Open Essay

Mamata Banerjee: The Iron Sister

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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The strongwoman with a human face

WHILE OTHERS TRIED to outdo the Bharatiya Janata Party in belching fire and brimstone at Pakistan or retreated into cowed silence, Mamata Banerjee lashed out at Narendra Modi in terms that recalled Émile Zola’s ‘J’Accuse!’, the letter that famously led to the end of that shameful outburst of prejudice and persecution that was France’s Dreyfus scandal.

‘Most people start their life with an aim,’ Banerjee once wrote. ‘I too had a dream. Mine was to do something different—to look at politics from a humanitarian angle.’ And so she did in challenging Modi on the timing of the Pulwama tragedy, its relevance to the Lok Sabha election, the massive “intelligence failure” it revealed, and insufficient respect shown to the victims. Yet, even in her fury the Bengali Chief Minister is not unlike the Gujarati Prime Minister. Both are intensely political, proudly solitary, sharply incisive. Didi, elder sister, is Modi with a human face. Her “What was the national security advisor doing?” wasn’t a question. It was a blistering indictment. That perception enables her in these dire times to appreciate Omar Abdullah’s plea that “Kashmir isn’t just a piece of land, it’s the people that inhabit it” and seek a humanitarian solution to the most daunting challenge India faces.

She alone dares to broadcast what others mutter in secrecy for fear of provoking vengeful authority. Her criticism of the Prime Minister for inaugurating projects just after the killings broke the taboo on personal strictures against Modi. The media savaged Indira Gandhi who was worldly enough to take criticism in her stride. But the Life Insurance Corporation’s suspension of an employee in Durgapur or the charges slapped on a Guwahati college teacher confirm that today’s authority hits back hard. Didi is prepared to take the risk because she cares.

She is no goongi gudiya. But, then, Indira Gandhi soon shrieked out of court Ram Manohar Lohia’s dismissal of her as a dumb doll. Mamata Banerjee is equally vociferous. She is no doll either. She is calculatingly impetuous, humbly haughty, austere and flamboyant, a daughter of the people bundled in a cotton sari flip-flopping up the greasy pole in rubber slippers as she has done ever since 1984 when an unknown young girl felled the mighty Somnath Chatterjee.

Since the illusory mahagathbandhan hasn’t chosen a leader (nor decided on its foot soldiers), she can’t be called prime minister-in- waiting. But—echoes of the ‘historic blunder’ that denied Jyoti Basu the ultimate accolade—the BJP’s Bengal satrap, Dilip Ghosh, says, “If there is any Bengali who has the chance to be the PM, then she is the one.” The compliment could be a trap. Having had so many unlikely political bedfellows, Didi understands devious machinations to subvert the opposition alliance. She once knotted a black shawl round her neck at a mammoth rally and threatened to strangle herself because she suspected the Congress of being secretly in cahoots with the CPM. Her suicidal dramas, like her indefinite fasts, begin in a blaze of raucous publicity, but peter out in silent obscurity.

The year after she became Chief Minister Time magazine named her one of the ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’. Bill Gates praised her eradication of polio as a milestone not only for India but the world. Unlike many successful female politicians, she did not need a man or a murder (multiple murders in Hasina Wazed’s case) to rise. Her reticence on prime ministerial yearnings recalls Morarji Desai who snapped at the reporter who asked if he wanted the top job, “Don’t you want to be editor?” She didn’t repudiate Anna Hazare who backed her for the position. Instead, she dismissed the notion of a Third Front—the mahagathbandhan of that era— as “third class” and sought a “federal front” which she could dominate. Understanding the dangers of a one-to-one contest between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, she sees herself as destiny’s instrument to cleanse the land of saffron as she rid Bengal of red.

She is calculatingly impetuous, humbly haughty, austere and flamboyant, a daughter of the people bundled in a cotton sari flip-flopping up the greasy pole in rubber slippers as she has done ever since 1984 when an unknown young girl felled the mighty Somnath Chatterjee

The last-minute cancellation of last year’s trip to China because she would not meet people of the “appropriate level” betokened confidence in her destiny. India’s potential prime minister refused to hobnob with anyone lower than the seven members of the standing committee of the Communist Party of China. She has to be strict with Marxists and Maoists, her favourite terms of abuse. Adding insult to injury, India’s foremost Marxist, Sitaram Yechury, forged a pre-poll alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam President MK Stalin (surely a Bolshevik, with that name?), without so much as a by-your-leave to the Trinamool Congress chief.

Thankfully, she nipped in the bud subversive plans to pair Kolkata with Kunming. Some colleagues might have hoped that with Darjeeling in ferment, the lakes and hills of Yunnan would provide pleasant alternative R&R. But just as Didi boasts of creating London and Paris in Kolkata, she can create Yunnan and Kunming too. If the trip hadn’t fallen through, a replica Great Wall of China might have snaked its way through the dereliction of Tangra. It would have joined copies of Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower (and perhaps one day a giant Ferris wheel like the London Eye) to confirm Kolkata lives on imitation.

That’s modernity for a woman who proudly flaunts her lower-middle-class origins. She may not be sure of her birthday, but has her finger on the public pulse. It’s only Kolkata’s indignant elite that accuses her of leasing pavements to vendors, painting the city blue and white, slapping gold paint on stately colonial edifices, and festooning lamp posts with twinkling lights. Clearly, her pet contractors cheat her right, left and centre, for the paint is peeling and many lights have fallen off. What remains gives villagers something to gawp at in addition to Kalighat, the Victoria Memorial and Jadu Ghar, the Museum. With them behind her, Didi thumbs her nose at snooty critics.

