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Women's issues at heart of TMC, BJP poll campaigns in Bengal

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Kolkata, March 08: As West Bengal assembly elections draw near, women have emerged as a rallying point in the state, with the ruling TMC fielding 50 female candidates, its highest ever, and the rival BJP alleging crimes against them have soared under the Mamata Banerjee government.

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With the two parties racing against time to reach out to the voters, the TMC, which has adopted the poll slogan ''Bangla Nijer Meyekei Chay'' (Bengal wants her own daughter), sees itself having an edge over the saffron camp when it comes to wooing women, with schemes such as ''Swasthya Sathi'' and ''Kanyashree'' at the heart of its campaign.

The saffron camp, on its part, has been pulling all stops to highlight the apparent rise in crime against women over the last 10 years under the TMC rule.

According to TMC MP and spokesperson Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, voters, this time, would witness a "lone woman fighting for Bengal''s honour against outsiders".

"Since the TMC''s inception in 1998, Mamata Banerjee has always tried to nominate more and more women candidates for panchayat, civic body, state or Lok Sabha polls. The party has fielded 50 women candidates for the upcoming elections, five more than what it did in 2016," Ghosh Dastidar said.

Countering TMC''s claims, BJP state Mahila Morcha president Agnimitra Paul said the poll slogan would barely have any effect on women, as the Mamata Banerjee camp has failed to ensure their safety.

"The rise in rape and other crimes show that no woman is safe in West Bengal. After having failed to protect women over the last ten years, this slogan ''I am the daughter of Bengal'' won''t yield any result," she claimed.

The BJP, too, has promised to give women adequate representation in its candidate list this time, but that remains to be seen as the party has named only six female nominees for the first two phases of the do-or-die contest.

Elections in Bengal, poised to be a stiff contest between the TMC and the BJP, will be held in eight phases, beginning with polling for 30 seats on March 27. Votes will be counted on May 2.

Sources in the TMC said many women voters, who had firmly rallied behind Mamata Banerjee since 2009, shifted their allegiance to the BJP ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls as the saffron camp highlighted schemes such as Ujjwala Yojana, prompting the ruling party in the state to launch several initiatives to woo them back.

Banerjee quickly set up ''Bongo Janani'', the party''s apolitical front, post 2019 elections and reached out to women, highlighting the state government''s developmental initiatives such as the ''Rupashree'' direct cash transfer scheme to prevent child marriage.

Her party also brought to the fore the "plight of women in BJP-ruled states such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh" to stress on the fact that women are safer in Bengal.

"Since the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, most women voted for Banerjee. While some crimes against women dented her support base among urban women voters, her rural base remained intact till the BJP entered the state''s political landscape, a party leader said.

Stressing that women-centric issues have always found favour with the TMC, party secretary-general Partha Chatterjee said, "It is Mamata Banerjee who has socially, economically and politically empowered women in the last ten years through social schemes and various policies.

"Our candidate list reflects our commitment towards uplifting women and bringing them in the decision-making process at various levels."

A senior BJP leader admitted that the lack of a chief ministerial face or an aggressive woman leader to match up to Banerjee has been a drawback for the party.

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The saffron camp, however, is busy playing up "incidents of rape and cases of trafficking from north Bengal and tribal areas" to punch a hole in TMC''s campaign to woo women voters, he said.

Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have time and again claimed that the TMC''s slogan of "Maa, Mati, Manush" (mother, land and people) has been reduced to "atrocity against women, tolabaji (extortion) and appeasement".

The party is also highlighting the Centre''s initiatives such as Ujjwala scheme, aimed at providing LPG connection to women from BPL families, in its bid to impress the women voters, who constitute 49 per cent of the state''s electorate.

It is also trying to curry favour with Muslim women by patting itself on the back for the initiative to abolish instant triple talaq - branding the move as a step taken towards empowering them.

Political analyst Suman Bhattacharya feels that narrative built around women empowerment haven''t been this crucial a factor before in Bengal elections.

"The TMC has been quite successful in projecting the BJP as an anti-woman party. In no other polls in Bengal, narrative around women power has played such a vital role," he contended.

However, as the world celebrates International Women''s Day, one can''t help but take note of a seeming discrepancy between the promises made and efforts to keep them, as none of the parties has a track record of nominating 33 per cent women -- as proposed by the draft Women''s Reservation Bill.

"Just like our society, the political parties are male-dominated. They will talk a lot about women empowerment, but they lack the will to do it when it comes to empowering women in their own parties. Maybe if a law is passed, they will be forced to do it," Sunanda Mukherjee, a former chairperson of the State Women''s Commission, said.

The Women''s Reservation Bill, which was passed in Rajya Sabha in 2010 and is waiting for Lok Sabha nod, proposes to reserve 33 per cent seats in the Lower House, state legislatures and local bodies.

The Left Front government had in 2010 passed a law to reserve 50 per cent seats for women in panchayat bodies.

"It is a continuous process, and more women would get nomination subsequently. During the last panchayat elections, 50 per cent of our nominees were women. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, 17 of our 42 candidates were women," Chatterjee said.

If statistics were to be noted, the state''s ruling camp had fielded 17 women candidates against saffron party''s five in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

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    During the 2016 assembly elections, the TMC had fielded 45 women candidates as opposed to the BJP''s 31.

    Asserting that women''s safety has always been one of BJP''s poll planks, its state president Dilip Ghosh clarified that candidates, nonetheless, are selected based on their winning prospect.

    "We put up candidates based on their popularity and possibility of winning the polls. The party has always taken matters related to women empowerment and their safety very seriously. That said, we do not shed crocodile tears over this issue as our rivals do," Ghosh stated.

    Echoing him, Paul said that the BJP gives adequate importance to its women leaders and have put them in leadership roles in various parts of the country.

    "Unlike the TMC, the BJP does not nominate actresses who have little idea about ground politics just to fill up the women quota," Paul, who is also a renowned fashion designer, said, taking a dig at the ruling camp, which has fielded a battery of celebrities, including Tollywood starlets Sayantika Banerjee and Saayoni Ghosh.

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