Party’s appeal among women set to grow with support for women-only community Pujas in West Bengal’s biggest cultural carnival
“Since Didi has announced it herself, we will definitely receive the money,” said Deepali Das, one of the key organisers of the community Durga Puja at the Bakpara Sporting Club in the economically backward Duttabad area of the Biddhanagar Municipal Corporation. Ms. Das is honest enough to admit that before the organisers decided on an all-woman Durga Puja, women only had a role in rituals. Now, Ms. Das and other women are waiting for ₹50,000 from the authorities to begin their preparations.
A few kilometres north, president of the Arjunpur Taltala Amra Sobai club, Masumi Naskar, is happy that artist Bhabatosh Sutar will design their Puja pandal this time. “Of course having the Durga Puja organised entirely by women is very encouraging,” she added.
Earlier this month, while announcing the protocols for observing the festival amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said that there were 1,500 Mahila Durga Pujas entitled to receive the cash incentive from the State government. They are a part of the 36,000 community Durga Pujas in West Bengal, and another 2,500 community Pujas that fall under the jurisdiction of the Kolkata police.
Women have have been participating in Durga Pujas in different ways lately. Be it a lone woman artist from Kumartuli, Kolkata’s famous potters’ colony, crafting idols for the past few years, or a group of all-women priests performing Pujas this year, more and more women are coming to fore in organising the mega cultural event.
The State government’s initiative in recognising the Mahila Durga Puja as a separate category is perceived to be part of its political strategy of reaching out to more and more women and creating groups of beneficiaries among them. It has been seen over the past few years that women voters have overwhelmingly supported the Trinamool Congress.
“In the 2021 Assembly polls, the Trinamool Congress got 52% of the female votes and 44% of the male votes,” psephologist and Professor of Political Science Biswanath Chakraborty said. He also said that the trend of wooing women voters in West Bengal would continue till the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
In the past decade, many of the TMC’s flagship schemes have been aimed directly at benefiting women. Kanyashree, a conditional cash transfer for school-going girls was a great hit in the party’s first years in government. The scheme provides ₹750 a month for every school-going girl till Class 12, and ₹25,000 when she passes Class 12. Another scheme, Rupashree, provides ₹25,000 for the marriage of a girl child.
Before the 2021 Assembly elections, the West Bengal government announced the Swastha Sathi Scheme, a medical insurance scheme of ₹5 lakh per household, with insurance cards issued in the name of the female head of the household. This scheme, too, generated a huge response.
But the biggest draw has been the Lakshmir Bhandar scheme, in which every woman whose family has no government job is entitled to receive ₹500 (in the general category) and ₹1,000 (in the reserved category) every month. For weeks, women across the State queued up outside camps for enrolling in the scheme. Preliminary estimates by the State government suggest that nearly 2 crore women have signed up for it, making it the biggest cash roll-out scheme in West Bengal.
Durga Puja is not only the largest cultural carnival in West Bengal but also intrinsically associated with politics in the State. The Left Front government tried to keep a distance from the religiosity of the Puja, but it did not shy away from selling Communist literature at Puja pandals. Over the past few years, the Pujas in Kolkata have seen the TMC and Bharatiya Janata Party leadership competing to inaugurate Pujas in Kolkata. Experts like Prof. Chakraborty believe that the very idea of a community Durga Puja, organised by groups of women and sponsored and inaugurated by a woman Chief Minister, is a very powerful political strategy that’s difficult to match.