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Mamata Banerjee

Love her, hate her, but you can't ignore her. Trinamool Congress chief is temperamental, at times even supercilious, but always on her voters' mind.

india Updated: May 10, 2004 12:49 IST
Indo-Asian News Service
Indo-Asian News Service
PTI
Hindustantimes

Raising her clenched fist every now and then, a squat, austerely dressed woman speaks to a large crowd gathered on a parched paddy field.

Only lusty cheers from the crowd of illiterate peasants and their women folk interrupt her rabble-rousing, occasionally incoherent, speech.

"You grow only one crop annually because you don't have the means to grow more. They want to kill me, but I'm with you till the last drop of my blood," the leader thunders from the open podium. "I've promised not to enter the Writers' Buildings (the state secretariat of West Bengal) until I have thrown out the (ruling) Communists," she says. "You will have to help."

More cheers follow as the stormy petrel of Bengal politics tries to feel her rural voters' pulse.

Love her, hate her, but you can't ignore her. Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee is always on her voters' mind.

Temperamental, at times even supercilious, Banerjee lives by her impulses rather than political reasoning -- an uncanny trait that has stood her in good stead, yet prevented her from attaining higher political eminence.

Her impulsive nature is seen as frivolity and political imprudence by a vast section of the educated middle-class here that is beginning to distance itself from her.

But the theatrics, the melodrama that is Banerjee's political life, has kept her in circulation.

"She is the only honest politician. She feels for the poor," says Mohammed Nasiruddin, a farmer in Kumrakhali village on the southern outskirts of the city that falls under Banerjee's South Kolkata parliamentary constituency.

West Bengal goes to the polls May 10 in the last round of voting.

Banerjee's main rivals in her constituency are Communist Party of India-Marxist's (CPI-M's) Rabin Deb and Congress' Nafisa Ali, a well-known socialite-activist but a political greenhorn South Kolkata's voters can hardly relate to.

Banerjee's campaign managers don't have to convince the people that she is always there for them.

"Your didi (elder sister) comes to even your neighbourhood functions. How many leaders care for their voters as much?" Trinamool workers ask voters at street-corner meetings.

Most voters agree.

"She is indeed one politician who is not disconnected from her voters," says Shobhan Sarkar, a grocery shop owner.

But Banerjee's appeal is not omnipotent. Her political sagacity is doubted by a big section of the educated middle-class that was once her assured vote bank.

Her popularity peaked in 2001 when she was railway minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

But a surprising decision to quit the government and align with the Congress to fight the West Bengal Assembly polls in May 2001 did not go down well with many people. She lost badly in the elections.

Her political fortunes plunged further when she returned to the NDA fold - her position in the coalition compromised considerably.

"She is indecisive, easily influenced and capricious - qualities that certainly don't qualify a good leader," says Rudra Basu, a market researcher.

Her political indecision not only cost votes for her party but also sowed seeds of discontent in the party with at least one key leader, Sudip Bandopadhyay, quitting and contesting the election as an independent.

"Mamata Banerjee couldn't seize her opportunity, and now it's gone for good. Thanks to her the leftists continue in power untroubled," moans Mita Dutta, a consumer activist.

But despite the odds, Banerjee retains her hold on her constituency.

A pre-poll survey by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) shows that she would retain her own seat with 58.8 percent votes. But it is unlikely her party would be able to upstage the ruling Left Front.