Home / Opinion / The reinvention of Mamata Banerjee — from street-fighter to CM

A very well-connected Bengali political journalist narrated this to me. He went to see Pranab Mukherjee – then a full-time politician – before the 2011 West Bengal elections. As he is close to both Pranab babu and Mamata Banerjee, the journalist took the liberty of asking Pranab Mukherjee if he thought Mamata will be able to make the transition from a mercurial fire-brand opposition leader to chief minister easily. Pranab-da told him: “Why not – people grow and mature on the job, and Mamata is a quick learner".

This short conversation reveals as much about Pranab Mukherjee’s astute political instincts as Mamata Banerjee’s native political intelligence. It is this street-smartness that has brought her to a position where she is looking almost invincible as she seeks a mandate for a second term.

Come to think of it, it is the Left which never got out of its agitation mode and refused to govern, at least for the better part of its 34 year rule in West Bengal. By the time they realized the mistake, Nandigram and Singur had already happened and it was far too late for any course correction. Mamata on the other hand was baptized by fire – as it were — in Jangal Mahal followed by the Hills. She tackled both with a combination of political stratagem and shrewd administrative intervention.

From day one, Mamata Banerjee has tried to provide governance while continuously learning on the job. She recalled one of the brightest officers – among the few remaining Bengalis in the IAS from — the centre to be her chief secretary and gathered around her a bunch of competent officers – a good balance of experience and (relatively young) age. Perhaps, the biggest mistake of the Left had been to make the police and district Administration subservient to the local party bosses. In the case of Trinamool Congress (TMC), while insisting on alignment, Mamata Banerjee ensured the strings of administration were tied firmly to the CM’s office.

Non-politician professionals who were drafted into the party before the elections were advised to focus on their respective portfolios and keep their own counsel without becoming (TV) camera-hungry – as some of them were wont to do.

This apparent tendency to concentrate power with one individual may sound familiar. But, without getting into value judgment, that’s the way Indian democracy seems to work these days. Therefore, it would be unfair to pick on Mamata and label her a dictator. Sure she has an autocratic -“I know best" - streak, one can call her impetuous but not imperious like some of her female counterparts in other states.

After the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, there were apprehensions about another extended period of confrontation between the centre and the state at the cost of West Bengal’s development. But Mamata turned it into a game of dynamic tension generally loaded in her favour. She played a carefully calibrated strategy – keeping up a façade of hostility with BJP while flirting intermittently with the Third Front but maintaining a distance from Congress all along. Her class act was obviously deftly steering the TMC ship out of troubled waters in the Saradha chit fund scandal, which did not leave even a spot on her starched white cotton saree. Madan Mitra, who had to resign from her cabinet after being accused of involvement in the scam, was simply a collateral casualty.

If by turning the heat off on Saradha, BJP had hoped to reach a compromise with Mamata, it was disappointed. But even though BJP didn’t manage to get her consent on the Land Bill, on other legislation – that had no negative political implication for her - she didn’t side with the Congress just for the sake of opposing the BJP.

How she tackled the fall-out with Mukul Roy through this interregnum can be a case–study even for more seasoned politicians. That Roy is back, burying all speculation about his joining BJP or forming his own party, and now campaigning jointly with – wait, hold your breath – her nephew Abhisekh is testimony to her entering the league of J.Jayalalithaa, Nitish Kumar and Mulayam Singh Yadav.

For all the talk of her failing to deliver the promised “Poriborton" (transformation)- a counter-factual question would put the matter to rest: Where would West Bengal be today if the Left was had not been thrown out? I believe this is also the primary reason why people will vote her back to power. That is not to mean she would be re-elected only on a negative vote for the lack of any alternative. Truly she is the best bet for Bengal at this juncture.

In balance, Trinamool’s five year score-card though not spectacular is not below par either. If the Narendra Modi government can complain of the burden of legacy, Mamata Banerjee inherited a much bigger mess, including an empty treasury, systematically created over three decades of non-rule and misrule.

Where Mamata tied chains around her own feet is on the land policy. She has to bite this bullet sometime if West Bengal has to be brought out of the intensive care unit. Otherwise, a hundred Resurgent Bengal jamborees and road-shows will not bring investment to the state. However, if Mamata had tried doing it in her first term, it would have been political hara-kiri, like Modi realized in good time on the land acquisition bill.

On “Poriborton" Mamata has tried to “change" a lot since she came to power. Equally, it is also true that there are many things she has either not been able to change or chosen not to. In trying to beat the Left in its own game, she may have had to play by its rules. It can also be argued that some of it has been only relabelling – “lumpen-rule" by another name – with only the “price tag" of corruption going up from ‘Politburo’ administered pricing to a ‘free market’ model decided by local ‘Dadas’. But, by and large – statistics apart, which anyway tell a good story – even anecdotally Trinamool’s achievements are better than the average of other states in the last few years. One may question the valuation of her paintings, but at least she is not weighed in gold or garlanded with wreaths made of thousand rupee notes on her birthday.

On the communal harmony front – despite accusations of appeasement (unavoidable with a 30% minority population) - arguably West Bengal remains more peaceful than many other states. Of course, there have been sporadic incidents like Malda – where too it was quickly contained and not allowed to flare-up and spread.

Mamata Banerjee is undoubtedly the first chief minister of West Bengal after B.C. Roy who has displayed some concern for aesthetics. One can chuckle at her desire to turn Kolkata into London or scoff at the Trident Lamp posts now further embellished with white and blue LED creepers – but she is the only one who has made genuine efforts at giving the city and state a visible make-over and face-lift. Her decision to shift the state secretariat to Howrah for restoration of the historical Writers Building is a bold decision few others would have taken.

Never before has a Bengali chief minister tried to showcase and market the state. So be it the chic “Biswa Bangla" boutiques selling haute-couture Murshidabad Jamdani and Baluchari sarees or packaging Nalen Gur in squeezable tubes, she has made a beginning. Similarly, Mango Festival in Malda or Gobinda Bhog (Rice) Utsav in Burdwan does something to restore Bengali pride.

People can have a dig at her poetry and artistic talent or mock her “culture" fixation and penchant for hanging out with actors, singers and painters. But what she has done for older artists living in penury should shame her predecessors.

Ignoring controversy and felicitating the victory of a private cricket team (Kolkata Knight Riders) in the Indian Premier League and in return getting its owner to be the brand ambassador for Bengal is typically Mamata. Bringing Lionel Messi for a friendly match in football crazy Kolkata or hosting an India-Pakistan T20 cricket match after other states turned it down and getting Amitabh Bachchan to sing the national anthem before the game may have many critics, but undeniably it does bring in a “feel good" factor among Bengalis – who had long forgotten to be happy.

Mamata may have her idiosyncrasies. But the important point is that she is comfortable in her skin. Therefore, she hasn’t (at least yet) felt the need to trade her trademark cotton saree for a designer Tangail and doesn’t bat an eye-lid while marching ahead in her chappals on the banks of the Thames in London, leaving her sneaker-clad minions huffing and panting behind in trying to keep pace with her.

Bad poetry or singing off-scale is a small price to pay for a leader who is sincere and displays a semblance of vision that has been missing for so long in the state.

Sandip Ghose is a roving media and marketing professional who looks at life from a right angle. Views expressed are personal and does not represent those of his employers. Twitter @SandipGhose

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