Indian politicians labelling Mamata Banerjee corrupt is as outrageous as Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath accusing the West Bengal chief minister of being “anti-democratic" after she denied him permission to land his helicopter in the state for a political rally earlier this week.
Just last year, Adityanath denied Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray permission to hold a political rally in Ayodhya.
There’s enough competition for most corrupt and most “anti-democratic" politician that Banerjee would unlikely emerge the winner in either of these categories. But India’s only female chief minister and the 64-year-old head of the Trinamool Congress party (TMC)—often described by the ruling establishment as an anarchist—would certainly win the award for fiercest critic of the Narendra Modi government.
She has opposed the BJP-supported National Register of Citizens in Assam that so far leaves the status of four million uncertain, calling it a direct attack on the country’s diversity. She was one of the first politicians to criticize demonetization and has refused to implement the prime minister’s ambitious new health scheme in her state. Last month she got most of the country’s key opposition leaders to stand with her on the dais of a United India rally—essentially political parties united against the BJP (Banerjee was once part of the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP). It seems more appropriate than ever that her favourite deity is goddess Kali, the destroyer.
Like her or fear her, you might as well know more about her because there’s no question Banerjee is in the reckoning for the top post of prime minister in the forthcoming 2019 general election. This week, the spotlight stayed on her because of a public spat with the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Like all her contemporaries, Banerjee is flawed. Who can forget the time she said rapes are on the rise because men and women interact freely? Or the times she arrested people for Facebook posts against her. She has often been accused by her critics of playing identity politics. But her appeal, for me, lies in the way she has fearlessly negotiated a man’s world—mostly alone—and emerged as one of India’s most successful politicians.
In Didi: A Political Biography, Monobina Gupta points out that when examined through the lens of gender, Banerjee’s story stands apart from the narratives of other powerful contemporary women leaders. Gupta quotes former TMC MP Krishna Bose as saying, “Mamata has not been the widow, wife, daughter or companion of somebody." In that sense, Banerjee’s story is very different from other powerful politicians such as Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati or the late J. Jayalalithaa.
Gupta, who wrote the book during the run-up to the 2011 polls, which resulted in Banerjee becoming chief minister of West Bengal, illustrates how the CPM “leveraged gender as a weapon to trivialize, even vulgarize, their rhetoric of attack on the Trinamool Congress president, her status as a single woman without the bulwark of exotic lineage or formidable rank of wealth and class shielding her."
Slogans such as “The mynah from Kalighat does not allow industry to come up" and “From elder sister to grandmother, you will never become chief minister" targeted her as a woman, Gupta says. The mynah slight “makes her out to be capricious, trivial and talkative like the mynah bird, lacking the intellectual capacity to realize the serious implications of stalling industrialization in Bengal," she adds.
The journey through the violent, patriarchal politics of West Bengal has been littered with more than nasty words. In 1990, she was attacked by rival party workers during a rally and fractured her skull. She was hospitalized for a month. In 1993, she was injured again during a protest in which many were shot dead by the police. Banerjee may have lived through turbulent times but the TMC’s brand of politics isn’t any less violent than the CPM model it replaced.
Banerjee, whose father was an active Congress party supporter, joined the student wing of the party in college and in less than a decade, the student leader, already an expert protester, was noticed. Right in the middle of Jayaprakash Narayan’s campaign to topple Indira Gandhi in 1977, Banerjee managed to catch everyone’s attention, says Shutapa Paul in her book Didi: The Untold Mamata Banerjee. “When he (JP) was in Calcutta to rally the masses against Indira, Mamata blocked his convoy and threw herself on the ground. With this show of bravado, senior Congress leaders were forced to notice the new kid on the block."
In 1998—seven years after her sort-of mentor Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated—she broke away from the Congress to form the Trinamool (or grass roots) Congress. The inspiration for her party’s symbol—two flowers growing from one stem surrounded by grass—came from a line by revolutionary Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam about communal harmony, says Paul, adding that throughout her career, Banerjee has had to be better and more fearless than her male counterparts.
Banerjee’s larger-than-life persona—she’s always clad in white, woven Dhaniakhali saris with rubber slippers, loves to paint, has written more than 20 books, still lives in her childhood home with her extended family and is an insomniac who loves Rabindra sangeet—is reflected in her party’s power equation. “She embodies the hierarchy and the control; from her alone come the fiats, the reprimands, and the occasional praise. Briefly put, Mamata Banerjee is the sum and substance of the party she leads," says Gupta. The TMC is as much a victim of dynasty politics as any other political party. It’s well known that Banerjee’s nephew, Abhishek Banerjee, is her political heir.
In 1984, Banerjee stood from the Jadavpur constituency and did the unthinkable. She defeated veteran Somnath Chatterjee, who had only heard of her until then. In 2011, she made history when she ousted the Left that had ruled West Bengal for 34 years. She did that with the support she got after protesting against the Left Front’s land acquisition steamroller in Singur and Nandigram.
This year we will find out if the woman in the white sari can score big again.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.
She tweets @priyaramani