition in children and expecting and lactating women,” the BJP manifesto reads.
Among other key announcements targeted towards women, the BJP has decided to launch Balika-Alo Yojana under which a bond of Rs 50,000 will be issued to each family from the SC, ST, OBC and economically weaker sections on the birth of a girl child. Under this scheme, girls will receive periodic financial assistance of Rs 3,000 (for class 6), Rs 5,000 (for class 9), Rs 7,000 (for class 11) and Rs 7,000 (for class 12).
Also, on reaching the age of 18, unmarried women who have completed education up to class 12 will be given Rs 2 lakh each.
Shah also promised to launch the Gharer Lokkhi Yojana under which a fixed deposit of Rs 1 lakh will be provided to women from the SC, ST, OBC and economically weaker sections above the age of 18 years at the time of their marriage besides free public transport for all women.
If it comes to power, the BJP has also announced that it will form nine women-only police battalions named Shailputri, Brahamacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandmata, Katyayani, Kaalratri, Mahagauri and Shiddhidatri after the nine manifestations of Maa Durga.
The manifesto also talks about constituting three women-only Matangini Hazra battalions under the State Reserve Police Force.
“We will establish all-women Pritilata Waddedar (a Bengali revolutionary nationalists) squads in each district to protect women from the menace of eve-teasing,” Shah said. “We will establish Mahila Shahayata Centres in each subdivision for rehabilitation and counselling of sexual assault victims.”
With a corpus of Rs 100 crore, the BJP has also promised to establish a Bina Das Mahila Surokkha Task Force under the chief minister’s office to tackle issues of women’s trafficking to help in victim rehabilitation.
“We will ensure time-bound completion of investigation in cases of crimes against women. We will establish fast-track courts at every subdivision to expedite the resolution of women’s safety-related cases and POCSO. We will enact legislation to sentence perpetrators of heinous crimes such as acid attack, human trafficking and forced slavery to capital punishment,” Shah said.
Hitting out at the BJP’s manifesto, while addressing public meetings in Bankura Mamata Banerjee on Monday said, “They have copied everything from our schemes and manifesto. Whatever they have announced in their manifesto (including schemes for women) is already there in Bengal ever since we came to power.”