New Delhi: With 50 women candidates, or 17% of the 291 seats from where it is contesting a heated assembly election in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) has once again taken the lead amongst states that offer the largest space for women’s representation in politics.
In the outgoing assembly, 14% are women, well above the 8% national average across Vidhan Sabhas, though slightly below the 14.6% in Parliament and significantly below the 24% worldwide average presence of women in elected assemblies.
When Mamata declared ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that 41% of her party’s tickets would be given to women candidates, she translated her commitment to women’s participation in politics into action. If the rationale behind the “magic figure” of 41% appears unclear, it could simply have been that the “percentage was based on the number of women already in her shortlist”, said Tara Krishnaswamy of Shakti, a non-profit organisation that works to enable and increase women’s participation in electoral politics.
Of the 23 women who ran on a TMC ticket, nine got elected—the second highest contingent of women parliamentarians in the Lok Sabha, after the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That said, data suggest that while the TMC sails ahead of its opponents on this issue, the relatively higher participation of women in Bengal politics is part of a longer trend of gradual inclusion to which more than one party has contributed.
An examination of the profile of TMC women candidates over time also indicates that their inclusion in the party could well be the by-product of an instrumental approach to ticket distribution, rather than from the adhesion to a normative principle of equality that would prevail over electoral strategy.
TMC party members suggest that the inclusion of women in the party may be incidental to a selection strategy that does not consider gender to be either a particular advantage or an impediment to the party’s electoral prospect, even though Mamata has come out publicly in favour of women’s quotas.
“She is already committed to 33% reservation, but Mamata Banerjee has always tried to consider 50% women candidates,” said Dola Sen, the TMC MP in the Rajya Sabha, who has spent the last three decades as a trade union leader in West Bengal, and been a part of Mamata’s own efforts to develop and consolidate women’s solidarity into concrete electoral gains since the Nandigram and Singur movements.
Gradual Inclusion Of Women In State Politics
Since 1962, only 238 of the 4,119 individuals elected into the West Bengal State Assembly have been women.
Until the late 1980s, women barely made 2% of all legislators, a state of affairs to which both the Congress and the Left contributed equally. But starting in 1992 with the 73rd Amendment, which set up a three-tier panchayat system, women’s representation has risen steadily among candidates.
In the 2001 election, which took place after the split with the Congress and the formation of Mamata’s Trinamool Congress, women accounted for 9.5% of the members of the state assembly. From 1991 onwards, the percentage of women candidates has increased by about 1.5% in every election.
However, data gathered by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data shows that besides the TMC, other parties, especially the Left have also contributed to that rise.
For instance, even if the old generation of the CPM and its allies did not feel the need to extend their egalitarian views to women, the Left’s newer generation, led by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, was more inclined to include women among their candidates. In 2011, the state’s Left combine, including Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Forward Bloc and Socialist Unity Centre of India, gave 49 tickets to women candidates--higher than the 32 given by the TMC. And, significantly higher than the national parties: Congress has not given more than 10% of its tickets to women candidates to date, and the BJP, which has been fielding more women recently, increased its number of women candidates from 23 in 2011 to 32 in 2016.
As it opened the door to a greater inclusion of women in politics, the TMC took the lead in the past three elections. The party has also received considerable publicity for its inclusiveness–perhaps by virtue of getting many more women elected than its opponents. Sixty-two women from the TMC have been elected in the past 15 years; the Left has managed only 111 women in 54 years.
Profiles In Diversity
In the patriarchal world of politics, women politicians get easily stereotyped. While much of the media focus is on the five actresses fielded this year by the TMC, few are paying attention to the 46 other women contesting.
An examination of incumbency data reveals that men and women politicians in the TMC share the same turnover.
It is still early to make pronouncements about the 2021 candidates, but an examination of the 2016 women candidates reveals that the TMC recruits a diverse lot of women candidates. In 2016, only two of the party’s 45 women candidates were film or television stars; 17 belonged to political families (mostly wives of politicians); and 14 got elected.
In terms of occupation, 14 were self-declared housewives; the occupations of the rest were split between education (nine), social service (11) and business (six), among others.
That Banerjee consistently manages to identify such a large number of women candidates in the first place also must mean that she assiduously scouts for talent and sends out feelers to find the right women to offer tickets to, Krishnaswamy said.
As far as we could determine from the 2016 candidate list, only three of the women had any prior experience in local municipal bodies. A few others also seem to have emerged from the party’s organisation or familial connections while 18 ran for the first-time. Another 22 had already been elected twice or more times.
The TMC’s 2016 women candidates were also varied in terms of caste: 19 upper castes, 13 in SC-reserved seats and two in ST-reserved seats. There were only three women candidates from a backward class background, while nine were Muslims. It is worth noting that the TMC is probably the one party that offers the most representation to Muslim women in India. Like their male counterparts, most of the party’s women candidates were highly educated (24 graduates and above, while two were 8th pass candidates).
One cannot conclude that the TMC recruits “a certain type” of woman candidate, nor can we reduce their inclusion among the party’s candidates to a publicity stunt. But it is evident that the party chief believes that celebrity and star power help win seats.
Banerjee has “good equations with youngsters not only from film but also TV stars. She goes to their marriages and celebrations, spends time with them,” said political journalist Jayanta Ghosal. As a result, she has developed strong personal attachments with ‘Tollywood’, he said.
But could the candidature of these celebrities appear exploitative at times, especially in constituencies where strong local female politicians have been overlooked in spite of years of grassroots work?
While giving tickets to celebrities is a formula that has generally worked well for the TMC in the past (especially in heavily contested seats where inner party rivalries are at work) it also raises questions about whether this is a deliberate strategy to keep complacent old-timers on their toes and balance whatever power challenges they may throw her way with newcomers who will be loyal.
Like all political leaders, Mamata, too, puts a premium on personal loyalty. “People who are new, have the least expectations. Most candidates talk about the party, Mamata’s achievements and schemes. No one is campaigning on the strength of their own work,” said Krishnaswamy.
Compared to most other parties, the TMC stands out by making women political actors rather than mere figureheads for electoral mobilization. Unlike other women chief ministers who work in a quasi-exclusively male environment, Mamata has surrounded herself over time with women contributing to party work or to the cabinet.
Five of her 42 ministers are women, some holding several important portfolios or portfolios not immediately connected to women’s issues, like agriculture, fisheries, SMEs or land reforms.
Her party’s organisation includes large numbers of women office holders, and many women play a prominent role in campaigns.
That Mamata has consistently supported strong women in politics and led by example, is no secret. Nor is the fact that the TMC is one of the only parties on India’s political map that seeks to consolidate women as a powerful vote bank through political participation, rather than sops.
Her genuine desire for inclusion of women in politics is evident, and her supporters say a result of her own political struggles. “Unlike so many other Indian politicians who are women, Mamata Banerjee never had a man helping her – with due respect to others, she is no one’s daughter, wife, widow or girlfriend,” said Dola Sen.
“Look at me, for example,” she said, “We are independent, efficient and competent politicians with or without reservation!”
(Gilles Verniers is assistant professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Maya Mirchandani is assistant professor of Media Studies at Ashoka University and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. Niharika Mehrotra, an undergraduate student in the Political Science major, assisted with data collection)