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The Heady Mix of Women’s Issues and Jobs in the Prequel to Bengal’s Final Phase

The Sandeshkhali fiasco and the teachers' recruitment scam are ostensibly calibrated as West Bengal votes on 20 May.

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Sandeshkhali continues to be in agony. Even as West Bengal enters the final phase of the polls, politics over this riverine, island region gets murkier and more intense. A wave of protests touched off by the complaints of torture of women and land grabs had rocked the villages about a month ago.

After a brief lull, the region is once again back on the boil this week – with video clips surfacing in the public domain that sought to put a big question mark on the veracity of rape complaints of the women in the region.

Apart from this, the teachers' recruitment is in the crosshairs of a scam in Bengal as well with the apex court staying the Calcutta High Court's order of cancelling the services of over 25,000 teaching and non-teaching staff in the midst of a blazing poll battle in Bengal.

The continuing fiasco in Sandeshkhali and the teacher’s recruitment scam are ostensibly and carefully calibrated to keep the spotlight on women and job losers as the final phases of elections in Bengal draw near. Women are one of the biggest constituencies with their overwhelming participation and the potential to swing the balance either way.

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Women's Safety and Breach in Education are Critical Issues

Both Sandeshkhali and teacher’s recruitment scams with their myriad shades of interpretations have become live ammunition and election fodder for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Both the issues would have far-reaching implications in the ballot boxes in the final phase.

The apex court's order brought huge relief to TMC Supremo Mamata Banerjee who congratulated the judiciary for successfully "defusing” what the BJP had been describing as “explosives” that would destabilise the Trinamool government.

Mamata Banerjee was at her sarcastic best when she said at public rallies after the SC verdict: “You have heard about man-eating tigers in Bengal. What you are witnessing now, are job-eating monsters of Bengal.” She was referring to a leftist lawyer of repute who had actually initiated the school recruitment scam case and taken it to court – a matter that had been dragging since 2016.

The BJP, under the leadership of Suvendu Adhikari who joined the case later, feels vindicated too. He warns that the top leaders of the TMC have actually jeopardised the fate of such a large number of SSC teachers because of illegal appointments. He also adds that the Trinamool leaders are destined to go behind bars when the case reaches its logical conclusion. The hearing over this case in the SC resumes after 16 July.

How 'Nari Shakti' Has Been BJP’s Chief Electioneering Weapon in Bengal

For political dividends, it is of utmost importance to sustain the Sandeshkhali narrative for the remaining part of the polls. Women's power, so ingrained into Bengal’s political consciousness, largely explains the desperate bids by rival political outfits to deal with the clamour over Sandeshkhali.

The plight of women, particularly centring around Sandeshkhali, has been the dominating theme of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP’s campaign in Bengal and beyond.

In Modi's carefully curated narrative, Rekha Patra, BJP’s Lok Sabha candidate in Basirhat, under which falls the Sandeshkhali Assembly segment, has not only become the face of the battle but also has been branded by the PM as Shakti Swaroopa who resembles the strength and courage of Goddess Durga personified.

Such a narrative lends pan-India connotations to the BJP’s bid to denigrate the image of the Trinamool Congress.

In a telephone conversation that went on air, Modi egged on Patra to take the fight for women’s respect and dignity to every door in Sandeshkhali. "Trinamool Congress has committed the biggest betrayal of women in Bengal,” Modi thundered in rallies, with a multitude of other BJP leaders echoing the same throughout the campaigns.
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A Shift in Allegiance

Any shift in the allegiance of women voters will definitely impact the poll outcome in West Bengal.

According to the statistics provided by the Election Commission of India (ECI), West Bengal has recorded a total of 3.73 crore women voters as against 3.85 crore male voters in the 2024 elections. Significantly, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, women in Bengal registered a higher turnout in 17 of the 42 LS constituencies.

In this election too, the trends are similar and in several constituencies such as Malda, in the early rounds, women had a bigger turnout than men.
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Women continue to be Mamata's biggest and most loyal support base. An attempt to disrupt the status quo makes the contest in the final phase bitter and muddied.

Having realised the threat perceptions, Banerjee sprang into action describing Sandeshkhali as a "perverse distortion of ground realities." "The 'sting videos' exposed the BJP’s sinister design to tarnish the dignity of Bengali women,” she added.

The BJP claimed that the “sting video clips” that have surfaced in Sandeshkhali, discounting the charges of rape to be “doctored and AI-generated.” There is no immediate answer to ascertain who was telling the truth, or if the narratives from rival political outfits regarding the torture of women are a heady cocktail mixed with truths, lies, and deceit.

The police are examining the sting videos in their investigation. Several arrests of the BJP functionaries have added fuel to the fire.

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Can BJP Sway Mamata’s Biggest Vote Bank to Its Favour?

But even before Sandeshkhali happened, Didi had been on her guard and bringing her best foot forward to protect her vote bank consisting of women.

Just months before the polls, a direct cash transfer scheme of Rs 500 was doubled and raised to Rs 1000 with budgetary allocations – Rs 1000 for general category women and Rs 1200 for SC/ST categories.

The scheme covers no less than 2 crore women beneficiaries – (Lavarthi, in BJP parlance). The scheme initially launched for women of 25-60 years age group was extended for lifelong this time at an annual cost of Rs 15,000 crore to the state exchequer. Yet, another study showed that during 2024-25, nearly 44 percent of the state's financial resources were channelled to women's welfare schemes in Bengal.
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A survey conducted by the Pratichi Trust – a non-government body run by the Nobel Laureate Dr Amartya Sen – corroborates the view that the social safety net brought qualitative changes in the lives of women in rural Bengal. The monthly allowance was an empowering tool and Bengal womenfolk spent the money in various ways like tuition for children, family health care issues, purchasing garments, etc.

A recent newspaper report even found Lakshmir Bhandar's funds being spent on beauty parlours by some beneficiaries.

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Raj Bhavan Into the Vortex

Beyond Sandeshkhali, the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata – the highest seat of power in the state had been drawn into the vortex of a political cauldron yet again over allegations of alleged advances made to a woman staff in the Governor’s office.

In an ugly turn of events, the same theme of women’s plight has reached the hallowed precincts of the Raj Bhavan and became an election issue.

Unfortunately, more skeletons are tumbling out of the Raj Bhavan closet. Top officials of the Kolkata police told The Quint that they have just completed an inquiry into another alleged rape complaint against the State Governor and submitted the report to the Chief Minister. The alleged incident happened six months ago in a posh hotel in Delhi and involved the Governor.

The Governor, enjoying constitutional immunity, has described the charges as "politically engineered.” But armed with police reports and the complaints lodged, Mamata Banerjee has launched virulent attacks on the Governor on issues of alleged impropriety.

“I now feel uncomfortable to visit the Raj Bhavan and would rather prefer to meet the Governor in open pavements instead of within four unsafe walls of Raj Bhavan,” Mamata Banerjee retorted in recent public rallies.

(The writer is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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