Mamata Banerjee: The snake goddess arrives

Kolkata May 13, 2011 (Calcutta Tube / IBNS): If the cheapest car of the world proved  dearest for a Marxist government that was once thought invincible, the journey of  Mamata Banerjee from the repeated electoral defeats of her party in state polls to the final conquest of the Red Citadel built over 34 years is no less theatrical, adventurous,  excruciating and historic.

The story of Mamata Banerjee’s final victory over communists is like the story of Hindu snake goddess Ma Manasha, the daughter of Lord Shiva who had to use all her tricks, energy and power to finally get people to worship her on earth.

But this time the signs were unmistakable.  The forecast of a gathering tornado before the communists of Bengal was made convincingly by political pundits and psephologists with the rise of Mamata Banerjee following her relentless fight against the ruling Left Front which antagonized the people with their unilateralism and land acquisition policies.

For long a large section of people in Bengal actually were voting against the communists. But Mamata Banerjee finally translated the anger against communists into votes and votes into seats  and seats into a government that would now replace a communist regime of 34 years.

So West Bengal’s new chief minister would be Mamata Banerjee. The present Railway Minister is 56, a single,  a firebrand politician and she lives an austere life in a humble asbestos-roofed dwelling in south Kolkata by the side of a putrid canal that however carries water that is drawn from the holy Ganges. Her fashion statement is a simple colourless cotton sari, a pair of hawai chappal (rubber sandals) and often a cotton bag (the famous Bengali jhola) slung from her shoulder.  A born fighter, she also paints, writes, recites and sings Tagore songs, all of it without the inhibition of any pseudo cultural refinement.

The journey was not easy. She not only fought her former party Congress’s proximity the Leftists or the organised communists but the apathy and sarcasm of Bengal`s unkind and judgemental educated social class who would refuse Mamata the power she craved for and fought for and deserved perhaps some years back.  Her story here is thus like the story of snake goddess Manasa, who was refused obeisance by the arrogant merchant Chand Saudagar, who would worship Lord Shiva but not his daughter Manasa.

Mamata Banerjee was born  on Jan 5  1955, in Kolkata to a lower-middle class family to Promileswar and Gayatri Banerjee.  She began her political career with Congress as a student leader and became the general secretary of the Congress state women wing.   She earned fame- or rather some infamy- for her protest before the car (she allegedly danced on the bonnet) of socialist leader Jayprakash Narayan.

Mamata majored with History from the Jogamaya Devi College, under Calcutta University. Later she earned a master’s degree in Islamic History from the University of Calcutta.

But the turning point of Mamata Banerjee came in 1984 when she became a giant killer and pitch-forked herself in the rough-and- tumble of national politics that is intrinsically linked to the state from where she hails.

This year she became one of India’s youngest parliamentarians ever, beating  Communist stalwart and later Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, from the Jadavpur parliamentary Constituency in greater Kolkata. She also became the General-Secretary of the All India Youth Congress and became one of the leaders close to the late Rajiv Gandhi.

But West Bengal remained Mamata’s priority  and her single point agenda was defeating the communists. In 1991, Banerjee fractured her head in an attack by Lalu Alam, a rowdy of the CPI-M, at the famous Hazra crossing of Kolkata, the scene of many protests by the leader in her neighbourhood.

The day of reckoning for that attack perhaps finally arrived on May 13.

Mamata lost a  seat in 1989 in an anti-Congress wave,  but came back in 1991 general elections, having settled into the Calcutta South constituency. She retained the Kolkata South seat in the 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009 general elections.

In 2004 when all other members of her party Trinamool Congress lost, she could manage to hold on to her seat. In 2004 Lok Sabha elections, she was the only Trinamool Congress MP from West Bengal.

In the Rao government   in 1991, Mamata Banerjee was made the Union Minister of State for Human Resources Development, Youth Affairs and Sports, and Women and Child Development.   She was discharged of her portfolios in 1993.

