Mamata, Naveen have good reason to focus on women, but BJP can woo them too

Women voters wait their turn to vote during elections in West Bengal. File photo: PTI
There is a good rationale behind Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee paying special attention to their respective states' women voters as they take on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), suggest data and political observers.  

The move by the Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Banerjee-led All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) to rely on woman power comes at a time when female voters in both states have made their political presence felt during the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the past. Both leaders are also counting on their women-friendly schemes and policies to serve as vote-catchers.  

However, the BJP is not lacking when it comes to such schemes either, and it has emerged as the principal challenger in Odisha and West Bengal.  

Women's voter turnout, self-help groups make them potent constituency in Odisha

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the female voter turnout (in percentage terms) was higher than the male turnout in 16 states and Union Territories, including Odisha, according to Election Commission data. The state's female voter turnout stood at 74.99 per cent, which was higher than the male voter turnout at 72.61 per cent.

The most recent Assembly election in Odisha in 2014 also threw up a similar picture -- the female polling percentage at 74.42 per cent, for the first time, stood higher than the male turnout at 72.95 per cent, according to EC data.

Veteran journalist Rabi Das, a long-time observer of Odisha politics, believes that this trend in female voter turnout will continue in the upcoming Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the state. Odisha will vote in four phases on April 11, 18, 23 and 29. The state will be voting simultaneously for 21 Lok Sabha and 147 Assembly seats. 

Meanwhile, there are around 600,000 women self-help groups in Odisha, and Patnaik's focus on them ahead of the polls is evident.

Patnaik had launched 'Mission Shakti' in 2001 with the aim of empowering women through the formation and promotion of women's self-help groups. At present, the Mission Shakti SHGs in the state consist of seven million female members, and make up about 45 per cent of the state's 15.4 million female voters. According to the final voter list released in January this year, Odisha has around 16.3 million male voters and 15.4 million female voters, out of around 31.8 million total voters. 

On January 5, Patnaik announced interest-free loans of up to Rs 3 lakh for the women SHGs in the state at the Mission Shakti convention in Puri. The chief minister had added that the initiative would benefit about 7 million women. The BJD has also named its campaign 'Mission Shakti to Sansad'.   

Before that, in November 2018, the Odisha government announced it would distribute 600,000 smartphones to women self-help groups. 

"Patnaik is heavily depending on women voters. The self-help groups (SHGs) have empowered women voters more than ever before. They credit Patnaik with helping these SHGs, which have received contracts for supplying food to the state's anganwadis and for the mid-day meal programme, among other such instances," explained Das.   

Das also said that Patnaik was trying to consolidate the woman vote bank, which had generously voted in 2014 and ensured BJD's victory. "Patnaik is much ahead of other parties in wooing women voters," he added. 

The BJD's decision to field the head of an SHG, Pramila Bisoi, from Aska, the seat from where Patnaik began his own political career 20 years ago, is also being seen as an acknowledgement of the importance of women voters, especially members of SHGs, for the party.

In March, Patnaik announced 33 per cent reservation for women in the allocation of Lok Sabha tickets by the BJD. In December last year, Patnaik had called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ensure one-third reservation for women in Parliament and state legislatures. Keeping its word, the BJD has fielded seven women candidates, or one-third, for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.  

The state government is also providing monetary support to pregnant women and lactating mothers under the Mamata scheme. Apart from this, an annual health assurance cover of Rs 7 lakh is also being provided to women under the Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana.  

Mamata has done well with West Bengal's women voters in the past

Over the past eight years, Banerjee's government has specifically focused on women and girls through its populist policies. Now, it is looking to reap the benefits.

Data available for the recent Assembly elections in the state might show the rationale behind banking on women power. In the 2016 West Bengal Legislative Assembly election, the female voter turnout in percentage terms at 83.13 per cent stood higher than the male polling percentage at 82.23 per cent, according to EC data. In the 2011 West Bengal Legislative Assembly election, the female voter turnout in percentage terms at 84.45 per cent again stood higher than the male turnout at 84.22 per cent.

"In a way, the TMC is eager to receive support from women as a bloc rather than women voters per se," said Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, a political analyst from West Bengal. "The women voter turnout is also likely to be high given the high percentage of voting by women in recent times," he added. Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Kolkata's Rabindra Bharati University and a political analyst, concurred. "Higher voter turnout among women is likely to continue as a trend in the coming elections," he said.    

The TMC might also enjoy an advantage when it comes to women voters as compared to the BJP. Data from the National Election Studies (NES) 2014, conducted by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), indicated that the BJP faced an acute gender gap in select major states, including Odisha and West Bengal, among others, wrote Sanjay Kumar, director at CSDS, in a 2017 article for LiveMint. Further, the article said that women voters played a significant role in determining the outcome of the 2016 Tamil Nadu and West Bengal Assembly polls, and the TMC's vote share saw a significant increase among women voters as compared to men in West Bengal.

