Mamata’s metamorphosis

HUM HINDUSTANI: Mamata’s metamorphosis —J Sri Raman

The new Mamata was born the day — October 20, 2005, to be precise — she protested against the state government’s grant of land in Howrah to the Indonesia-based Salim Group of Companies

We know how leaders can evolve from heroes and heroines, if not quite to zeros, certainly to vote-losing villains for their parties in electoral politics. Indira Gandhi, once hailed as the brave liberator of Bangladesh in 1971, lost her halo after the episode of an unpopular emergency and the general election in 1977. Her son Rajiv, riding to power on a popular wave in 1984 after her assassination, fell to the Bofors gun scam five years later. India has known many other examples of such transformation on both the ruling and opposition sides.

Seldom, if ever at all, however, have the battles of the ballot resulted in the reverse of this phenomenon. After covering parts of a dozen general elections down four decades and more, this reporter can recall no instance of any politician of a seriously sullied image acquiring a second avatar as a people-sought saviour.

What we are witnessing today is an exceptional case indeed. Whoever would have expected, just a few years ago, to see Mamata Banerjee as the white hope of West Bengal — and that too of the part of the state’s political spectrum that claims to speak for the least compromising section of the Left?

Fifty-five-year-old Mamata, familiar to all television-watchers today as the shrillest voice of the country’s ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and its government, was not like this always. Far from it. She, in fact, was one of the faces of what quite a few of her present-day admirers of a pure Left used to characterise as ‘semi-fascism’, especially in the 1970s.

The metamorphosis of Mamata is brought out clearly in the columns of Frontier, a Kolkata-based periodical that has given itself the role of a radical crusader against the mainstream Left, particularly the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI (M), ruling West Bengal for 23 years now. Frontier, a fierce critic of Mamata and other firebrands of the anti-Left Youth Congress two decades ago, is currently her warm friend and campaigner.

Columnist Sankar Ray is among the many engaged in the campaign. In a recent article, ‘Why Mamata differs from Mayawati, Jayalalithaa’ (Express Buzz, August 16, 2010), he takes up cudgels against those comparing her with other ‘strong’ women leaders of regional politics. They might all be “authoritarian”, he says, but “on one point Mamata is distinctively different and qualitatively higher. That is the support she enjoys from well-known intellectuals comprising scientists, former…officers of unquestioned integrity, academics of standing, artistes, civil rights activists and litterateurs of repute.”

Octogenarian writer Mahasweta Devi, with outstanding works on tribal communities to her credit, goes even further. In a recent media interview, she says: “Acceptability to the masses is a politician’s greatest test and (Mamata) has passed this test with panache. And it is this acceptability that makes Mamata a great leader of the people. It is a very rare quality we found in another great leader of our country — Mahatma Gandhi.”

All this august company may be uncomfortable even to Mamata, who started her political career in the West Bengal stable of Sanjay Gandhi. Indira’s younger son took advantage of the emergency to rise to premature political stardom at the head of a Youth Congress that supplied anti-Left storm troopers in the state.

Installed as the general secretary of the Youth Congress, she joined the P V Narasimha Rao government in 1991 as minister of state for human resources development, youth affairs and sports, and women and child development. She lost this job in 1993, but she has ever since been returning to the cabinet in New Delhi, regardless of political dispensations, and making her mark in rather muscular ways.

At a public rally at Alipore in Kolkata, in the aftermath of her exit from the Rao regime, for example, Mamata wrapped a black shawl around her neck and threatened to make a noose with it. In July 1996, she squatted at the well of the Lok Sabha — the lower house of India’s parliament — to protest against a petroleum price hike, though she was part of the government. In the heat of the moment, she shook Amar Singh of the Samajwadi Party by his collar, with the victim’s then impressive size adding to the countrywide applause for her spirit.

In February 1997, when Minister Ram Vilas Paswan was presenting the railways budget, Mamata threw her shawl at him for ignoring West Bengal’s demands and announced her resignation. She quit the Congress and launched her Trinamul — grassroots — Congress, which soon became the main opposition to the Marxist-led state government.

In 1999, she joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and was allocated the prestigious and politically attractive railways ministry. Presenting her first railways budget next year, she fulfilled many of her promises to her home state.

In early 2001, she walked out of the NDA regime, proceeding to ally with the Congress in West Bengal’s 2001 elections, only to return to New Delhi as the coal and mines minister in January 2004 and held the post until the general election in April-May that year.

She continued to entertain the gallery and the country when she had no portfolio. In August 2006, she hurled her resignation paper at the Lok Sabha deputy speaker to protest the rejection of her adjournment motion on ‘illegal infiltration’ by Bangladeshis in West Bengal.

She might have gone on in this fashion if the issue of land acquisition for industrialisation had not taken the Left Front government in her state and the Left as a whole in the country unawares and unprepared. The new Mamata was born the day — October 20, 2005, to be precise — she protested against the state government’s grant of land in Howrah to the Indonesia-based Salim Group of Companies.

In November 2006, Mamata Banerjee was forcibly stopped on her way to Singur for a rally against a proposed Tata Motors car project. Mamata reached the West Bengal Assembly and addressed a media conference right there. While she called for a 12-hour shutdown of the state, her party men damaged furniture and microphones in the House.

Her next opportunity came with the plan of the state government to start a chemical hub in the Nandigram area for employment generation. Mamata’s call for a months-long blockade of the area to prevent the project led to clashes between the police and the local people. This was the time she began to acquire the halo and stature of a saviour of the people in the eyes of human rights activists and the non-party Left.

Meanwhile, Mamata became railway minister for the second time in 2009. During her new tenure, the Indian Railways has set a new record of about 200 accidents in 14 months, according to an unofficial estimate. The safety of her political journey in West Bengal, however, seems assured.

There was a time when a section of the mainstream Indian Left used to warn against the ‘blind anti-Congressism’, meaning opposition to the Congress of the kind that did not see the larger threat from the far Right. Mamata’s deification by intellectuals frustrated and disappointed with the Left, functioning with all its limitations, may illustrate a similar danger.

The writer is a journalist based in Chennai, India. A peace activist, he is also the author of a sheaf of poems titled At Gunpoint

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