The lane leading to 30 B, Harish Chatterjee Street, close to the Kalighat temple in south Kolkata, is crowded on most days. But for the past three days, a fresh fervour appears to have gripped its residents.
“Didi, didi, this way”, goes the chorus, as the lady emerges from the tiled house. Some dive at her feet, others attempt to garland her.
Her neighbours in the dingy lane have closely witnessed the dizzy rise of Mamata Banerjee. From a student leader at the Jogmaya Devi College to the firebrand minister who is close to dislodging the 33-year-old communist government in West Bengal, she has come a long way.
Banerjee’s political career is divided into three phases. First, as a young Congress worker, she trounced CPI(M) heavyweights such as Somnath Chatterjee in the 1984 Lok Sabha polls. In the second phase, between 1991-1997, she ran an almost parallel Congress organisation in Bengal that would later evolve into the Trinamool Congress. In the third phase, between 2006 and 2010, she spearheaded the Singur and Nandigram agitations, trouncing the Left in most elections held since.
Most of her life as Congress member was spent trying to convince the party leadership about her credentials as the only leader who could give the Left Front a run for its money.
Banerjee’s spunk impressed former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. After his death, she got a ministerial berth in the P.V. Narasimha Rao Government. The same minister sat on a dharna against the government over the Terrorists and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act and fought the Pradesh Congress Committee elections against party satrap Somen Mitra. She lost and realised that the manner in which state leaders perceived the Congress should function and the way she saw it were different.
In 1997, her relationship with the Congress leadership reached a nadir, when, during an AICC session in Kolkata, she launched the Trinamool Congress. Her flirtation with the BJP began and she fought the 1998 Lok Sabha elections with the saffron party. After a repeat performance in 1999 she became Railway Minister.
Banerjee soon began to grow uncomfortable as her BJP connection was alienating her Muslim voters. A stir over kickbacks for the purchase of coffins for the army gave her the opportunity to wriggle out. In a hurriedly cooked alliance with the Congress, Banerjee fought the 2001 assembly polls and lost. She could not counter Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s popularity and the simultaneous backstabbing by a section of Congress leaders.
The National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP was a natural choice once again. But the Godhra riots further alienated her Muslim supporters and the 2004 Lok Sabha elections saw her party win just one parliamentary seat from Bengal: Banerjee herself. In the 2006 assembly elections too, her party fared badly.
In almost three-decade long political career, Banerjee has remained an enigma. Her now-legendary mood swings have baffled even those close to her. She has often behaved rudely inside the Parliament and was even spotted hurling the “resignation letter” at the speaker.
One of the lowest points of Banerjee’s career came in 1989 when she lost in the Jadavpur Lok Sabha polls to Malini Bhattacharya. More than the defeat, she became an object of ridicule for using “Dr” in her posters during campaigning. She defended her “degree”, but nobody could trace the East Georgia University that had conferred her the honour. In 1996, she attempted “suicide” by threatening to hang herself with a shawl accusing the Congress leadership of doling out assembly tickets to “criminals”.
Banerjee’s split personality has evoked veneration and wrath from admirers and rivals respectively. Says senior journalist Manojit Mitra: “She is strange mixture. It is difficult to understand her appeal with our urban educated sensibilities. But she attracts the masses like a magnet.”
“She talks something in the morning and the opposite in the evening”, says West Bengal CPI (M) secretary Biman Bose.
After hours, didi, as she is popularly known, loves humming Tagore songs and playing the synthesiser. She also paints, mostly flowers and Lord Ganesha. She is on the treadmill at least once a day. Before and after her workouts, Banerjee works on her books — at last count she had written 17.
Histrionics aside, Banerjee is one of the few Indian leaders who reach out to the common man in his own language. She often travels to remote villages to comfort grieving relatives of a party man. Reporters recall villagers leaving their meals and rushing out to have a glimpse of her motorcade.
The agitation over Singur and Nandigram, which began in September 2006, revived Banerjee’s sagging political career. Her protests against land acquisition made her the darling of the rural masses, Left loyalists for long. The Communists gave in meekly and the Nandigram project was scrapped. Banerjee reaped rich dividends in the panchayat polls of 2008. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the one-MP-party bagged 19 seats.
There has been no looking back since. Whether it was the assembly by-elections or the school committee polls, the Trinamool Congress emerged as a formidable force in Bengal.
Didi is smelling victory: She knows that the governance of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, which she wrested from the Left on Wednesday, will have a direct bearing on the real McCoy in 2011.
If recent poll results are any indication, Banerjee is inching closer to the red building at Dalhousie Square. For the past three days, she has remained huddled with top Trinamool leaders. “There is no governance in Bengal right now. I want early elections,” she said on Thursday.