Mamata phenomenon

Published : May 18, 2012 00:00 IST

Kolkata, December 29, 2006: Mamata Banerjee announcing the end of her hunger strike of 25 days against the proposed acquisition of land for Tata Motors' small car project in Singur.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

Kolkata, December 29, 2006: Mamata Banerjee announcing the end of her hunger strike of 25 days against the proposed acquisition of land for Tata Motors' small car project in Singur.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

MAMATA BANERJEE is today perhaps at the pinnacle of her political glory. She is the Chief Minister of West Bengal and a key player in national politics. And she has a place on the Time magazine list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

In May 2011, she achieved her ambition of more than 30 years of becoming the Chief Minister by defeating the CPI(M)-led Left Front government. The road to the top took years of blood, sweat and guts, mixed with a brand of populist politics that was at once shrewd and theatrical, and a willingness to make compromises at the altar of political expediency. But, above all, was her indomitable spirit.

Born on January 5, 1955, in Kolkata, Mamata Banerjee lost her father, Promileswar Banerjee, when she was very young and grew up amid a lot of hardships. She entered politics in 1970 through the Chhatra Parishad (students wing of the Congress) while still an undergraduate in Jogamaya Devi College. She quickly established herself as a force to be reckoned with and came to the notice of senior Congress leaders.

She became active in the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and was made secretary of its women's wing. In 1980 she became secretary of the South Calcutta District Congress, a post she held until 1985. The mid-1980s was also when Rajiv Gandhi identified her as a future force in the Congress.

Her first big break came in the Lok Sabha elections of 1984, when she beat CPI(M) heavyweight and veteran parliamentarian Somnath Chatterjee in Jadavpur constituency, then a Left stronghold. Even though the Congress was riding a sympathy wave following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, it was a huge victory for 29-year-old Mamata. It was from this point that she began establishing herself as a politician and a mass leader by working indefatigably with Congress workers at all levels and earned for herself the sobriquet Didi or elder sister.

In the 1989 general elections, which were marked by an anti-Congress wave in the wake of the Bofors scam, she lost the Jadavpur seat to Malini Bhattacharya of the CPI(M). The following year she was attacked in broad daylight by CPI(M) activists when she was leading a procession. It almost killed her, and the incident is now an integral part of the Mamata legend of a fearless fighter who is not cowed down by the threat of physical violence. She returned to the Lok Sabha from Kolkata South constituency the next year and in every subsequent election until she gave up the seat to contest in the Bhabanipur Assembly constituency in 2011.

The year 1991 was a significant one in her life. She lost her mentor, Rajiv Gandhi, that year and was made Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Women and Child Development, and Youth Affairs and Sports in the Narasimha Rao government. However, her stint at the Centre was fraught with conflict. Political differences led to threats of resignation by her, much like what happened later when she was with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

In 1998, she broke out of the Congress and formed the Trinamool Congress. The following year she joined the NDA and was made Railway Minister. However, she continued with her politics of resignation, which gave her a reputation of being unpredictable. But in 2000, after she wrested the Kolkata Municipal Corporation from the CPI(M), Mamata Banerjee believed she had a chance in the Assembly elections the following year. She also realised that being with the BJP would alienate the Muslim vote a crucial factor in West Bengal politics. She threatened to resign in 2000 over the hike in petroleum prices and eventually did in 2001over the Tehelka expose. She then formed a hasty alliance with the Congress to take on the Left Front in the Assembly elections. This decision was seen as opportunistic by voters, and the Trinamool Congress lost badly.

Mamata Banerjee returned to the NDA and in 2004 was given the portfolio of Coal and Mines. From this point her career started plummeting. After the Lok Sabha elections that year, she was the only one from her party in Parliament. The following year she lost control of the Kolkata Municipal Board, and the 2006 Assembly elections proved disastrous for her party.

Just when it seemed all but over for Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress, she found the perfect springboard for her return the CPI(M)'s land acquisition policy for the setting up of industries. She launched her agitation against Tata Motors' small car project in Singur, which was widely expected to be a catalyst for the State's industrial resurgence, and succeeded in forcing it out of the State. She fought a grim and bloody political battle in Nandigram in Purbo Medinipur after 14 people were killed in police firing when they were agitating against alleged land acquisition.

The Left Front suddenly found that its rural support base, which had never let it down since 1977, was now on Mamata Banerjee's side. She had by then left the NDA and was confident of securing the minority vote. The 2008 panchayat elections were a warning for the CPI(M), which secured less than 50 per cent of the gram panchayats. Just before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, she joined the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and trounced the Left Front. The following year she won back the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, and in 2011 she made history in West Bengal by achieving what many had thought was an impossibility: she unseated the Left Front that had been in power for 34 years. With this spectacular return from the political wilderness, she proved again that however down and out she may be, she cannot be written off.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay
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