Dear BJP, stop mouthing empty slogans

Instead learn about the West Bengal Model of women’s empowerment


One of the first ‘controversies’ this election season was the way the BJP candidate for Asansol—Bhojpuri singer Pawan Singh—suddenly withdrew from the election fray. Hours after Singh’s name was announced, several videos surfaced showing his Bhojpuri song and dance routines titled 'Bengal ki Hasina’ and ‘Sauteen Bangaliya se'. Contesting from West Bengal and at the same time depicting Bengal’s women in outrageously misogynist terms is hardly appropriate for someone hoping to be a Member of Parliament from the state.

The massive backlash against Singh on social media contributed to his withdrawal and showed that women (and men) are increasingly tackling sexism and chauvinism head on. There is a growing refusal to tolerate openly discriminatory messaging. How can you hope to be a Member of Parliament from Bengal and participate in songs that describe Bengali women as “Bengal ki maal”?

Sorry, BJP, wrong number.

The Singh episode was telling. Women voters are now more important than ever, often making a decisive difference to election results. But, have attitudes to women politicians changed dramatically? Not really. It was only a few years ago that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking in Kolkata, saw fit to declaim “Didi oh Didi” in mocking tones elongating the words as if it was a catcall. The prime minister himself did not hesitate to hurl catcalls at India’s only woman chief minister!

In its first list for the 2024 polls, the BJP has given less than 15 per cent seats to women, notwithstanding all the hype and hoopla about the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill. The BJP’s choice of candidates does not inspire confidence about gender justice. The party’s Barabanki candidate, Upendra Rawat, was also forced to withdraw from the fray after videos—which he claimed were fake—surfaced showing him in flagrante delicto with someone clearly not his wife. An MP candidate cannot be in situations which smack of sleazy sexual exploitation. The fact that the BJP dropped Rawat showed a belated recognition that increasingly aware women voters will not tolerate lechery and squalid sexual behaviour.

But why pray, did BJP field Pawan Singh and Upendra Rawat in the first place?

Women in public life are still stereotyped and stigmatised. A strong assertive woman could find herself pushed to the corner. Sushma Swaraj and Vasundhara Raje often came up against the BJP’s patriarchal mindset. The late Sushma Swaraj was sent into ill-fated contests, for example, against Sheila Dikshit in Delhi in 1998 and against Sonia Gandhi in Bellary in 1999 and became a scapegoat for BJP defeats. She was a highly effective Leader of Opposition but was never considered a PM candidate. In the Modi years, she was somewhat humiliated. As external affairs minister, she remained mostly active on social media, using Twitter as a citizen’s helpline, but was left out of the big foreign policy moments and excluded from the BJP’s top leadership.

Vasundhara Raje was twice Rajasthan chief minister but despite emerging as a regional satrap, was marginalised by her party after the BJP’s win in 2023 in Rajasthan—a victory she had helped script. Today, in the BJP, Smriti Irani and Nirmala Sitharaman may be high profile ministers, but they are not part of the BJP’s decision-making elite.

In the opposition, too, there is room to course correct. Sonia Gandhi was the longest serving Congress president and Sheila Dikshit was the three-time Delhi CM, yet no significant woman leader has emerged in the Congress in recent years. Mayawati and Jayalalithaa as CMs did not really offer significant representation to women. For the 2019 general elections, the Mayawati-led BSP gave only 6.3 per cent tickets to women.

In contrast, the Trinamool Congress government in Bengal is many steps ahead of other parties on women’s socio-economic welfare as well as political representation. Today, Bengal is the only state with a woman chief minister and, in the 2019 polls, the TMC gave 40 per cent tickets to women, far above the 33 per cent reservation. Mamata Banerjee is an assertive woman chief minister who focuses on women-centric programmes.

Bengal’s path-breaking flagship Kanyashree programme (incentivising schooling among girls) received the United Nations Public Service Award in 2017. 83 lakh girls benefit from the scheme. Bengal’s Swasthya Sathi programme provides healthcare cover in the name of the woman of the family, thus imbuing women with agency.

In contrast, PM Modi journeys to Bengal at election time like a migratory bird desperate for votes and declaims on 'Nari Shakti’. But 80 per cent of the BJP’s much hyped “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” programme, has been spent on advertising and media campaigns. The BJP top brass today does not include any women leaders. BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has been accused by Olympic medal-winning women wrestlers of sexual harassment and charged under the child sex abuse act. But he roams free. The BJP has resoundingly failed to deliver systematic justice to women or to include more women in political power sharing. How can Modi talk of 'Nari Shakti' when he has not once visited Manipur where women have been paraded naked?

Today, women voters are increasingly making a decisive difference in voting. Every election is showing an increasing involvement of women. Big election wins need the support of a disproportionate chunk of women. An EC report has shown that new women voter registrations are 15 per cent more than men’s. All parties have recognised this and are announcing aid and welfare schemes for women voters. The Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi has just announced Rs 1,000 for women above 18 every month, Congress in Himachal Pradesh has announced Rs 1,500 monthly for women. But throwing cash is not empowerment.

Why does a 33 per cent representation need to be announced as a law? Why are national parties so afraid to recognise and support talented women? Why are women leaders not becoming chief ministers or emerging as regional faces? Why are men still calling the shots in most parties?

Dear BJP and PM Modi, stop mouthing empty slogans on 'Nari Shakti' on International Women's Day, and work towards sharing real political representation with women. And if you want to know how to do it, learn from Bengal.