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Women & Tribals: How BJP Seeks to Use Sandeshkhali to Undo Mamata's 2021 Gains

Sandeshkhali was the main focus of PM Modi's and Mamata Banerjee's rallies in West Bengal.

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In West Bengal, there is a battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) over who is the bigger promoter of ‘Nari Shakti’.

Both parties held rallies on two consecutive days to talk about women power, ostensibly in the back drop of the Sandeshkhali protests in which women of the village alleged sexual harassment, land grab and intimidation by TMC leaders.

The BJP rally, held on 6 March, saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi accuse the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC government of not doing enough to protect women. After the rally, the PM even met the women of Sandeshkhali. The next day i.e. on 7 March, Mamata Banerjee organised a massive rally in the heart of Kolkata to celebrate International Women’s Day. To counter the BJP’s allegations, she also brought women from Sandeshkhali to the rally who said that it was because of ‘Didi’s’ quick and strict efforts that the villagers got back their land.

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It was evident at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in West Bengal’s Barasat on 6 March that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was looking at leveraging the Sandeshkhali protests to secure votes from the women voters of the state- traditionally strong backers of the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC).

At the rally- a part of BJP’s nationwide ‘Nari Shakti Vandan Abhinandan outreach programme- PM Modi said that the ‘jhor’ (storm) of Sandeshkhali will reach every part of West Bengal. He accused the TMC government of protecting criminals and trusting its own leaders over the testimonies of oppressed women.

“Whatever happened in Sandeshkhali, anyone’s head would hang in shame… but this has no impact on TMC government”, said Modi, calling the women of Sandeshkhali his ‘Maa Durga’. He also accused the TMC of ignoring women in its bid to do “appeasement politics”.

Later, he also met the women protestors of Sandeshkhali.

On the other hand, Sabitri Sarkar, a woman from Sandeskhali who shared the stage with Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata, said that all the problems in the village had been “solved” 

“The movement was because we lost land. A lot of us have got our land back. The remaining are being helped by camps set up by the government which have taken all their papers. I thank Didi. She has taken very strict steps.”, she added.

“The problem of stolen land was solved by Didi in record speed. The administration has helped us a lot."
Sabitri Sarkar, resident of Sandeshkhali

BJP’s response to the Sandeshkhali row, ever since the protests broke out approximately two months ago, has been two-pronged in a bid challenge Mamata’s core voter base of the two Ms- Mahila and Muslims. First, of course, is the focus on the overall women’s vote in the state. The other, less-talked about campaign, has been targeted at West Bengal’s approximately 50 lakh tribal (ST) voters, especially tribal women. The party has framed the Sandeshkhali protests as an 'Adivasi vs minority' battle, hoping to consolidate tribal votes in the state like it had in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Let’s analyse some numbers to understand this.

Women’s Vote in Bengal: TMC vs BJP

As per a post-poll survey by  CSDS-Lokniti after the West Bengal assembly polls of 2021, about 50 percent of the female electorate voted for the TMC while 37 percent voted for the BJP- a difference of 13 percentage points.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, on the other hand, the BJP secured 38 percent of the female vote while the TMC polled 47 percent- a difference of 11 percentage points.

This shows that while Mamata’s sway as a woman leader and the TMC government’s women-centric welfare schemes like Lakkhi’r Bhandar have given her a good lead over Modi in the last two polls, the lead reduces when it is Modi on the ballot.

Both the 2021 elections and 2019 elections saw a higher turnout amongst women voters (calculated as percentage of women registered to vote) than male voters in West Bengal.

Notably, while the BJP gained more women voters nationally in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections compared to Lok Sabha 2014, its vote share among women was slightly lesser than among men. While it secured 39 percent votes among men, it was 36 percent among women according to the CSDS-Lokniti survey. Interestingly, the Congress secured one percentage point more among women than men.

However, since then, the BJP conducted targeted campaigns and announced schemes for women like the Ujjwala Yojana, PM Matru Vandana Yojana, Kishori Shakti Yojana etc.

The results showed. In the assembly elections across five states in 2022, more women than men voted for the BJP in four states. In all four, the BJP’s main thrust was on women-centric schemes like the Laadli Behena Yojana in Madhya Pradesh.

However, political analysts also caution against reading too much into the political dividends that the Sandeshkhali incident will yield for the BJP.

“In 2021, the women's vote went to TMC for Lokkhi’r Bhandar and the money given to beneficiaries has been increased. So, Sandeshkhali may have an impact only at the local level. I don’t think Sandeshkhali can be another Nandigram because unlike Nandigram there was no violence or mass state atrocity.”
Maidul Islam, political analyst and professor at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata

Maidul Islam also points at the anti-state opposition in North 24 Parganas’ Bhangor in 2017. But Bhangor only gave the opposition one MLA from the Congress-Left-ISF alliance.

Winning Back the Tribal Vote

Another important point to note is how women across various social groups voted in the 2021 elections.

As reported by The Quint at the time, adivasi, upper caste and Muslim Women rallied behind Mamata while Dalit and OBC women preferred the BJP. It is amongst the adivasis that the difference between voting patterns of men and women were most stark. While BJP enjoyed an 18 percentage point lead over TMC among Adivasi men, TMC had a 11 percentage point lead among adivasi women.

It is this gap that the BJP is looking to close.

Sandeshkhali Block I, where the protests broke out, has a ST population of 23.4 percent as per the 2011 census.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won all the parliamentary seats in the tribal dominated area of Junglemahal comprising the Purulia, Jhargram and Bankura districts along with parts of East Midnapore. These seats comprised 5 of the party’s record tally of 18 seats in that election. It had a lead in 31 of the 40 assembly segments in the region. In 2021, however, the TMC was able to reverse that, winning 28 of the 40 assembly constituencies.

Therefore, in Sandeshkhali, the BJP has seen an opportunity to once again consolidate its tribal base, while the TMC- already reeling from corruption charges and arrest of its leaders by central agencies- has been forced to go back to the drawing board.

Islam says that the RSS presence in North 24 Parganas and the tribal belt of Junglemahal is why the BJP wants to pit the adivasis against the minorities. It is akin to how they pit Dalits against minorities in 2019.

“The issues in Junglemahal is different. The TMC is trying to break this tribal solidarity with governance and by generating employment opportunities. For example, the Deocha Pachami project is going to be a game-changer. So, there is little chance of a localised issue like Sandeshkhali having much of an impact in Junglemahal”, he said.

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