She was uncomfortable sleeping on a bed kept at the makeshift stage at Kolkata’s Esplanade, where she was observing a hunger strike to protest against the Left Front government’s ‘forcible’ grabbing of land in Singur, West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee is used to sleeping on a smaller bed, that too inside a room not more than 80-sq-ft in area at her 30-B, Harish Chatterjee Street residence. “The vibration caused by vehicle movement and the sound caused a lot of trouble,” says Mamata.
Right now, the vibration caused by the movement of the Trinamool Congress storm troopers and the sound caused by her lung power is disturbing West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s sleep. Buddha must heaved a sigh of relief when Mamata eventually called off her 25-day hunger strike on December 28, after she was assured by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his fax that the CM would look into her demands.
After a drubbing in the May 2006 Assembly elections —where her party’s presence in the Legislative Assembly was reduced from 60 MLAs to 30, the firebrand leader is banking on Singur to catapult her back to the centrestage of Bengal politics. It may also help her get the support of the Congress against the Left Front. “I have nothing against the Tatas. But I cannot allow Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to forcibly acquire 1,000 acres of multi-crop land to set up a motor factory in Singur. You don’t need more than 300 acres to set up a factory. It can also be done on infertile land available elsewhere in Singur,” she says agitatedly.
What has further incensed Mamata is the chief minister’s ‘obstinacy’. He requested her to call off her hunger strike but refused to accept her demands till pressure came from the PM and President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Buddha then agreed to talk to Mamata. “He is uncompromising. The land forcibly acquired in Singur has to be returned and the Section 144 which has been imposed has to be withdrawn,” she says.
Bhattacharjee, of course, knows that if he backtracks in Singur because of Mamata, she will project it as a victory. In the process, she will stop him from acquiring land in other parts of Bengal to initiate urbanisation, industrialisation and the setting up of Special Economic Zones (SEZ). “The Tata factory will come up in Singur,” he says. “It would be better if she sits with me to discuss industrialisation in West Bengal,” he says.
Buddha knows better
As deputy to former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, Buddha, as he is popularly known, witnessed Mamata’s rise in state and national politics. She first made headlines as general secretary of the All India Youth Congress.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, when senior West Bengal Congress leaders such as Pranab Mukherjee, Ajit Panja, Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi, Somen Mitra and Subrata Mukherjee chalked out party strategy inside the cool environs of the party office, she hit the streets to make life difficult for Basu.
Mamata soon caught the attention of central Congress leaders and went on to become a Union minister for the first time under former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao. She was a close associate of Rajiv Gandhi. But her relations with West Bengal Congress leaders deteriorated during Sitaram Kesri’s AICC presidentship. Finally, when Mamata lost the PCC presidential elections by a thin margin to Somen Mitra in 1996, it was the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. “The election was manipulated and I was convinced that state Congress leaders had become a B-team of the CPI(M) in Bengal. To fight the CPI(M), I floated my own party, the Trinamool Congress, in 1997,” she says.
The party fought its first Lok Sabha elections in 1998 and won four Parliamentary seats. In the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, Trinamool MPs won eight seats. “With a strong anti-Communist wind blowing in Bengal, Mamata became the mascot of anti-Left politics. In 2000, Trinamool won the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC). Subsequently, it managed to wrest three seats in the Rajya Sabha too,” recalls Ajit Panja.
In 1999, as NDA member, Mamata became the Union railways minister. But in 2001, to the then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee’s surprise, she resigned from the ministry in the wake of the Tehelka scam to contest the Assembly elections. This was the beginning of a downward slide. She left the NDA and contested the election with the Congress. The result: Mamata lost the Assembly elections and subsequently the KMC too. She blamed it on the scientific rigging by the CPI(M) and returned to the NDA, rejoining its Cabinet as coal minister in 2004. In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, Mamata was the only Trinamool leader who won her Lok Sabha seat. Her other party colleagues, including Panja, lost.
Mamata’s allegations of scientific rigging against the CPI(M) didn’t hold ground in the 2006 Assembly elections, when, under the strict supervision of the Election Commission, her party managed only 29 seats in the Assembly poll.
“A major factor behind Mamata’s poor performance is the lack of party organisation at the grassroots level. Until that improves, she will take a beating from the CPI(M),” says a senior Trinamool Congress leader.
Keep them guessing
Her present dilemma emanates from her indecision on whether to leave the NDA again to ally with the Congress. She is unwilling to speak her mind though. Instead, Mamata has decided to go it alone in Bengal politics, it appears. “We have an anti-Left stand in Bengal. Whichever party is interested in fighting the CPI(M) is welcome to join us in our movement against the anti-people policies of the government. There is no question of explaining whether I am with the NDA or with the Congress,” she says.
But Mamata’s leanings are clear. She entered into an electoral adjustment with the Congress in the Malda Lok Sabha elections and the Bongaon Assembly by-poll. But the honeymoon was shortlived as in the Islampur Assembly by-poll, in a triangular contest, the CPI(M) emerged victorious.
Despite this, Trinamool insiders say that Mamata prefers the Congress to join her fight against the CPI(M) in Singur. She sought support from AICC president Sonia Gandhi, who told her to get in touch with Margaret Alva, AICC general secretary in charge of Bengal. But she is also grateful to the former AB Vajpayee-led NDA team that imposed tremendous pressure on the PM and the President to make her call off her 25-day hunger-strike. As of now, Singur is her launching pad to regain her lost glory. As she recently put it: “In the coming months, there will be political movements in all those places where the CPI(M) is forcibly grabbing land in Bengal. And Bengal will show the way to India on the question of acquiring lands from the farmers and SEZ.”