The author has worked with Deccan Herald for two decades, and also with various TV channels such as al-Jazeera and CNN. He currently heads the eastern bureau of Parliamentarian
The leading ladies of Indian politics are apparently ahead of their male peers. Sonia Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress, already has a temple dedicated to her in Telangana. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was the brand face of relief materials distributed to the victims of Chennai floods. She will shortly be immortalised through the consecration of a temple in her honour at a whopping cost of Rs 50 lakh. Smriti Irani, the HRD Minister, is being referred to as the Goddess Durga of Indian Parliament for her recent fiery speech on the JNU fiasco.
Wait! West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee too does not lag behind them. A film on Mamata Banerjee, or ‘Didi’ as she is popularly known, has already chronicled Bengal’s iron lady from her childhood till her historic rise to the present political super stage. The film `Baghini’ (Tigress) is aptly titled since she is known for her unflinching determination and a raw straightforwardness that displeases most people.
The film is primarily meant to
send a message across the nation that any woman of substance like her
can reach dizzying heights of power
and success in any walk of life, the director of the film Nehal Dutta was understood to have said to mark the trailer launch.
Mamata Banerjee is a woman who can be exasperating and magnetic by turns, and her histrionics has imparted a new culture of political theatrics. Didi’s trademark simplicity, that white Dhonekhali sari with a ‘thin’ coloured border, the hair pulled back into a bun and the pair of rubber slippers, only go to point out that Mamata, despite her apparent naiveté knows how to manipulate an environment dominated by the media.
A Jogmaya Devi College pass out with a Bachelor’s degree in History, a Master’s degree in Islamic History and degrees in Education and Law, Didi had as many varied stints as a stenographer, a primary school teacher, a private tutor and even as a salesgirl before her fabled plunge into politics. And in almost each and every arena that she has put her best foot forward, she has been a game-changer in more ways than one –she has scarcely followed the rules; the latter, on the contrary, have had the pleasure to follow her!
Having said that, one has to admit in the same breath that over the years the Trinamool Congress supremo has transformed herself from the mercurial, impulsive boss of a regional party to the responsible leader of a state. The metamorphosis has come through times that have been rough, tough and testing. Under her, this fledgeling party can now boast of a stronger national ambition. It is because a hurt, humiliated woman, who might still be lacking in sophistication, refused to be cowed down by a string of setbacks in her eventful political career. From her terracotta-tiled roof house at a nondescript locality in South Kolkata’s Harish Chatterjee Street, which often gets flooded during heavy rain, the `rough and tough administrator’ of West Bengal has an eerie penchant to court controversies with aplomb.
People had watched her oscillate between shouting her tormentors
down and breaking into Rabindra Sangeet; braving a hail of bullets
one minute and… applying her paintbrush to the canvas the next. She is emotional to a fault, yet ruthlessly dictatorial; a people’s person who could once have passed off as the queen of histrionics.
As a student leader of the Youth Congress, she shot into fame when she jumped on to the bonnet of the car of Jayaprakash Narayan , the mass leader from Bihar, was riding; the then young Mamata was said to have gesticulated wildly. During another agitation against police atrocities, she barged into the room of the officer-in-charge of a police station with her followers and seated herself in the OC’s chair, leaving the puzzled OC shell-shocked.
The riff-raff and rabble-rousers were impressed and her popularity among them started soaring. Nevertheless, the first shocker that she delivered by going against the trend came in the 1984 general elections when she left the Left veterans rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Not only was she elected to the Lok Sabha as one of the youngest parliamentarians, she made the veteran CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee eat the humble pie from the Jadavpur seat in a prestigious fight. Well, she lost the seat in 1989, but again returned to LS from Calcutta South in 1991. That year saw her facing a brutal attack at Hazra by armed CPI(M) goons when she was leading a Congress rally, leaving her skull fractured. However, it didn’t take much time for the feisty lady to go berserk and attract negative publicity. Her infamous siege of the Writers’ Buildings (erstwhile state secretariat) in 1993 saw her being physically pulled out, sari and hair ruffled, and thrown out of the secretariat by the police for squatting in a dharna for hours together in front of chief minister Jyoti Basu’s office.
