Friday, 22 July 2011

Bengal's 'I Do' to Kum. Mamata

Even as supporters thronged, the media frenzied and cries to paint Writer’s building green rent the air, Mamata Banerjee displayed uncharacteristic calm in her greatest moment of victory – very unlike her firebrand political persona which danced in anti-Emergency angst on the bonnet of Jayaprakash Narayan’s car. Ensconced in her modest Kalighat home with her mother and sister-in-law, Mamata waited to emerge till the last ballot was counted and the result declared in her favour. Not smug, simply smiling, her Bengal dream realized 25 years after her first electoral victory.
Born to a lower middle-class family, Mamata’s political exposure began while attending rallies with her father, a trader and Congress worker. She has since learnt the game bottom-up, working her way through the party’s student wing and then the Mahila Congress. With a background in Islamic studies and later Law, she became one of India’s youngest parliamentarians at 31, beating the mighty Somnath Chatterjee in Jadavpur, 1984.
Even as Mamata held down Cabinet and other ministries in successive Congress governments, her rather antic-ridden political career made Mamata the grand old party’s newest problem child. (Eyebrow-raising incidents include wearing a noose in protest of a petroleum price hike, grabbing MPs by their lapels and once, hurling her resignation papers at the Speaker.) Her frequent campaigns against the Congress, while part of the Congress, led to the creation of her independent regional outfit – the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), focused solely on furthering Mamata’s interests in West Bengal. Her band of followers have remained faithful right through.
But TMC’s trajectory, much like its founder’s, flopped a few times before the coin could flip in its favour. The rocky alliance with the NDA in 1999 (which “permanently spoilt BJP’s chances in the state”, Uma Bharti recently claimed) ended in 2001. Her reconciliation with the Congress for the Assembly polls the same year, she hoped, would send the Commies packing.

It didn’t. Not even the second or third time. Mamata would have to wait for Nandigram and Singur for the tide to turn.

The anti-land acquisition agitations in the two farming districts in 2007 and ‘08 and the ruling Left’s unjustifiable use of force to crush them marked Mamata’s re-entry on the state’s political stage. She rallied, she protested, she was out in the streets with the rest of Bengal, giving them an alternative to the 34-year long Communist regime.
Their definitive acceptance of her has let her sweep the polls since – the panchayat elections in 2008, the Legislature in 2009, Kolkata’s municipal polls soon after, and now, Bengal itself.
Even if it’s her political strategy and flair for attention-grabbing that still defines the Banerjee brand, Mamata has no doubt mellowed over time. Now, while TV cameras record her 25-day fast or protests in pouring rain, they also lend airtime to her painting, music and frequent creative expressions. The conscious move to better PR has not gone unobserved.

This evolution could possibly be attributed to her early political success being tempered by a string of defeats. What started out as a lone woman’s stand for development in her state has expanded, magnanimously some would say, to include perspectives and opinions from across the socio-cultural spectrum. The TMC, a party which housed forgettable faces except for Banerjee the star, now includes several popular and respected Bengali names. Equally surprising is her recently-acquired gizmo consciousness. Could her conversion to Blackberry-ism indicate her openness to change, and possibly modernity? The rest of India was as amused when they learnt of the new goings-on in Bengal – unstarched white sari, unkempt look, Hawai chappals, and now, also an iPad.

But does this overwhelming mandate imply that the people trust Mamata to get the governance job done? Her past ministerial stints have been unremarkable. In fact, her most recent tenure as Union Railway Minister was driven with single-minded zeal to bless Bengal. Besides a new rail coach factory, a huge chunk of new trains and proposed new lines, nursing and medical colleges, and a decongestion plan for the Kolkata metro, about 58% of the stations identified for upgradation to Adarsh status in her 2009 Rail Budget were in her home state. And while this ‘Big Bong Budget’ as it’s been nicknamed is infinitely desirable to her slightly more narcissistic woman Chief Minister contemporaries, it still gives the observer nothing substantial to go by.
The whole country will be watching her every move as Chief Minister. How will she approach development works? What will her stand be on the Maoists and Gorkhas? Is the Bengali change of heart a knee-jerk reaction to the previous government’s antagonizing moves? Or can we tag this defection by the state’s farmers and intelligentsia – historically Leftist – permanent? It all depends, it would seem, on whether Didi can make ‘Ma Mati Manush’ a reality.

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