West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (Photo: Getty Images)
BENGAL’S BIRBHUM DISTRICT, the home of Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan, produced two Brahmin politicians of repute. Both have been regarded by their followers as having a Machiavellian thinking prowess. The two are Pranab Mukherjee and Mamata Banerjee. But there is a difference. While the late president of India failed to make the grade as a mass leader, the lady who could convincingly upset the applecart of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah’s grab plan of Bengal has always enjoyed a mesmeric hold over the people of her state. Generations of her detractors—of Congress, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) or Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—began by ignoring her, even humiliating her, but finally ran for cover before knowing what hit them.
Out and out a ‘Youth Congress’ product of the Indira Gandhi years, in the 1990s, Mamata Banerjee objected to her party making too many adjustments, and too often, with the Left Front, led by CPM under the Kaiser-like leadership of Jyoti Basu. She often alleged that her party’s top leaders were sold out to the communists. Her picturesque way of describing them was the fruit tormuz (water melon), green without but red within. When she failed to sell this narrative to her party, she split it in 1998 and formed her regional party, Trinamool Congress (TMC). The stub of Congress that remained in Bengal has been finally liquidated in this election—with not a single candidate who could retain his deposit. Then came the turn of CPM. Jyoti Basu, a bar-at-law with Mohan Kumaramangalam and Indira and Feroze Gandhi among his London friends, had of course started his political career in India as a Marxist trade unionist. But he had little taste for streetfighters like Banerjee, the types who would betray their class by joining their ‘class enemy’. Besides, they would even show the gall to attack the secretariat, Writers’ Building, his own ‘No 10 Downing Street’! The real situation, involving a surging crowd of Banerjee’s supporters near Writers’ Building, could be defused with a tad more diplomacy but CPM was adamant. In the ensuing police action, on July 21st, 1993, 13 Youth Congress supporters died. Later, SB Chavan, the then Union home minister, came to Kolkata and requested Jyoti Basu to order an inquiry. But Basu was unmoved. “The police have done a good job,” he said.
And that tragedy, apart from marking the point from where urban public opinion began turning against the Left Front, also put Banerjee way ahead of others in the race for popular leadership. But Congress never recognised it. And that led to her rebellion and the formation of the All India Trinamool Congress. It was catalysed by the foolishness of the then state Congress leader Somen Mitra, the opportunism of Pranab Mukherjee, a self-appointed super-leader of the Bengal Congress, and the rudderless state of the central Congress in the interregnum between PV Narasimha Rao and Sonia Gandhi. In 1998, Banerjee, known for her ability to draw sketches fast, drew the election symbol of her fledgling party, twin flowers growing from a bed of grass. She was inspired by a line of the revolutionary Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam: ‘ek brinte duti kusum Hindu-Musolman (Two flowers on one stem, Hindu and Muslim)’. It was a meaningful idea, but its time hadn’t come yet.
In the 13 more years that went by till the Left Front’s 34-year-rule ended, Mamata Banerjee never relented in the chase of CPM. It was like Captain Ahab and Moby Dick. But there is a difference. While the elusive whale, at the end of Herman Melville’s revenge saga, dragged the captain to the bottom of the sea, CPM in Bengal all but perished. And there are no remains of the red flag after this week’s election results. But Banerjee is firmly entrenched to rule Bengal for a third term.
WITH BJP, BANERJEE’S equation started on a different note. To the Sangh Parivar, Bengal has always been the final frontier. BJP’s ‘Great Duo’ of the past, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, diligently cultivated Banerjee in the 1990s. It paid off as she joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and, by 2000, became a minister in the Vajpayee Government. She got the railway portfolio and launched at express speed the trains that are household names in Bengal even today, like the Sealdah-New Delhi Rajdhani Express, or the Sealdah-New Jalpaiguri Padatik Express. Such ministerial postings for her were off and on, though. With an eye on future inroad in Bengal, BJP was clearly looking for a conduit and was measuring Banerjee as a possible candidate. For Banerjee’s part, ideology didn’t matter as she continued in the NDA bandwagon even after the 2002 Gujarat riots. All she needed was a strong enough platform to sail through to power in Kolkata. And, after NDA’s 2004 defeat, it had outlived its utility as a plank. For TMC, still a member of NDA, the outcome of the 2006 West Bengal Assembly election was a disaster, with the party winning 34 seats and BJP none.
By then, she had probably done some introspection and found that Delhi and Parliament were not her place for the moment and, after Basu’s exit from the government and the untimely death of Anil Biswas, the crafty state secretary of CPM, the red behemoth had got infested with woodworm. In her social conduct, Banerjee had always been an inclusive person who did not look at any community as a ‘vote bank’. However, it struck her that the Muslims of Bengal, who constituted 27 per cent of the state’s population, and generally voted for CPM and Congress, were much aggrieved by the publication of a report by the committee headed by Justice Rajindar Sachar. It not only painted a bleak picture of the Muslims’ standard of living in India, including Bengal, but showed them to be worse placed than Dalits. The Nazrul line that prompted her to draw her party’s poll symbol now rang in her mind again.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, successor to Jyoti Basu as chief minister of the Left Front government, too, was aware of the problem of growing Muslim frustration. But his party was run by a Stalinist bureaucracy steeped in an artificial class calculus with little perception of the dynamic of castes and communities. On the reform question, Bhattacharjee’s prescription was to introduce modern Western education. But he also wanted large private industrial investment in Bengal, and that was a miscue.