Like Modi, she doesn’t take kindly to criticism. A farmer was branded Maoist and jailed for asking inconvenient questions about rising fertiliser prices at a public rally; an academic was both assaulted and arrested for posting a critical cartoon on the internet. She has stalked out of a national television talk show. In her rumbustious Lok Sabha days, she dragged Durga Prasad Saroj, a Samajwadi Party MP, by his shirt collar from the well of the House for daring to question the Women’s Representation Bill. On another occasion, she flung her shawl at Ram Vilas Paswan, then Union railway minister, for supposedly ignoring Bengal’s needs.

Despite occasional blunders, Mamata Banerjee hasn't abandoned her promise ‘to look at politics from a humanitarian angle’

A red band round her head (like the red ribbon round Empress Josephine’s neck which the guillotine nearly severed) advertised her escape from Marxist murderers. I listened to her roundly abusing Basu at the Indian Chamber of Commerce just before the patrician Marxist stepped down. “Only wearing a dhoti doesn’t make one a bhadralok, gentleman!” was her cutting finale, delivered to fervent applause by businessmen and industrialists who had applauded Basu the previous day. Her latest dharna during which she held Cabinet meetings in a police outpost and distributed gallantry medals from a makeshift roadside dais confirmed that—as with Modi—politics’ gain is theatre’s loss.

MAMATA BANERJEE STANDS with Indira Gandhi and Israel’s Golda Meir as “the only man in her Cabinet”. Even colleagues who badmouth her privately like Lord Carrington, Britain’s foreign secretary who once described his boss, Margaret Thatcher, as that “fucking stupid, petit bourgeois woman” love her. Partha Chatterjee, the industries minister, praised her so effusively in Singapore that “Singaporeans thought he might have been speaking of the Goddess Durga”. A Western high commissioner visiting Calcutta noted that Amit Mitra cancelled their confirmed appointment as soon as he discovered the Chief Minister wasn’t seeing him. She gives officials a patient hearing but they are not sure she even hears what they say. She treats her party with contempt knowing that the businessmen, writers, artists, actors and civil servants who clambered aboard her bandwagon when she swept like a hurricane through the state would just as happily serve the Left Front, Congress or BJP. Didi has no confidantes outside her family. Rumours abound about the influence exercised by her brothers and nephew, a Trinamool MP.

Saradha could be her downfall. Few of the more than 1.7 million investors—mainly low-income families—duped by swindlers in more than 200 Saradha companies have got their money back. Ready to believe the worst of Didi’s aides—not of her personally—they provide the BJP’s ammunition. “When a few thousand farmers lost their land in Singur and Nandigram, Didi fasted for days,” Amit Shah taunts. “But now that 17 lakh poor people have lost their deposits to the Saradha scam, why don’t you feel like fasting?” He has the answer. “You are not fasting because it’s your cronies who are involved in the scam.” One of them, Ahmed Hassan Imran in the Rajya Sabha, is accused of diverting Saradha funds to the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh.

The BJP’s creeping rise is another worry. It could herald the return of communal polarisation. Having earned the nickname of ‘Mumtaz Banerjee’ by offering namaaz in a burkha, finding legal loopholes to give mullahs an allowance, and claiming to have fulfilled 90 per cent of the Sachar Committee’s recommendations, Mamata Banerjee must feel particularly concerned. Reports of Muslims who abandoned the CPM for Trinamool defecting to the BJP seem like betrayal.

None of this would have mattered much if the promised poriborton, change, had taken place. Yes, villages now have potable water, electricity and better roads. But Trinamool’s manifesto spoke of turning rivers into highways, of Bengal as an ‘export hub’ and ‘logistics hub’ with ‘a transport corridor’ from Punjab to ‘Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and the entire Northeast region’. Didi promised a ‘scientific land map for every district’ with agricultural and industrial land clearly identified. Industry is still shy, jobs are scarce and educated young Bengalis have no option but to migrate to other states. Even the labouring classes have little employment when the only visible economic activity is building condominiums for which there are few takers.

For someone with the common touch, Mamata Banerjee sometimes seems strangely unsympathetic. Her initial response to the Saradha scam was “Ja gechey ta gechey…” (What’s gone is gone) although she did then create a Rs 500-crore relief fund. Introducing a new tobacco tax to raise money for victims, she urged people to smoke more. It was “a petty matter” when a student died in police custody. She dismissed a horrendous rape in fashionable Park Street as a “saajaano ghatana” or put-up job. When middle-aged Trinamool leaders dragged out and assaulted the principal of Raiganj College, she said the culprits were only “chhoto baachchaas” (small children). More recently, she accused her enemies of “making a mountain out of a molehill to tarnish the image of Bengal” when policemen stormed Jadavpur University in the dead of night to attack peaceful student protestors who wanted a fresh probe into a girl’s complaint of sexual harassment. These lapses won’t cost her the top job. What will is the emerging convention that failing a single-party majority, the President should first invite the head of the largest pre-poll alliance. That demands a mahagathbandhan before the election with her at its head. The obstacles and objections to that are obvious.

Despite occasional blunders, Mamata Banerjee hasn’t abandoned her promise “to look at politics from a humanitarian angle”. Amidst the upsurge of rattling sabres, boiling blood and hearts bursting with anger, she alone thought of the last rites for the dead jawans. Why were they not despatched with the honour given to politicians? “I demand 72 hours mourning for the ultimate sacrifice of the soldiers,” she thundered. “Only one flag is not enough.” Her politics is steeped in compassion.