One day in late 2010, India’s union railway minister pushed the Mayor of Kolkata into a swimming pool. It was all in good fun, but as the official emerged from his dunking, he must have reflected on the aptness of adjective most often used to describe Mamata Banerjee: Unpredictable.
After three decades of unconventional politics, Mamata, now West Bengal chief minister, retains the ability to surprise. She’s a firebrand fighter for farmers’ rights; at 59, she can be giggly and girlish but make insensitive remarks on rape cases; she is often the vengeful dictator out to correct decades of perceived wrongs committed by the Left.
Heading into next month’s polls, she has declared that her Trinamool Congress will be the third largest party in the Lok Sabha after the BJP and Congress, targeting a haul of 30 seats out of 42 in the state; she has also supported Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa’s long-shot claim for the top job.
In typical Mamata fashion, she is likely to keep the nation guessing. She cannot betray a soft corner for the BJP early, given her minority vote bank; her stand will become clear after results are declared on May 16.
In 2011, she kicked the Left out of Writers’ Buildings, ending their 34-year tenancy. Her own rule has been patchy: A poor record on attracting investment, a penchant for controversy and allegations of megalomania. But she has managed to restore peace in the Maoist-infested Jangalmahal region and brought the warring Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leaders of Darjeeling to the negotiating table.
During her years as an opposition leader, she hardly slept at night. She was endlessly on the phone, demanding that her troops in the districts resolve peoples’ issues. She was a habitual late riser.
Over the years, she has turned into a fitness freak and frugal eater. The treadmill is a favourite and dinners are often a chapatti, vegetables and a piece of fish.
But her popularity among common people is a constant. Many wait hours for a glimpse of her. In 1989, when she was brutally attacked by a CPI (M) goon and seriously injured in the head, she lay unconscious in a nursing home for days. Hundreds spent sleepless nights outside, praying for her.
Mamata is raw emotion and drama: Incensed by corruption in the Congress (she broke away to launch the TMC in January 1998), she once threatened to strangle herself with a black shawl. She chose a youth Congress rally as the occasion to quit Narasimha Rao’s cabinet.
Which is why she is a piquant ingredient in the 2014 cooking pot, and why every step of hers will be watched.