Sandeshkali, women’s scheme decisive factors in West Bengal voting

As campaigning goes into high gear for the last two phases of the Lok Sabha elections in West Bengal, Sandeshkhali violence and Lakshmir Bhandar — the two completely opposing issues — remain major factors for mostly women voters in deciding whom they will cast their vote for.

Sandeshkhali, a small island in the Sundarban delta in West Bengal’s North 24-Parganas district, has emerged as an epicentre of a major political storm for the last five months with allegations and counter-allegations between the ruling Trinamool Congress in the state and the BJP heating up the scene. In the alleged violence and sexual harassment against women, a controversial TMC leader is the main accused.

Addressing a rally in Basirhat on Tuesday, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said she was “heartbroken” over the plight of women in Sandeshkhali. She also said the BJP should not have played with the dignity of women in the trouble-torn area. “I am sorry for whatever has happened to the women of Sandeshkhali and the way they have been humiliated… Nobody should dare to play with the dignity of women,” Banerjee said.

Sandeshkhali falls under the Basirhat LS constituency which is going to the polls on June 1 in the last phase of the elections. BJP has fielded Rekha Patra, one of the alleged victims of the violence, from the seat to take on TMC’s Haji Nurul Islam. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has applauded Patra as “Shakti Swaroopa” (the image of courage).

Notably, in the last two phases, phase VI and VII, voting will take place in a total of 17 parliamentary constituencies in West Bengal.

“People would have never understood how the BJP had hatched the conspiracy, had the videos not surfaced. The BJP should not play with the dignity of women in Sandeshkhali,” Banerjee said during the Basirhat rally, which was her first visit to the LS seat since the flare-up in January this year.

The CM’s remarks came in the backdrop of multiple purported videos surfacing on social media, which claimed that a BJP leader is alleged to have said over 70 women had received ₹2,000 each for taking part in protests against Trinamool strongman Shahjahan Sheikh, the main accused of sexual assault and land grab.

BJP workers demonstrated against the circulation of the purported videos “to malign the image” of the saffron party leaders in the state.

“Whatever we talk about the Sandeshkhali issue, it is odious. Violence against women is always a disgraceful act in any advanced society. And, at the same time any false allegations on this matter is equally shameful. So, it is completely a negative story for our society. The main two opposing political parties are trying to optimise political results here, rather than going for an attempt to draw a roadmap for a solution,” political analyst Subhamoy Maitra told businessline.

Lakshmir Bhandar

“Lakshmir Bhandar, which provides direct cash assistance to women, is a popular scheme. Direct cash transfer schemes for financially weak households are always good. So, this is a positive issue,” Maitra said.

He added that a better project would have been schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), where beneficiaries get wage payments for their manual work. “It is good to provide cash assistance to financially weak persons. At the same time it is also a government’s duty to provide jobs to them as well,” Maitra pointed out.

The scheme, introduced in 2021, provides cash assistance to women between 25 and 60 years. The cash assistance initially had been ₹500 for the general category, and later it was increased to ₹1,000.

In the state budget, tabled in February, the TMC government said, “Lakshmir Bhandar, a pioneering effort of the state government in providing a universal basic income for women, has covered 1.98 crore beneficiaries, with the scheme’s expenditure so far being ₹10,101.87 crore in 2023-24.”

Lakshmir Bhandar has been at the centre stage of the political campaign for the Mamata Banerjee-led party.

According to political observers, this popular scheme is expected to garner a high percentage of women vote in the backward areas of the state.

Is the BJP then highlighting the issue of Sandeshkhali to counter the positive impact of Lakshmir Bhandar? “Well, what the BJP is doing there, the TMC is doing the same. Both the parties are playing up the political game,” one of the political observers felt.

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