A shrewd observer of her opponents’ vulnerabilities, Banerjee knew that Muslims in Bengal, with their low profile as jobholders, mostly owned agricultural land, even though most plots in the densely populated state are tiny, like pocket handkerchiefs. By then Chief Minister Bhattacharjee, lauded by business tycoons as well as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as “industry friendly”, had been itching to become a sort of ‘Bengal’s Deng Xiaoping’, offering a huge tract of land to the JSW Group for an integrated steel plant at Salboni in the Maoist-infested Jangalmahal area, 10,000 acres at Nandigram (the constituency where Banerjee narrowly lost) for a Special Economic Zone by the Salim Group of Indonesia, and another 25,000 acres to Salim for a slew of infrastructure projects. The jewel in the crown of Bhattacharjee’s land largesse was 1,000 acres of prime agricultural land at Singur, only 37 kilometres from the state capital of Kolkata, to the Tata Group, to set up a factory for the Nano car project.
The battle that ensued to prevent the state from acquiring private land at Singur and Nandigram found a place in the state’s social history. On the people’s side, Banerjee became the supreme commander. Small farmers, landless workers, tenant farmers, the local rich who are moneylenders too, the rural middle class—they were complemented by waves of people who were sulking for decades at CPM’s iron rule. Coming from all corners of the state, they included radical poets and singers, activists with known Maoist links, teachers and students. Significantly, CPM, feared for its fabled organisation, was conspicuous by its absence. Obviously, 34 years are too long a span for any political party to keep its fighters battle-ready. And Muslims obviously found their new messiah.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani diligently cultivated Mamata Banerjee in the 1990s. With an eye on Bengal, BJP was clearly looking for a conduit. All she needed was a strong enough platform to sail through to power in Kolkata. And, after NDA’s 2004 defeat, it had outlived its utility as a plank
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The 2011 Assembly election in the state not only saw the end of the Left era, it witnessed a large migration of the strong-armers sheltered by CPM, and the police under its government, to elements under the new regime. All were not welcome, nor would all agree to shift. Many of those who stayed back in the Marxist party finally deserted the red flag to join BJP, the rank newcomer to the state, in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. They still constitute most of the BJP rank-and-file in the state. Since 2011, however, Mamata Banerjee left the party’s internal dynamic largely to her powerful lieutenants like Mukul Roy (who defected to BJP in 2017) and Subrata Bakshi, Rajya Sabha member. Mamata Banerjee, for her part, began consolidating her support base among the people through a raft of welfare schemes focused on women. They echoed the style of the late Jayalalithaa. They came in a torrent. Kanyashree, the flagship scheme, launched in 2013, empowers the girl child by funding her education through three stages—K1, K2 and K3—finally rewarding her right up to the post-graduation stage, if she is not married off by then. Till 2018, over 48 lakh young girls reaped its benefit. Sabuj Sathi, the ‘green companion’ of students, both girls and boys, of Classes 9 to 12, is a bicycle to make it easier for them to attend classes without frequent truancy. The eight million green bikes have noticeably improved school attendance. Swastha Sathi, a cashless group health insurance for regular or casual government employees; over 60 lakh individuals and their family members are entitled to its benefit. Shikshashree, a scholarship for Scheduled Caste (SC) students of Classes 5 to 8, its beneficiaries number more than five million. Shishu Shathi, a programme to provide free-of-cost surgical operations for children up to the age of 18. It covers treatment of congenital cardiac diseases, cleft lip/palate or club foot. Khadya Sathi, a scheme to give five kilograms of rice or wheat per family member per month at the fixed price of Rs 2 per kg; its benefit reaches 86.6 million people, or 90.6 per cent of the state’s population.
The schemes mentioned above are only the most talked about ones. There are many more that have become so much a part of life in Bengal—and it is difficult to remember them particularly as government welfare schemes. In Banerjee’s Bengal, the state has a benign existence in every home, like a caring ‘Didi’, the moniker that she earned.
As a politician, Mamata Banerjee is as tough as nails, a fact that Modi and Shah may have grasped by now. They were proved wrong because they underestimated Banerjee’s enormous ‘soft power’ which, as the originator of the term Joseph Nye said, is the ability to ‘influence’ the behaviour of others to get the outcome one wants without forcing them. Vajpayee, who had even visited Banerjee’s modest house at Kalighat and touched the feet of her mother, Gayatri Devi, understood the significance of soft power. But his successors do not. They thought they would win by carpet-bombing the state with brassy campaign speeches and flashy remarks. It boomeranged as Banerjee had touched the hearts of just too many of her people with the care of a true sister.