Mamata Banerjee’s politics seemed doomed after the 2006 assembly elections in West Bengal in which her party won just 30 of 294 seats. Even she couldn’t have dreamt of the turn of fortunes before the year was out.
In November 2006, Purnendu Basu, a Marxist-Leninist trade union activist opposed to the Left Front, met Banerjee with the findings of a committee he had sent to Singur, to the west of Kolkata, where the Tata Group wanted to set up a plant to assemble the Nano.
“People are unwilling to give away their land for the factory and you should lead the opposition to the project,” Basu proposed.
That was the turning point for Banerjee, a mercurial leader whose political philosophy has been vague, rhetoric inconsistent and alliances whimsical. Since the founding of TMC in 1997, she has allied with the BJP twice and with the Congress once. Banerjee announced a fast against land acquisition in Singur. By the time the fast ended after 26 days, Bengal was boiling and Banerjee had found a political life.
She was reborn as a sort of Leftist and by 2010, she was calling CPI(M) leaders “pseudo followers of Marx and Lenin.” By implication, she claimed to be the real Marxist.
Basu, now the principal ideologue of the TMC, is more direct. “Every real communist must accept Mamata Banerjee as their leader and join the Trinamool Congress.” Basu says TMC has “abandoned
the Congress culture and moved to the left”.
“There was one condition each from both sides when independent left groupings and Banerjee decided on a joint political course in 2006. We wanted her to have nothing to do with the BJP; she asked us not to leave her midway,” Basu recalls.
Since then, Banerjee’s politics has moved to the left. “In order to attract corporate capital, the Left had to change its traditional rhetoric. There was a political vacuum that Banerjee quickly occupied,” says Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.
“Culturally, West Bengal is pro-Left,” points out Basu, explaining the shift.
“She understands that the Left Front cannot be challenged on a right wing agenda. She is therefore pretending to be left,” says Prasenjit Bose, convener of CPM Research Cell in Delhi. Banerjee has, by design or default, left her political thinking a work in progress. While she was in Congress —until 1997 — she accused her opponents in the party of being on the take from CPI(M). Her numerous books only talked about her “sacrifices” and grudges.
“In none of her books does she offer any opinion on the emerging set of complex economic and social issues in the state or the country, nor does she single out the policies of the Left Front for any intelligible criticism,” says Bhattacharyya.
So what does she think now?
“We are against the misuse of resources — human and natural. Our mission is: work for all, food for all,” says Basu.
But how can this be achieved in the absence of industry and capital? “We are against monopoly capital, malls and big shopping complexes. We are for agri-based industries, animal husbandry, handlooms and self-sufficient village economy. We are against economy of super profit, we are for economy of social necessity,” he says. This may all sound good, but may be woefully inadequate to deal with the Bengal situation.
But Banerjee is simultaneously riding not two, but at least three boats. She has gathered the traditional left voters dejected by the Left Front’s policies, the ultra-leftists who always thought of the CPM as bourgeoisie and also the traditional right wing and feudal interests.
She has people like Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia and former Ficci secretary general Amit Mitra in her camp along with the likes of Basu. She has also attracted a good section of the Muslims who always felt secure under the CPM regime.
The demands from these sections are contradictory, making her politics unstable. The CPI(M) is pinning its hope on this. “Mamata has coopted the entire right wing opposition. She is also getting some deserters from the Left, using some Left jargon and practices. There is a disconnect in this and this will have an electoral impact,” says Nilotpal Basu, CPI(M) central secretariat member.
The elections will, perhaps, show who is a better communist in Bengal.