Mamata Banerjee’s major entry into politics 25 years ago had been dramatic. She was in politics earlier too. But that doesn’t matter.
In 1984 she won against CPI(M) stalwart Somnath Chatterjee from a constituency where the Left was invincible. But she was helped by the fact that it was the first overall jolt that the Left got after 1977. But it did not take long to recover from this.
Laughable were her pre-election theatrics. She went to Chatterjee to touch his feet and seek his blessings, but was denied the privilege.
What came immediately after her victory was Act I Scene II. We heard before the election that a PhD holder in history from South Georgia University in the US was contesting the CPI(M) heavyweight. United States Education Foundation of India Regional Officer Uma Dasgupta clarified that such a university did not exist even in name.
A bit of light comedy still remained. The alleged PhD holder’s alleged PhD dissertation was on ‘The influence of the Mughal harem on contemporary politics’.
The next drama in which Banerjee was involved was notoriously tragic. At a peaceful procession in Calcutta, some thugs of the ruling formation pounced on her and led an assault that could have killed the lady. She survived, the thugs were arrested and some of them later joined the BJP — Banerjee’s political ally in 1998-99.
Thus the stage was set for the rise of Banerjee as a politician. She created scenes and wrote her script. She won again in 1991 (following her defeat in 1989), after touching Jyoti Basu’s feet. Basu has always been less abrasive than an average communist.
She became a minister in Narasimha Rao’s government. In 1992, when a young man was killed in police firing in Calcutta, she visited the victim’s family and inquired why Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee — then the home minister — did not come to see the bereaved parents. “If I, as a central minister can come, why can’t he?”
In 1998 before the election, the Left took her on and raked up the hazy tale of her alleged US PhD. A Mamata supporter — supporter on the rebound because he wouldn’t support the Left — stood up for her: “Perfectly possible. The university must have awarded the degree and folded up later. These things happen.” His thinking was obviously too powerfully influenced by our experience of private universities in Chhattisgarh.
As chief minister, when Basu once met Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, she (as his railway minister) remarked: “We must find out whether he (Basu) asked for personal favours.” Was it her turn to be influenced — by the idioms that her supporters use? And was it proper to use such words about a man whose blessings she once sought?
Banerjee’s audience in her play would do well not to hold her hostage. She would do well to be their leader, not the other way round.