Differences with Congress party and the party’s leaders policy of cozying up with the Marxists had by then came in the public. In 1996 there was high drama in Alipore in Kolkata when she wrapped a black shawl around her neck and threatened to immolate herself.
Her outbursts, sometimes physical actions, in Parliament were also objects of ridicule, but Mamata Banerjee despite all the barbs and sarcasm stuck to her goal- opposing the Left in Bengal.

Finally in 1997 she resigned from Congress and formed the All India Trinamool Congress, the party which in the 14th year in 2011 of its establishment felled the mighty Left Front.

In 1999, Mamata Banerjee made the gamble of joining the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. She knew she would be losing the Muslim votes for joining the saffron alliance, but she still chose to join the NDA owing to her differences with the Congress.

She became the Railways Ministry.

The first taste of victory in West Bengal came in 2000 for Trinamool Congress when they won the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
The next year, she quit NDA cabinet and again went back to hold the hands of Congress though that did not translate into much seats in West Bengal state elections. The alliance could garner only 86 seats.

Mamata Banerjee lost the Kolkata corporation in 2005, owing to defection of mayor Subrata Mukherjee to Congress again after she fell out with her former colleague.

But 2006 assembly polls came as a shocker for Mamata Banerjee. Trinamool Congress could win only 30 seats while the Left Front boasted its 235 seat strength in assembly and set out to industrialize West Bengal in its own terms.

But 2006 also became a turning point for Mamata Banerjee with the outbreak of  the Singur movement. The communists seized about 1000 acres of land in the fertile region of Singur, barely 40 km from Kolkata, against the wishes of the farmers to hand over the plot to Tata Motors for building a plant for the ultra cheap Nano car.

Mamata Banerjee began a hunger strike for the farmers of Singur at Esplanade East in downtown Kolkata and her fast continued for 25 days in December that year, earning her an iconic status as a peaceful protester. Singur was followed by the CPI-M atrocities in Nandigram. Now Banerjee found a support group in the people of Bengal and the intelligentsia.

The killings, rape and recapture of Nandigram by the armed cadres of Left, where the communists wanted to set up a chemical complex and a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) was the ultimate nail in the coffin of the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government.
Banerjee`s political ambitions met a match in the  clamour for change by Bengal intellectuals, especially those who are not just disgruntled defectors of the red camp but those who owed their success to talent and hard work and not favours distributed by the Marxists.

While the bigwigs of Bengal cultural world revolted, the Marxists were left with a motley group of small time actors and intellectuals, majority of whom joined the red camp even before they carved out an identity for themselves in their individual fields. Some of these filmmakers and playwrights ended up making campaign films and plays for Marxists before their own works attained critical acclaim even nationally, or poets whose claim to fame have been through their TV attendance to hold briefs for the Marxists.

Nandigram and Singur produced huge political mileage for Mamata  Banerjee.  In  Panchayat elections in 2008, her party fared well. Also her Singur movement succeed around that time with the Tatas deciding to pull out of Singur in 2008 and located in Gujarat.
By then Mamata is a national icon for farmers’ movement.

While the Left accused her of colluding with the Maoists, Mamata launched a political battle against the communists in the regions where the red rebels were running their writ and killing the communists. She even made an appearance in the Lalgarh area of West Midnapore.

With the Left meeting repeated electoral setbacks, the fortunes of Mamata rose.  In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls she pulled off another victory by bagging 19 MP seats from West Bengal.

Bagging 19 MP seats alone was no small achievement after her single seat status in 2004. Her alliance partner Congress bagged six. Mamata thus reversed the fortunes of 2004 when she had won only herself.

In June 2010, Trinamool Congress fought municipal election alone and swept the state.

A jittery Congress had not other choice but to form alliance with Mamata for the  assembly polls and accept the number of seats she offered.

With a landslide victory in 2011, Mamata Banerjee thus scripted a story of an extraordinary politician whose single minded opposition to the Left Front made her a symbol of fight against the communists of Bengal. She is truly the snake goddess Manas of Hindu mythology. She finally earned her worship in West Bengal.

– Sujoy Dhar

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