By the late 1990s Banerjee had become disillusioned by what she saw as a corrupt Congress Party; she also
wanted to confront the ruling Communist Party of India (CPI(M)) more directly, and in 1997 she founded the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC). The new party had limited success in the 1998 and 1999 national parliamentary elections but lost nearly all of those seats in the 2001 assembly and 2004 LS polls.
At the end of polling in the 2001 assembly polls, she flashed the `V’ sign, only to shut herself in her modest home after the party’s crushing defeat.
After she emerged from home, wrapping a shawl round her neck, she perched herself high on a tree, threatening to hang herself in public! Those were the days when the only ‘mantra’ of Mamata’s politics was blind opposition to CPI(M); when she would switch allegiance without much thought so long as she was facing away from the Left. This was a time when Mamata liked to hog the limelight in her own party meetings by denying others present an opportunity to speak.
In her twin avatars as the railway minister, she chose to ride a train laden with populist cargo and opted to shun
a much-needed path of resource generation. After joining the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government in 1999, her maiden stint in the rail ministry was short-lived. She turned the signal
red and disembarked the train within
a couple of years; the alibi was an
alleged scam involving late George Fernandes.
A quiet peek into her room and the mélange of photographs shows her with such figures as Satyajit Ray, Amala Shankar (wife of famous dance exponent Uday Shankar), Gopal Krishna Gandhi (former governor of West Bengal), George Fernandes and Atal Bihari Vajpayee; but in all of them she has somehow become oblivious of the photographic moment. The realisation that she is her own and constant audience perhaps helps us to understand where her tendency for babbling comes from.
Among many other things that Mamata Banerjee is symptomatic of is her rare ability to manage time to write poems and lyrics. As an MP, sometimes her irritation often got the better of her and she made the mistake of overreacting on flimsy grounds. Once she chucked her shawl at the then Lok Sabha speaker Purno A Sangma and then (August, 2005) she threw a sheaf of papers at the Speaker’s chair, taking street-level protest into Parliament and drawing condemnation from fellow MPs on the other side who sought her apology. It wasn’t quite clear which one was the worse offence. Her plea was she was not allowed to raise the issue of illegal migrants from Bangladesh whose names figured in the voters’ list. The speaker disallowed it citing the issue had already been discussed for four hours on the opening day of the session. Attributing motives to the Speaker, she thundered, “There is no point in my being a member if I am not allowed to raise people’s issues.”
In her second stint in the same ministry when Dr Manmohan Singh was at the helm of the second UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government, she kept her eyes zoomed on the seat of chief minister in Bengal; it necessitated the sacrifice of reforms at the altar of populism and six months prior to the 2011 assembly polls, she flagged off nearly 30 trains in her home state alone!
It wasn’t enough; the Manmohan Singh government encountered
a massive hiccup the very next
year (September, 2012). Didi took umbrage over the fact that despite being the second biggest constituent of
the UPA with 19 members in Lok Sabha, Dr Singh did not consult her party before deciding to review the
FDI limit and reduce the cap on subsidised LPG from 12 to 6 cylinders per annum.
The TMC could reconsider its stand (of support) if the government rolled back its decisions besides reducing diesel hike from Rs5 by Rs3 or Rs4. “We are withdrawing our support... Our ministers will go to Delhi, meet the Prime Minister and tender their resignations,” Banerjee had said. Fortunately however, the UPA government survived the scare.
Indira Gandhi made the “Roti, Kapda our Makaan” her election slogan; “Ma-Mati-Manush” is the alliterative anthem that Mamata coined to push her juggernaut. Maa is synonymous with Bengal, which to Mamata, was always supreme; ‘Maati’ standing for ‘land’ not just in an economic sense, but as something people are wedded to, around which their lives revolve; ‘Manush’ referring to humanity, to humanism, which Mamata believes to be her only political ideology in the face of the brutal state repression and killing.
