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In India’s West Bengal state, backing women’s economic interests helped one party score a historic win

Policy support for financial well-being can remedy women’s inequality in politics

A woman and a child walk on a street in Dudhiya village, India, on June 13. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

Will India see a major shift in the role of women in electoral politics — and female turnout? India’s lone female head of a state government, Mamata Banerjee, secured a historic victory on May 2 for her Trinamool Congress (TMC) party in West Bengal state, dealing a blow to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Recent political coverage focuses largely on public anger at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s covid-19 leadership, but Banerjee’s win in the West Bengal elections was also driven by her policy innovations to advance women’s material interests.

Women across the board voted for Banerjee and her party, with their explicit support for economic policies that advance women’s interests. In addition to ensuring women’s representation in seats the party won, the TMC initiated nearly 250 welfare programs for women, including direct transfers of cash incentives to mothers’ accounts for their daughters’ education. They also organized frequent Saheli Sabhas (women’s meetings) to enable every woman in West Bengal to benefit from these programs.

Will initiatives such as these help raise women’s traditionally low rates of political participation — in India and around the world — and increase government responsiveness to their needs and preferences? Our research finds that cultural norms regarding wealth ownership and control are crucial levers for female political engagement, and also explain women’s priorities for government action to rectify unequal access to wealth.

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How we did our research

To understand the forces shaping the political gender gap, we studied the remote Indian state of Meghalaya, focusing on one key area that determines gender-based access to wealth: lineage. Meghalaya is home to matrilineal groups, societies in which lineage travels through women rather than men.

Matrilineal societies are a small subset of kinship systems — patrilineal societies are far more common around the world. Meghalaya is especially noteworthy because the Khasi, Garo and Jaintiya tribes of Meghalaya take an economic approach to matriliny, transferring household wealth and property, along with kinship, directly from mothers to daughters. This is exactly the type of social institution Banerjee’s TMC seeks to create by transferring a minimum monthly income to the “women heads” of every family.

Meghalaya’s matrilineal tribes live alongside patrilineal communities, where sons inherit wealth from fathers. Both sets of lineage groups are subject to Indian’s national and local political structures, enabling us to isolate the effect of lineage norms on political attitudes and behaviors.

To determine whether and how these norms matter for politics, we conducted a representative in-person survey with 3,410 citizens between February and July 2015. This survey captured measures of both political engagement and policy preferences. We measured political engagement by asking about individual voting behavior and perceptions of political accountability based on trust in local legislators and political parties.

To measure policy preferences, we conducted a survey experiment, informing half of our respondents that there was a personal cost to supporting welfare state policies. We expected that individuals would be less likely to support redistribution efforts that required respondents to contribute some of their own wealth.

In 2014 and 2015, we also conducted 100 in-depth interviews and 10 focus groups with members of matrilineal tribes.

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Does financial control make women more likely to vote?

Because political participation requires resources like time and money, we expected women would be more politically active than men in matrilineal communities, just as men are more politically active than women in patrilineal communities.

Here’s what we found: In the patrilineal societies in our survey, men are 11 percentage points more likely to vote than women, and seven to 27 percentage points more likely to believe they can hold politicians accountable, and trust political parties and local legislators to do the right thing. But in matrilineal societies, women are nine percentage points more likely to vote than men, and eight to 13 percentage points more likely to trust parties and local legislators.

As one of our respondents from a matrilineal community explained: “All the women in the family [are more politically engaged than men] because they feel that they are the custodians of society.”

This points to a key takeaway: Socially sanctioned wealth enables women to invest in collective political well-being. And it’s reflected in women’s high turnout in West Bengal, which has a legacy of policies promoting women’s financial well-being.

We also found women and men have different views on redistribution, again depending on whether they’re in patrilineal or matrilineal groups. In patrilineal societies, men are reluctant to part with wealth they control to support costly government welfare programs — but women support such policies at any cost. However, in matrilineal societies where men and women jointly manage wealth, they are equally likely to weigh the value of these government programs based on the cost of the assistance.

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How will new welfare programs affect women’s political power?

Our research speaks to the effect of Banerjee’s TMC policies to advance women’s agency: Because TMC policies give women in West Bengal formal control over wealth, we expect women to benefit from the new social welfare programs Banerjee has championed. And we expect this support to boost their political power.

Here are some examples. Providing health insurance for the family with cards in women’s names creates a constant reminder of who controls fundamental resources. This could shift social norms in a country that largely considers women’s control of wealth illegitimate — and increase women’s power to allocate family resources and participate in politics.

In India, Banerjee has broken the glass ceiling for women in politics. As female political participation rises, so do incentives and opportunities for running for office. These components of the “Bengal Model” are an example for other parts of the world where women have less political power than men.

Professors: Check out TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Rachel Brulé (@BruleRachel) is assistant professor in political science at Boston University and the author of “Women, Power and Property: The Paradox of Gender Equality Laws in India” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Nikhar Gaikwad (@nikhargaikwad) is assistant professor in political science at Columbia University.