May 14, 2011

Mamata Banerjee: Hysterics to history

   KOLKATA: From a street fighter to a change agent. And now an icon. Mamata Banerjee's single-handed demolition of the Left Front in Bengal is the stuff legends are made of.

Over the years, the Trinamool Congress supremo has transformed herself from the mercurial, impulsive boss of a regional party to the responsible leader of a state. The metamorphosis has come through times that have been rough, tough and testing. Under her, the Trinamool can now boast of stronger national ambition. All because a hurt, humiliated woman refused to be cowed down.

The impulsive Mamata, who went into isolation after she quit the NDA ministry in early 2001, held her nerve after the Jnaneswari Express disaster in 2006. She carved out a tangible development model for West Bengal using the railway ministry, which helped her earn the confidence of the industry without comprising on her achievements in Singur and Nandigram.

This was not the case in 2001. At the end of polling in the 2001 assembly polls, Mamata flashed the 'V' sign, only to shut herself in her modest home at 30B Harish Chatterjee Street, a nondescript locality in south Kolkata, after the crushing defeat. Those were the days when the only 'mantra' of Mamata's politics was blind opposition to CPM, when she would switch alliance without much thought so long as she was facing away from the Left. This was a time when Mamata liked to hog the limelight in her own party meetings by denying others present an opportunity to speak.
Not any more. "I am not going to resign. Even if there are accidents, I will not quit," she had said after the Jnaneswari Express disaster. For, she had realized that the railway ministry was important for her to do something positive for Bengal before the all-important assembly elections in 2011.

Despite a now-bitter-now-bland relation with Congress and the breakdown in seat sharing arrangement in the municipal elections in 2010, she did not leave the UPA, nor did she throw tantrums, correctly assessing that the relationship with Congress would be necessary to prevent a split in Opposition votes. It would also help immensely if she was on the right side of the Centre in the run-up to the elections. She rejected all overtures by BJP, realizing the importance of retaining Muslim support.

Embracing Rizwanur Rahman's family after the tragic death of the computer graphics engineer could have been part of a shrewd political strategy but the way she did it — with a humane touch — is remarkable and could be a lesson for leaders who would rather maintain a stiff upper lip.

Less obvious, but no less important, is the gradual shaping up of her political ideology. Those who admired Mamata for her raw courage against the CPM — that no other person in the Opposition could even remotely match — could find in her a mature politician who talked about "badal" (change), and not "badla" (revenge against CPM). "I am against CPM, but I am not against communists. There are good people among Left sympathizers, but they should leave the company of CPM which has lost its moorings and deviated from the path of socialism," she keeps repeating in public meetings.

Sensing the depth of the sentiment against forcible land acquisition, she took up in Delhi the question of amending the Land Acquisition Act 1894, a relic of the British era.

Her detractors are often sarcastic about the lack of sophistication in her speeches in public meetings, but this possibly builds a bridge with the poor and the uneducated who still comprise the multitude in Bengal. Her slogan — Ma Mati Manush — could touch hearts more than the Left jargons could.

There have been occasions when her supporters, some from Left background, would sing songs of the IPTA or lyrics from Salil Chowdhury during the anti-land acquisition stir. Mamata would sit in the audience and encourage speakers and singers to harp on the Left cause that the CPM party managers have unlearnt.

In an effort to build mass contact, she would walk tirelessly for miles on 'padyatras', something rarely done these days by politicians used to air-conditioned SUVs or bulletproof Ambassador cars. Mamata took meticulous care to prepare herself for these hardships — insiders say it would not have been possible without regular physical exercise. What is remarkable is her disregard for danger, as she does undergo considerable personal risk in such mass contact programmes.

The change has not come suddenly. The successive reverses in 2001 and 2006 assembly elections and 2004 Lok Sabha election gave Mamata time to reflect. "I would sit alone in Parliament and think," she had said on one occasion. She must have understood that with her brand of impulsive politics it would not be possible to achieve her goal of unseating the Left Front government. Then came Singur and Nandigram and she grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The maltreatment she had received when being brought from Singur to Kolkata in a police vehicle — which she recounted on occasions — must have steeled her resolve to fight till the last. It would have brought back memories of the brutal beating at Hazra crossing.

Gone were the histrionics — past acts like wrapping a shawl round her neck and threatening to hang herself in public or squatting in front of the chief minister's chamber at Writers' Buildings and being thrown out.
Instead, she stunned the government by the way she organized a 'dharna' outside the Nano factory gates at Singur and forced Tata Motors to withdraw, and at the same time garnered support of powerful people for her cause. Instead of trying to hang herself, she went on a life-threatening 26-day fast, knowing that in the land of Mahatma Gandhi fasting is more powerful a weapon than violence.

She also realized it would not be possible to fight this battle on her own along with the band of leaders who had left Congress to join Trinamool, particularly in a state where the Left ideology is deep-rooted.
She needed people who knew the agrarian scene, who could take on CPM on its own turf. Which made her turn to parties like SUCI, to former CPM leaders as well as Naxalites. Some of them played an important role in shaping Mamata's political strategy, helped her in winning the support of farmers in rural Bengal. She became the messiah of all victims of forcible land acquisition in the state and the rallying point of the multitude of poor people who felt left out as they were not with the ruling CPM.

This has admittedly made Trinamool a broad spectrum political party, with people from different walks of life drawn to it. Critics may call it a hotchpotch set-up, but Mamata has made it clear she wants to take everyone along in the road to prosperity for Bengal.

Today, Mamata, too, harps on the need for industrialization. But, she wants to take the public sector route. With the railway ministry under her control, she wants to make railway projects the fulcrum of industry in Bengal. Where private industries are concerned, she wants them to buy land on their own, allowing the market mechanism to operate down the chain. The Left Front's has been a mixture of laissez-faire and state intervention, allowing the private sector to do unfettered business, but the state acquiring land for them. It has paid the price for the confusion too.

Her plain saree, her hawai chappal, her 'jhola bag', her preference to travel in a non-air-conditioned small car, all these make Mamata a picture of plain living. Though her entire life revolves around politics, she is still an intensely private person, who likes to paint, write poems, take care of her mother, get up late but work till late in the night and eat 'muri' and 'telebhaja' over 'adda'. Even during the height of poll campaigning, when Mamata was travelling the length and the breadth of the state, she took time off to return to her Kalighat home on 'Nababarsha', the Bengali New Year's Day, to pay respects to her mother.

Administrative stints are not new to her, she has been railway minister and held other portfolios in the Union cabinet. Now one has to watch how she reconciles her personal life with her new and more demanding role as the chief minister of West Bengal.

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