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The citizens of Kolkata and other metro cities who watched West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee storming out of a television show may have described her behaviour as “madness." The chief minister, a key ally of Congress in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), has already earned the nickname of being “an irritant" and “insane"- at least among some Congress leaders, media persons and also a large section of English newspaper reading and television-watching urban population.

A file photo of West Bangal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

Even before winning the 2011 West Bengal election with a landslide majority, ending the more-than-three decades-old Left rule, Banerjee’s behaviour in public was unusual and looked immature. She had once flung papers at then deputy speaker Charanjit Singh Atwal for not being “allowed to speak" in the Lok Sabha. Furious, she had announced her resignation as a member of parliament (MP). But she sent the letter to the deputy speaker knowing full well that only first time MPs can send their resignation to the deputy speaker. Being a senior parliamentarian, she should have sent it to the speaker. The resignation was rejected on technical grounds. However, her attempt to get the popular attention on the issue of Bangladeshi migration into West Bengal had been a huge success.

The same seems to be the case with her recent walk out of the CNN-IBN studio. The urban population may cringe at such behavior. But Banerjee’s rural support base gets excited at the “snub" their leader has given the “English-speaking elite." Her government’s move to further delay or drop the Special Economic Zone projects for IT companies Infosys and Wipro indicates that she does not care about the urban elite. Her actions may look weird, or even stupid. But beneath the surface, there is a certain logic and clever manipulation to cultivate her image.

The Trinamool Congress’s repeated victories in by-elections are proof of the success of Mamata Banerjee’s attempts to play victim. Banerjee and the TMC are likely to turn their move of opposing the United Progressive Alliance’s presidential candidate Pranab Mukherjee to its advantage, especially after archrival CPM decided to back the finance minister. Going by his electoral history, Mukherjee is not a popular leader in the state. “The CPM and the Congress joined hands against us," could be the TMC slogan in the villages. Some TMC leaders have already alleged that Mukherjee was trying to “block" the financial assistance to West Bengal, a factor which influenced their decision.

Banerjee’s jabs at the central government or the elite enthuse party workers and supporters in rural areas – be it on the issues of foreign direct investment, anti-graft Lokpal bill or Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority Bill.

Mamata Banerjee is not the first political leader who has successfully carved out such an image, appealing only to a select constituency. Former Bihar chief minister and RJD leader Lalu Prasad is a politician who deliberately cultivated a rustic image, which the urban class may have ridiculed, labeling him a buffoon. He used to publicly snub officials, including bureaucrats, calling them “budbuk" (idiot). In order to cash in on the Yadav image, he had maintained a cow stable in his official residences in Patna and in New Delhi. His Dalit supporters took extreme pleasure in hearing “one of them" denouncing “babus." Prasad won Bihar three times.

CPM veteran and former Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan’s public appearances in undershirt and dhoti and his drawling speeches played a key role in his wider mass appeal in the state. Such was his popularity that a disciplined party like the CPM had to succumb under public pressure whenever he violated party discipline.

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