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Mamata makeover

There is this open secret that everybody knows ... More than the affairs of the Indian Railways, her gaze this time is intently fixed on the 2011 assembly elections of West Bengal. Srinannd Jha reports.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2009 23:38 IST
Srinannd Jha
Srinannd Jha
Hindustan Times

“I see no change at all in her (Mamata Banerjee). She … wears a mask. She is always giving false hopes and doing mischief.”
Naxalite leader Azizul Haque

“As far as I have known her, she was never a fickle-minded person. She has always been a very able administrator and a very good mass leader.”
Painter Shuvaprasanna

At the end of the day’s work in her previous tenure as Railway Minister 10 years ago, Mamata Banerjee used to be in the habit of falling back to a compulsive routine.

That was being host to scribes (a majority of them from the Bengali Press) at tea sessions that — to the huge annoyance of officials of the minister’s secretariat — often extended into late evenings.

Banerjee remains on friendly terms with pen-and-notebook journalists, but as regards her diatribes and crackling jibes against political opponents (read Left), she seems to be saving up her best quotes for the electronic media (read Star Ananda).

The metamorphosis of Banerjee’s persona has been happening in other ways too. The “street-fighter” politician image has come to acquire an intellectual shield of sorts — thanks to the community of artists, poets and filmmakers who have been drifting to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) camp in droves. She told Hindustan Times: “I am evolving as the stronger challenge to the CPI(M) with the support of the people.”

In her brief stint as Railway Minister in 1999-2001, Banerjee initiated measures to enable the commercial utilisation of the extensive optical fibre cable (OFC) network of the Indian Railways, and had even sought to restrict her own powers by putting a cap on the numbers of free rail passes that could be issued at the minister’s discretion.

In this term, her only visit to a railway centre outside New Delhi and Kolkata has been to Anantnag — for the inauguration of the extended section of the Kashmir rail line project. She has been handing out official patronage — including free railway passes — to TMC supporters who are essentially domiciled in West Bengal. And — as a matter of routine — she is in New Delhi for only about a week each month.

In short, there is this open secret that everybody knows, but Banerjee is unwilling to admit: More than the affairs of the Indian Railways, her gaze this time is intently fixed on the 2011 assembly elections of West Bengal.

Correspondingly, with the pace at which the TMC has been gaining ground in West Bengal, Banerjee has acquired a new spring in her gait, a fresh dazzle to her smile. People close to her say that she is these days taking extra care to dye her hair and is even getting facials done.

The TMC brand of politics has undergone a major shift in recent years. Banerjee — known for her proclivity to call bandhs (shutdown) at the drop of a hat — declared two years ago that her party was opposed to demonstrations that disrupted life. “The change has brought Banerjee closer to the middle-classes and has shaken the ‘red presence’ at urban centres,” a veteran Banerjee watcher said.

People such as Nayana Bandopadhyaya, Shatabdi Roy, Tapash Pal, Saoli Mitra and Shuvaprasanna share a common thread: All of them are connected to the world of art and today considered to be in the railway minister’s close circle of friends.

Arguably, Samajwadi Party General Secretary Amar Singh is the only other politician who can boast such a wide circle of friends among filmstars and artistes.

Banerjee's slogan before the 2001 election in West Bengal was 'now or never'. It goes to her credit that she has another chance to win power.

With inputs from Arindam Sarkar and Joydeep Thakur in Kolkata