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Swagger and smiles: Will Sandeshkhali force Mamata to correct course?

What should worry Mamata Banerjee more is the images of Sandeshkhali’s women celebrating Shahjahan’s arrest, ululating, bursting fire crackers, sharing mishti and playing holi with all the colours of abir they could lay their hands on.
Last Updated 02 March 2024, 23:38 IST

Kolkata: The swagger of Trinamool Congress leader Sheikh Shahjahan of Sandeshkhali as he walked into the court after his arrest on Thursday is the talk of the town: the swagger exuding a sense of impunity for crimes allegedly spanning theft of ration, land-grab and a horrific abuse of women. 

It was not a pleasant sight. But what should worry Mamata Banerjee more is the images of Sandeshkhali’s women celebrating Shahjahan’s arrest, ululating, bursting fire crackers, sharing mishti and playing holi with all the colours of abir they could lay their hands on.

What she should be losing sleep over is the smiles on the faces of the women during the jubilation and what they said: "This time we will vote freely and happily for whoever we want.”

These women have been voting for Mamata with all their might since 2011. She promised, and in the 12 years as chief minister, delivered chunks of cash-rich largesse and empowerment to women voters with schemes like Kanyasree for school-goers, Rupasree for those getting married, Lakshmir Bhandar for all women aged between 25 and 60 — a straight DBT of Rs 1,000 a month now, and the Swasthya Sathi card issued in the name of the senior-most woman in a household, not only giving health insurance to the family but also putting the woman in a position of power in the patriarchal households.

This bounty — and more political power, too, in panchayats, the Assembly and Parliament — created a vote bank hitherto not taken seriously by political parties: the female vote. And it paid rich dividends because West Bengal has one of the highest number of women voters in the country — 49.01 per cent of 7.2 crore voters as of January 2021. Since Mamata’s first victory in the Assembly polls, women consolidated their voting punch behind Didi and gave her victory after victory.

But in Sandeshkhali and many other parts of West Bengal, the vote for TMC was often coerced out of them. Women complained how on the voting day at Sandeshkhali they would go to the polling booth to be told to "go home, your vote has been cast". Also mysteriously cast were the votes of their migrant husbands who hadn’t been able to return to participate in the celebration of democracy.

A quick look at the panchayat election results in Sandeshkhali in 2023 is illustrative. Out of the 333 gram panchayat and panchayat samiti seats, the TMC won 310 without a contest. In the 23 seats where there were opposition candidates, voting was "not allowed" allegedly by Sheikh Shahjahan and his men, and the TMC swept all those 23 seats too.

Also, corruption in the local leadership has meant that Mamata’s largesse was not reaching the intended beneficiaries. Women complained they were not getting money under Laxmir Bhandar or MGNREGA and several other schemes, that the money was being siphoned off midway by TMC leaders. Even the Adivasi population was not spared.

Their farmland was forcibly taken away and filled with salt water to breed lucrative prawns. The land owners almost never got a share of the profits.

As for sexual harassment, some analysts have said the number of rape cases registered were not many and most of the complaints seemed to be about women being called to meetings at odd hours and made to run errands. But women’s rights activists say sexual abuse means much more than rape alone.

So, when the women smiled on Thursday and said they were looking forward to the next vote in the general elections just around the corner, it did not bode well for Mamata; signalling that her powerful women vote bank was at risk of being breached.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi certainly believes so. No wonder, in his first election rally speech in Bengal’s Arambagh on March 1, he went hammer and tongs at the TMC on Sandeshkhali and what happened to the women there.

"The TMC leaders crossed all limits of misconduct with the women of Sandeshkhali,” he thundered.

“In the reign of TMC, this culprit TMC leader was absconded for two months. There must have been someone who was protecting him?” Modi's ishara was not difficult to decipher.

Mamata did not miss the message. If women voters turn away from her, it will dent her electoral fortunes, and she knows it. It is most unlikely Sandeshkhali will suddenly cause all her women voters to turn their backs on the TMC any time soon. But even a minor breach is major bad news.

So, Mamata has already decided on a course-correction exercise. On March 7, 24 hours before the International Day of Women, she will march on the streets of Kolkata to mark Mahila Divas with the slogan, 'Women’s Rights, Our Promise'. It will be an urban show of support to the women of Sandeshkhali and the rest in Bengal’s hinterland.

It is a start, but the simplest thing for Mamata to have done was to go to Sandeshkhali at least once in the last month, ever since the women there went on the warpath. For a leader who has historically rushed to every trouble spot, her failure to do so at Sandeshkhali appears inexplicable.

Also damaging was her initial attempt to shield Sheikh Shahjahan and blame it all on the Centre’s "agency raj". The delay and manner of his arrest has also not helped. A mere march on Kolkata’s streets may not really ameliorate Sandeshkhali’s anger with the TMC or prevent it from spreading.

What Mamata can take heart from is, even during their outburst, the women of Sandeshkhali repeatedly said they were loyal TMC voters, furious with the local leadership but loyal to Didi. She will have to stave off the BJP’s bid to fish in troubled waters and earn back the loyalty of Bengal’s women. With the prime minister determined to make the most of the issue this election season, a more emphatic and empathetic action is the need of the hour for Mamata.

(Author is a Kolkata-based journalist) 

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(Published 02 March 2024, 23:38 IST)

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