Days after the BJP lost its biggest prize — control of the Legislative Assembly in West Bengal — by a larger-than-expected margin, veteran BJP leader and former Tripura and Meghalaya governor Tathagata Roy took to Twitter and went on a rant. He lashed out at the state BJP leadership, and demanded an answer from them for giving tickets to several women party colleagues and actors in the Bengali film industry known as Tollywood.
Roy tweeted, “Film and TV actors who never had anything to do with politics, let alone BJP, were handed tickets by BJP’s election management team. Parno Mittra (Baranagar), Srabanti Chatterjee (Behala West), Payel Sarkar (Behala East). These women were so politically stupid that they had gone on a steamer trip with TMC’s playboy-politician Madan Mitra less than a month before elections and shot selfies with him. All were roundly defeated. What great qualities were these women possessed of?”
He later clarified that actress Tanusree Chakraborty, the BJP’s candidate in Shyampur, and not Mittra, had taken a selfie with TMC’s Mitra. Notably, Roy referred to Chatterjee, Sarkar and Chakraborty as “nawgoreyr noti”, which translates as a sought-after actress or danseuse of the city in Bengali. Roy was referring to a steamer-party hosted by TMC MLA Madan Mitra on the event of Dol Jatra (Holi), which was attended by the actors who were seen playing with colors.
The run-up to the West Bengal Assembly elections 2021 was marked by a polarized battle that saw the incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC) party pitching the campaign cry of “Bangla Nijer Meyekei Chai” or Bengal Wants Her Own Daughter against Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As TMC made headlines with a sweeping win in 213 seats out of the state’s 294 seats on May 2, 2021, party supremo Mamata Banerjee returned to power for a third consecutive term as Chief Minister.
Misogyny aplenty in the Bengal election campaign
The entire election campaign was marked by undertones of Bengali nationalism that projected BJP as the cultural outsiders or “bohiragotos” and “ma-boneyra” or mothers and sisters of Bengal. These women voters constitute 3.59 crore against the 3.73 crore male voters of the total number of 7.32 crore voters in the state. They also lie at the heart of the welfare-driven politics of Banerjee, who enjoys undivided loyalty among this demographic as the rallies with huge turnout of female voters and later the results indicated. Banerjee was the only incumbent woman CM of India at the time of the campaign, and continues to be so.
On the other hand, the BJP campaign was often marked by misogynist comments. Take for instance, then state BJP president Dilip Ghosh, who took a jibe at Banerjee on wheelchair, saying she should start wearing bermudas as she was showing her half-bare leg to the audience. This, according to Ghosh, went against “Bengali culture” and the propriety of wearing a sari. He was referring to Banerjee’s sari pulled up to her knee owing to her plaster-cast and later bandaged foot injured in an accident, alleged to be an attack on her.
Neither Ghosh nor his party is the first and definitely not the last one making comments that are derogatory to women in politics. Who could forget veteran Communist Party of India (CPI) Marxist (M) Anil Basu, while addressing an election rally in his home state in 2011, likening Banerjee to a ‘whore of Sonagachi (the red-light district of Kolkata), who is now getting rich clients from the US to give money for her election campaign? It is well documented in the media.
Such comments reflect the country’s deeply entrenched prejudices against women wherein men often appoint themselves as guardians of society’s moral standards and take it upon themselves to judge a woman through that dubious lens. Women are body-shamed, slut-shamed and cat-called upon, all through the pervasive patriarchal culture that seeks to control or tame women through their bodies.
Even women in politics, a platform that is supposed to accelerate women’s voices and participation in policy making, are not spared. They too are easy prey to what is often termed as casual sexism.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, TMC’s candidates and Tollywood actors Mimi Chakraborty and Nusrat Jahan who won in their respective seats, were trolled for wearing a pair of jeans with shirt and pantsuit respectively. The rationale was they violated the model code of conduct by not wearing something more culturally “appropriate”.
Then there is the tone of intellectual superiority like that of Roy to trivialize women. Roy’s comment set out to discredit Chatterjee and her colleagues as “politically stupid” or dumb, in other words, questioning their basic intelligence and integrity owing to their profession, one that is perhaps seen by him as too populist to be taken seriously.
An election battle that saw both TMC and BJP fielding celebrity candidates, mostly women, should answer the larger question of why politics in the state today needs popular faces rather than attempting to taint women belonging to the world of commercial cinema.
Many mainstream media houses that reported this incident used words like “alleged misogyny”; why is misogyny alleged or sexism casual? It is misogyny and sexism.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)