What makes Mamata tick? The enigma that is Mamata Banerjee — in a white cotton saree and bathroom slippers with blue straps and the quickest possible temper — has not quite been decoded almost two years after her transformation from Didi of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) to Madam Chief Minister of West Bengal.
But a lot of eyebrows that were raised since her sudden rise in Bengal politics still stay arched. Hindustan Times scoured through the state with these questions and found that, surprisingly, anonymity had become a universal condition for any kind of communication, especially on Madam CM and the ring of her close aides.
Observers cutting across political lines have come up with three separate factors that roughly define Mamata’s political strategies: practising the politics of impertinence; constantly repeating and re-engineering history; and relentlessly struggling for higher stations in life — sometimes at the cost of the very people who had once rallied around her.
Persecution and paranoia
How does she keep her grip tight over her flock? What goes on in her mind, or are her detractors right in insinuating that thought rarely drives her actions? Has she really been able to consistently puzzle pundits simply because her strategies are simple street-level tactics? Add to it her refusal to let people — including her own — speak out or take decisions independently.
Has Madam CM unleashed a reign of terror in her state? “Not really. Not yet,” says a political activist. But those with even faintest links with the Left — including, of course, the Maoists — are taking great pains to remain incognito. They most certainly do not wish to be quoted. One never knows…
A civil society member, close to Mamata during the movements against land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram during the Left Front regime, agreed to speak, but refused to be quoted. “When an innocent spoof can send a university professor to police lock-up, where is the guarantee that I will be spared?” Even Left leaders do not want to talk, he said, except at public forums.
Yet, Mamata insists that the charges of rape, farmers’ suicides, government inaction and deterioration of the law and order in the state are all part of a conspiracy to defame her. She even does not rule out the possibility of an assassination plot.
The early years
The struggle for a place in politics began very early in Mamata’s life — at Ashutosh College in south Kolkata, while she was still a small-time leader of the students wing of the Congress. Never a brilliant strategist or a sophisticated thinker, say her compatriots from Ashutosh College, but she was always a keen student of street-fighting skills.
But those who took part in student politics with her during the early seventies, still remember her as a spirited and caring person. Deepak Haldar, who lives on the outskirts of Kolkata and works for a nationalised bank now, said, “Even during the early days, she was fearless and her struggle against poverty and all odds in life found expression in her politics.”
Even then, as a college student, Mamata was an earning member of her family. From her earnings from private tuitions, she even managed to save a little for her friends. Some remember the snacks she used to cook for them, especially the spicy curried potato dish she liked to share with her friends.
When they got into trouble with the police, she was the one who bailed them out. And gradually, she earned her place in party circles as the only firebrand the police were scared of. Even after becoming CM, she marched into a police station to bail out some of her party cadres, who had allegedly attacked the police.
All through that rough trek up the hill, she was fighting her own demons — mediocrity, poverty and the ignominy of being a non-entity. But most of all, she was fighting the Communist Party of India (Marxist), on all fronts
and going to the extent of refusing to mix milk in her tea, lest it turn
red — the colour she identified with the communists.
A Kolkata-based psychologist, who has been following “the rise and rise of Mamata Bannerjee”, said she must have been so desperate to push her way out of poverty and the curse of being a non-entity, that she grabbed every opportunity to get noticed and finally challenged the triumvirate of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress — Pranab Mukherjee, Priyaranjan Dasmunshi and Somen Mitra.
In the seventies, when Mamata was nowhere near the driver’s seat in West Bengal politics, the CPM accused the Congress of being the party of the moneyed class. The Congress called the CPM the ‘Maku Party’ — Maku being a Bengali nickname for Karl Marx.
In public meetings, leaders of The Youth Congress, which was a formidable political force during Siddhartha Sankar Ray’s regime spanning from 1972 to 1977, gleefully informed their audience at public meetings that they had found out that the word “Maku” meant “no” in one of the regional dialects within the erstwhile Soviet Union.
The charge that the Left banked on the politics of negation was not new. That kind of politics helped the Leftists convince the masses to suspect everything that those at the helm of power did — and to believe in whatever the Leftists had to say.
Mamata learnt from the Left. She took the easiest route — replacing negation with insolence, since her first enemy was the huge machinery and larger-than-life leaders within her own party who, incidentally, underestimated her street-fighting skills at their own peril. For Mamata, impertinence got her what obedience would never have. So much so that after Indira Gandhi’s death, Rajiv identified her as the rising star of Bengal and brought her to Delhi’s corridors of power.
A long road to the top
Thus began the next phase of Mamata’s political journey to the centre of Indian politics. This time, her tool was the poorest of the poor, initially nurtured by the Left but ignored subsequently. Once in government, the Left parties leant more ardently towards the urban middle class and the rural gentry.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s death, Mamata lost her special place in the Congress and reinvented herself to emerge with her own outfit. But she turned out to be too individualistic. The politics of impertinence that she continued to practise had its limitations too.
A party that could sever Left politics from its very roots in Bengal and simultaneously sideline the Congress was set up hastily without a proper hierarchical structure. She managed to muster the support of only low-rung leaders of the Congress.
Then she found the chink she was looking for in the well entrenched political parties in her state. She spotted the biggest aspiration of her target audience, the poor. The urban poor wanted jobs and any sort of jobs to survive. The marginal farmer was desperate to cling onto the land he got through the land reforms initiated by the Left Front government, which it then “conspired” to take away from them in the name of industrialisation.
But has Mamata been able to build a government that delivers? Can she afford to allow her leaders to function with limited independence? Does she have to take all the decisions in the government and the party?
Kabir Suman, composer, singer, poet, scribe and MP of Mamata’s party who later fell out with her, says the TMC is like a Durga image, where everything — the goddess, her children and even the buffalo demon — is Mamata. The others are supposed to only worship her.
Now that the first part of her dream of ruling West Bengal has been achieved since she has captured Writers’ Building, the ‘red’ brick building that symbolises power in the state, she seems to be disinterested in keeping her pre-poll promises.
Governance is boring since it does not satisfy her instincts of a warlord, says a TMC leader who had till recently been a close aide of Mamata. He says she is in constant need of new battlefields to stay relevant. She only knows how to lead processions and strategise street fights.
Here is an anecdote that is considered ominous in TMC circles. A few days before the 2011 assembly elections in West Bengal, Mamata suddenly summoned one of her close associates to have tea with her. The associate, not a seasoned politician, had some influence over Mamata.
As soon as he arrived at the TMC boss’ Kalighat home, she called him into a room and closed the door, forbidding others to enter, and begged him to stop them from forcing her to become chief minister. “I know how to get the chair, but I don’t know how to keep it. I will be a disaster.”
What lies ahead for didi
A high-profile TMC leader said on condition of absolute anonymity: “The government is not functioning. No one can take any decision or clear any file without the chief minister’s permission. And she is interested only in national politics. She has bigger ambitions.”
When asked, a top-ranking leader of a Left Front constituent said, requesting anonymity — this time fearing the wrath of Big Brother — that it’s time Mamata’s days of Left-bashing should end since the Left had practically played out its role in history.
He said she has to repeat history now: attacking her old enemy, the Indian National Congress. “She needs a new opponent to keep the political heat on. She wants a still higher station in life.”
Mamata’s success in Bengal makes her return to the politics of impertinence mandatory, too. And for that, she needs issues — be it the fuel price hike or FDI in multi-brand retail business.
But rallying people against a government located in distant Delhi and whipping up rural people’s passion against a benevolent face with a turban and issues as foreign as foreign direct investment is proving to be much more difficult this time.