"At the grass-roots level, the TMC fares better when it comes to having women leaders. These leaders are engaged in door-to-door campaigns to mobilise female voters for the party," said Chakraborty. "Almost 49 per cent of the state's voters are female," he added. According to the final voter list released in January this year, West Bengal has around 35.8 million male and 33.9 million female voters out of a total of about 69.8 million.

"Women voters played a significant role in the TMC's past victories at the Assembly and Lok Sabha level. These voters in recent times favoured TMC. This could be one of the reasons why TMC is fielding so many female candidates this time," explained Chaudhury. As reported earlier, the TMC has announced its candidates for all of West Bengal's 42 seats. Of these, 17, or 41 per cent, are women. Out of the candidates nominated by the party in 2014, 35 per cent were women. 

Banerjee is likely to be counting on schemes such as Kanyashree, Rupashree, Sabooj Sathi, and Anandadhara to win over the state's female voters. Further, in December last year, Banerjee also urged political parties to provide 33 per cent reservation to women in the Parliament and state Assemblies.

The West Bengal government's flagship women welfare scheme, Kanyashree, aims to ensure girls stay in school and delay their marriage till at least the age of 18 through incentives in the form of conditional cash transfers. In January this year, Banerjee laid the foundation stone of the Kanyashree university in Nadia district's Krishnanagar. The scheme, which was launched in 2013, has over 5.6 million unique beneficiaries at present.      

In July of 2017, the state government extended the Kanyashree scheme to higher education. Encouraging female students to opt for postgraduate studies, the chief minister announced that her government would offer them monthly scholarships of Rs 2,500 for studying the sciences and Rs 2,000 for arts.   

In August 2018, the state government also lifted the ceiling on annual family income for beneficiaries of Kanyashree. Originally, the scheme was open only to girls from families whose annual income was Rs 120,000 or less. 

In January last year, the West Bengal government introduced the Rupashree scheme, which provides one-time financial support for marriage to women belonging to economically disadvantaged families. Under the scheme, an amount of Rs 25,000 will be credited to the woman's bank account before her marriage. The woman must be a permanent resident of West Bengal and be above 18 years of age at the time of the marriage, with a cap on annual family income of Rs 150,000. The scheme is expected to benefit about 600,000 women.   

The Sabooj Sathi bi-cycle distribution scheme, meant to benefit students of class IX to XII studying in government-run and government-aided schools and Madrassas of the state, was launched in 2015. The objective was to empower the students, especially girls, and reduce dropouts in higher education. By October last year, the total number of students receiving cycles under the Sabooj Sathi scheme reportedly stood at 7 million.

The National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) was launched as Anandadhara in West Bengal in 2012. Its aim is to enable the community to come out from under poverty through the formation and strengthening of women SHGs. Banerjee has highlighted the scheme and claimed it to be a success ahead of the polls. As of March 2018, there were over 570,000 total SHGs in the state under Anandadhara.   

BJP schemes can also win over women voters

The BJP could be counting on schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY), Mudra Yojana and Swachh Bharat programme to click with the states' women voters.  

PMUY's stated aim is to safeguard the health of women and children by supplying free liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) connections to poor families, so that "they don't have to compromise their health in smoky kitchens or wander in unsafe areas collecting firewood". The Ujjwala Yojana was launched in May 2016.  

As on April 5, 2019, the number of LPG connections released in Odisha stood at over 4.2 million (42,27,639). Of the 36 states and UTs, Odisha ranked sixth in number of connections behind West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar. The number of PMUY connections released in West Bengal stood at 8 million (80,62,277). The state ranked second, behind Uttar Pradesh, in terms of the number of connections released.

Significantly, the Ujjwala scheme received a Rs 293-crore publicity push ahead of the polls. 

Under Swachh Bharat Mission (Rural), as of April 5, a total of 5.68 million (56,81,073) household toilets have been constructed in Odisha. Meanwhile, as of April 5, a total of 6.14 million (61,44,251) household toilets have been constructed in West Bengal. The Modi government has said that one of its goals in ridding the country of open defecation and building toilets is to ensure the safety, dignity and health of women. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan campaign was launched in October 2014.  

The Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana (PMMY), launched in April 2015, offers loans of up to Rs 10 lakh to non-corporate, non-farm small/micro enterprises. According to the scheme's latest annual report, for financial year 2017-18, 40 per cent of the total Rs 2.46-trillion disbursements under PMMY were to women entrepreneurs. Odisha, ranked ninth, was among the top 10 states by amount of loan sanction in FY 2017-18. For Odisha, the sanction amount for 2017-18 stood at Rs 11,558.91 crore, exceeding the target of Rs 11,290.08 crore and showing a growth of 46 per cent over the sanction amount for 2016-17 (Rs 7,891.34 core). West Bengal was also among the top 10 states by amount of loan sanction. The state ranked fifth. For West Bengal, the sanction amount for 2017-18 stood at Rs 20,552.19 crore, exceeding the target of Rs 18,871.92 crore and showing a growth of 31 per cent over the sanction amount for 2016-17 (Rs 15,695.01 crore). 

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