Didi of Bengal – Part 1
Mamata Banerjee, the first woman CM of Bengal, appears to have emerged as the latest villainous personality of the political firmament with especially Congress allied sections of the media joining the left commentariart in pouring scorn and ceaselessly caricaturing her. Media machinery of Congress party has sensed an opportunity to shift the focus away Congress’s abysmal and corrupt governance record in the Centre and blame the governance paralysis on Mamata’s intransigence. Mamata too has not helped her own cause by her idiosyncrasies, mercurial temperament and some thoughtless articulation.
Her English is bad, which tickles the babalogs’ funny bones. She is temperamental, which leads her to make irresponsible statements weakening her credibility, and the media, not many of them neutral, loves to hate her because she is the proverbial thorn in the flesh of the UPA. I, as a long time fan of the lady (not always the politician), have been forced to write to try and analyze the truckloads of allegations against her, not all of which are completely true
I have followed Mamata Banerjee’s career for close to 15 years now, ever since I was 14-15 years old. I also have heard of her politics from my father, uncles and other male relatives in her early days. From all that I have heard, I can say her political career spans 5 phases –
1. Her early days as a firebrand student union and youth Congress leader in the late 70s to mid-80s. In this phase, she was what is called in Bangla “agni-kanya” – an inspired youth worker who idolized Rajeev Gandhi, danced on the bonnet of JP Narayan’s car, was driven by a tremendous anti-CPI(M) passion (very valid, considering what the rogue CPI(M) cadres were up to in those days – once they broke open her skull) which saw her defeat Somnath Chatterjee from Jadavpur in 1984.
2. Her rise in Congress through the ranks to the position of Central Minister (in 1991) to a bigger role in the state so much so that a street-fighter woman was easily the most recognizable face of opposition in West Bengal, bypassing male leaders like Ghani Khan Chowdhury, Madan Mitra, Subrata Mukherjee etc. It is during this phase that she sat on a dharna outside the Writers’ building, rampaged into the same when a deaf mute girl was raped and calling bandhs at the drop of a hat, often ensuring their success single-handedly
3. Her breaking away from the Congress was the beginning of her third phase. It is also during this phase that I started getting interested in politics, and started following the lady, who along with 2 other young women Jayalalitha and Mayawati, was making a space for herself in the nation’s political milieu. in this phase, she experimented a lot with her political allegiations – faced with stiff opposition from Congress leaders in West Bengal to her newly formed Trinamool Congress, she shifted loyalties to the NDA and became railway minister in 1999 under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s PM-ship. However it is also during this phase that the world got to see her main weakness – her suspect temperament. After the Tehelka expose, she quit the NDA and formed a “mahajot” of all non-left parties barring the BJP in the 2001 Assembly elections. It is often alleged though that she quit because she saw a genuine opportunity to unseat the Left Front
The Left adopted a smart strategy. They fought her rising popularity on 2 fronts – 1. Her “non-secular” image (due to association with BJP) and 2. Her fickle nature. The result: she lost a closely fought election. During the subsequent years as opposition leader in the state, her image took a beating due to several reasons – 1. Her constant calling of bandhs on petty issues 2. a lot of tainted politicians and strongmen joining, leaving and rejoining her party 3. Buddhadev Bhattacharya’s clean image vis-a-vis Jyoti Basu 4. Her association with BJP cost her heavily in certain panchayat elections. This phase ended with TMC losing heavily in 2004 Lok Sabha elections when she re-aligned with the “communal BJP” with she being the lone MP from her party and the subsequent washout in 2006 State Assembly elections where her party managed just 35 seats in a house of 294.
4. “Fear the (wo)man who has nothing to lose” says a proverb. This came true for Mamata in the 4th phase of her political career. The Left, armed with 235 MLAs, became arrogant. Buddha-babu, contrary to his anti-industry stance earlier, had indeed become serious about industrialization of the state, but the same could not be said about his comrades who thought they had finally buried the ghost of Mamata (a slogan / graphiti which smacked of macho-sadism in those days – “ay dekhe ja Mamata, CPI(M)-er khomota” – “come Mamata, see the power of CPI(M)”, with accompanying pictures that ranged from nasty to outright vulgar and sexist). This worked at 2 levels – 1. Presented Mamata with a political lifeline of presenting herself as a pro-poor grassroots leader (Trinamool by the way, means “grassroots” in Bengali) 2. Offend the sensibilities of middle class Bengalis, who, by and large were politically neutral (the poor were traditionally Left votebanks, the rich voting for anyone but the Left)
Then there was the Rizwanur incident – which caused the biggest tectonic shift in the political fortunes in West Bengal. A young Muslim man killed over a love affair gone wrong presented Mamata with a perfect opportunity to woo the Muslims, that the alleged criminal was a Marwari further fuelled sentiments and rallied otherwise “not outraged” Bengalis. And the final nail on the Left coffins were incidents of police atrocities in Singur, Nandigram, Bhangor, Salboni-Lalgarh and Nayachar. A turf war between CPI(M) and TMC supporters in some of these places and sustained presence of joint forces in Junglemahal, some of whom committed atrocities on the local populace meant quite a few hardcore Left Front supporters amongst the urban elite changed loyalties
Then there was the support of the “intellectuals” which included artists, theater actors and teachers. Not all of their motives were clean though. The Left Front, in its long stay in power, had fostered a culture of nepotism where everything from teacher appointments to promotions in Government offices to movie roles depended upon proximity to the Government, to be blunt – to the Left Front. A lot of “intellectuals”, due to a wide variety of reasons had missed out on earlier opportunities. So they decided to encash upon this opportunity and get the much needed boost to their financial position and social status.
It is not that Mamata was herself a saint during this period. In 2007, when the police blocked her way when she was traveling to Nandigram, she came back to Kolkata and led her goons to break furniture in the Assembly house itself. The constant anti-industry stance which included a traffic disrupting hunger strike in the heart of Kolkata – the metro channel near Esplanade, the central business district led to the Tatas and other investors leaving Bengal with projects unfinished or delayed
The pre-election pact with the Congress also meant non-CPI(M) votes didnt get split in 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Mamata’s carefully crafted image of a minority sympathiser (offering Namaaz wearing a hijaab etc) led to consolidation of the Muslin vote behind her. Her victory in the 2008 panchayat elections added further leverage to her votebank politics, which led to her landslide victory in the 2009 Lok sabha Elections where she won the decisive 19 MPs – the cause of UPA headache and heartburn as of now. Such was her popularity, that even past-sale-by date actors and singers won landslide victoties against political heavyweights from the Left. It was a one-woman show. She carried her party and the Congress to 26 seats. And she extracted her pound of flesh by becoming the Railway Minister yet again and having a slew of her MPs becoming ministers of state
Next part – phase 5 of Mamata’s political career, and where she lost the plot
(Author Kaushik Saha is a good friend of CRI )