In fact, since the brutal 1990 attack on her at Hazra Road that highlighted Didi’s fearlessness in the face of what then seemed indomitable odds gathered to destroy her, she kept on gaining her strength, notwithstanding her histrionics. Where former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya took a jeep on his political rallies, Mamata walked sweating for kilometres meeting people and shaking hands, realising perfectly well the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ impression that it would create. At places where the CPI(M) activists resorted to roadblocks, she often chose to beat their tactics by pillion-riding to the venue, leaving many an onlooker aghast.
Forcible land acquisition in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh, bullets and manhandling of women went against the CPI(M)-led Left Front and turned the intellectuals who were the pride of the CPI(M), against the party. Poets and playwrights estranged by an increasingly Big Brother policy that led to the banning of plays, also went to swell Mamata’s ranks.
There had been occasions when her supporters, some from Left background, would sing songs of the IPTA or lyrics from Salil Chowdhury during the anti-land acquisition stir. Mamata would sit in the audience and encourage speakers and singers to harp on the Left cause that the CPI(M) party managers have unlearnt. She brought back that good old ’70s revolutionary hymn of land being sacrosanct and land rights being primal. Ratan Tata’s exit from Singur (where Nano car was once deemed to be manufactured) had a double-edged impact on Bengal. From one angle, Banerjee seems to have triumphed. But from another, it seems that Ratan Tata’s earlier “we’re out if we’re not wanted” speech has also made an impact. The Tatas’ pullout from Singur has handed a huge setback to Bengal’s industrial drive, even a diehard fan of Mamata would concede. Now where private industries are concerned, she wants them to buy land on their own, allowing the market mechanism to operate down the chain.
The resounding victory in the May 2016 assembly which saw the CPI(M)Congress coalition decimated flat, forced Banerjee to scupper all speculation about a bigger national role. She had a template response to
a thousand questions from a hundred reporters on her prime ministerial ambitions, that she was too small a
fry and would be happy playing the second fiddle instead of fronting
an alliance against the BJP. Well, Mamata being Mamata, the plans
up her sleeves would only get
revealed in due course of time.
With some of her close confidantes being hauled up by the Narendra
Modi government, thanks to Sarada (chit fund) and Narada (sting operation) scams, she was only awaiting
an opportunity to launch her battle against a formidable adversary whose reach and influence went far and
wide in the polity.
With over 100 seats where the Muslim vote could shift the balance at stake,
the Trinamool Congress supremo began befriending various sections
of Muslim opinion and its leadership. Then came the Triple Talaq Bill and
she chose to walk on the opposite of
“BJP has come up with a defective bill on triple talaq. Let alone protecting the women, the women of that community will be in trouble because of the bill. BJP has been doing politics over the issue of triple talaq,” she
said in an oblique reference to
her already entrenched vote bank. Being a mass leader who understands the pulse and takes pride in keeping herself grounded among the grassroots, she would rarely let an opportunity
Crises bring opportunities .... and Mamata learnt how to grab chances
as they come. Since there is no dominant leader with a countrywide appeal in the opposition camp at
the moment, it is natural that the
most energetic opponents of the Bharatiya Janata Party will take the lead in trying to bring together the different parties to fight the ruling party at the Centre. Not surprisingly, Mamata Banerjee is playing that part. That innate ability to seize the moment seems to be at work again as she tries to forge an alliance against mighty Modi. This is obviously an important revision from her earlier position of remaining a backroom operator. Having singlehandedly ousted the Communists from West Bengal against what appeared at the time as insurmountable odds, she has now taken on an even bigger challenge to evict the BJP from Delhi.
But the elephant in the room is the leadership question. Despite a now-bitter-now-bland relationship with Congress, she has perforce to accept the truth that without Congress, it is difficult to stitch an anti-BJP front at the national level. At the same time, attaching too much importance to Congress would virtually mean pouring cold water on her own charisma which she is obviously loathe to forego. And it is this leadership issue that might queer the pitch for all the unity efforts. The wait has begun; one has to watch how she reconciles her more demanding role as a national leader with her existing avatar as the chief minister of West Bengal.
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