The crumpled sari is decidedly unaesthetic. So is the untidy hair and rough speech. But then if you are a lone woman without patronage or godfathers or family lineage, fighting a brutal Left Front machine for 20 years, perhaps you can’t afford the luxury of being a bhadramahila (genteel woman). Mamata Banerjee may be the object of elite derision for her wild ways, but the fact is that she is a remarkable politician, one who gives hope that the dream of Indian democracy is still alive. The Trinamool triumph in West Bengal’s municipal elections has created worry that West Bengal is going from the frying pan of the Left to the fire of the Trinamool. But there are many reasons to celebrate the victory.
The old man in a loin cloth, who knew that the biggest curse of our subcontinent is the elitism of its leaders and the wretchedness of its people, would shudder at the kind of democracy we are fast becoming. An exclusive band of super rich families controls Parliament. Sons and daughters are smoothly inheriting their parents’ political seats and legacies, accompanied and cocooned by corporate and social networks built over generations. A benevolent feudalism is replacing parliamentary representation, where the ‘leader’ builds his base among ‘his people’ in the spirit of the old zamindars rather than in the spirit of parliamentary democracy. We hear no passionate speeches in Parliament, we still don’t know what exactly motivates today’s MPs beyond family duties, we are not allowed to ask what the thinking is among the supreme leaders of the government. Politics is best defined as a contest of ideas. But we hear no new ideas, our politicians are not called upon to formulate new thoughts, because talking to the people or to the media is regarded with contempt by the new neo zamindars in their black-tinted Pajeros, who demand constant subservience.
If Pakistan had Jinnah’s Savile Row suit as the leitmotif of its politics, we had the loin cloth. The loin cloth was supposed to define our democracy, as a mark of constant identification, dialogue and contact with the people. Yet today the elitism of our politics is so entrenched that we are failing to generate mass leaders, or bridge builders who alone can heal the wounds created by our harsh social differences. The mass leader is extinct in India. Instead we are fast becoming a plutocracy like Pakistan where the jihadi is the demon child born from a terrifying world of opportunity-less destitution on the one hand and a closed super-rich world on the other. We must thank god for the Lalus, Mulayams, Mayas and Mamatas. Without them our democracy would be like Pakistan’s, a bonsai plant set out for international display.
We are not yet Pakistan because in our country a young plebeian woman Mamata Banerjee can even defeat a veteran communist warhorse like Somnath Chatterjee in that famous Jadavpur election of 1984. She can then rise through the party ranks, by dint of raw streetfighting and a rumbustious political style, to such an extent that Congress leaders can feel threatened enough to force her to leave and set up her own party. It is an irony that the very Bengal Congress leaders who blocked Mamata at every turn are now forced to survive on her whim. When Mamata Banerjee sat next to the train tracks at Jhargram, at the site of the tragic train collision insisting that she would not move until the last body was taken out, it was a political moment almost reminiscent of Indira Gandhi on an elephant crossing a flooded river to sit with the suffering villagers of Belchi. We’re used to seeing politicians at corporate gatherings or at conferences. We rarely see them sitting on train tracks. We see Left leaders holding forth on foreign policy but the Left must ask itself why today it has no leader like her. Mamata fought the Left for 20 years, never losing stamina even after the disastrous one seat showing of 2004. In the end voters rewarded her for her tenacity.
Yet Mamata Banerjee is not your textbook democrat or a reassuring force of governance like a Nitish Kumar. She’s seen as irresponsible, volatile, unpredictable, too inclined to dharnas and rallies and not the best performing minister. She was at the head of the rag tag coalition that drove the Tata plant out of Singur, her relationship with the Maoists is still unresolved, her constantly changing manifesto is based on negativism and the Trinamool still lacks the solid party organisation and base of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). There is every possibility that once in power, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee will struggle to govern, and much like Mayawati, err on the side of ad hoc populism. The Trinamool itself could run out of steam. Once the thirst for ‘parivartan’ has been exhausted, the party could lose its raison d’etre and be reduced to a regional rump or a one-woman band.
Yet the enormous significance of Mamata Banerjee is that in an era when mass leaders are an endangered species, she is a natural born mass leader who has climbed the political ladder by sheer public mobilisation. Look at the recent Rajya Sabha nominations. The sad fact is that salient, talented and important as all the Rajya Sabha nominees are, many of them would perhaps struggle to retain their deposits in a popular election. Our fashionable disdain for ‘netagiri’ has meant that mass movements in India have become de-legitimised and almost extinct.
But it’s the grassroots leaders who have the power to ensure that we do not become Pakistan where the rich control politics and the poor blow themselves up out of desperation, either as Maoists or jihadists. For better or worse, we still need our Mamata Banerjees.
Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal