Self-made street fighter: Mamata’s political journey without a mentor

Mamata Banerjee
Imaging: Prathap Ravishankar

Lok Sabha 2019 has witnessed an aggressive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) trying to stay in power for a second term. Even as the Congress has attempted to fight it, the saffron party’s most bitter opponent this time around has been a woman from the east. West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) Chief Mamata Banerjee has matched the BJP’s brick for brick, assault for assault, and attack for attack. With West Bengal turning into a veritable battleground, there is no denying that Mamata, the streetfighter, has given the BJP a fitting fight; not wanting to give up even an inch of her turf.

To understand the mind of this feisty leader, one would have to understand the politics that has shaped her. Her charisma among Bengal’s voters and the strength that she draws from them are hers alone. Once a Youth Congress leader, Mamata metamorphosised into a gladiator with her party, the TMC, eventually toppling 34 years of Left Front rule in the state. She learnt her politics from the CPI(M), playing dirty when it was needed. And some times she has been more Leftist in her views than the Left Front itself, for example, opting to ban land acquisition by the government for industry altogether. And all through this meteoric political journey full of ebbs and flows, Mamata has moved ahead on her own steam. Sure, there were friends, comrades, and well-wishers who were enthralled by the diminutive woman with the enormous idea of defeating the might of the Left Front. But interestingly, there is no one leader who can truly be called Mamata’s mentor.

Many Congress leaders saw her potential

As a student leader, Mamata’s fiery speeches caught the attention of senior Congress leaders such as Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, Siddharth Shankar Ray, and Subrata Mukherjee. Under the aegis of the Congress trade union leader Subrata Mukherjee (who incidentally became her cabinet minister when Mamata became chief minister in 2011), Mamata dived into youth politics as part of Chhatra Parishad. She was the most daring of all his young party workers; not flinching to sit on protests that ended in scuffles. In the days leading up to the Emergency, right in the middle of Jayaprakash Narayan’s anti-Indira Gandhi campaign in Kolkata, Mamata blocked his convoy and threw herself on the ground. Mamata would routinely be thrown into lockups; so often that she carried her books and studied there at night! Her notoriety and fearlessness earned her the respect of Congress workers. And ahead of 1984 Lok Sabha elections, when Rajiv Gandhi wanted fresh faces, Mamata was offered up by Subrata Mukherjee and Pranab Mukherjee to contest from Jadavpur, a CPI(M) stronghold, with political heavyweight Somnath Chatterjee as opponent.

Rajiv Gandhi too noticed Mamata Banerjee after she defeated Somnath Chatterjee, and for years, they shared an amicable bond. When as a first-time MP, Mamata had been ridiculed in Parliament over a bogus PhD degree and had left in tears, Rajiv Gandhi had consoled her. In 1990, he had beckoned her to Delhi and warned her over impending death threats, thereby, endearing himself to Mamata even further. A couple of days later, when CPI(M) goons dealt a near-fatal blow to Mamata, Rajiv Gandhi had insisted that she be moved to privately-run Woodlands Hospital and bore all expenses. He also named her general secretary of the All India Youth Congress, even though there were many within the party who tried to change his mind. With his untimely death, Mamata felt orphaned within the Congress and her rift with her fellow partymen only became deeper; eventually leading to her quitting the party and forming the TMC.

Hard work and passion alone were her friends

In her long political career, Mamata Banerjee has had strong men by her side, sometimes guiding her, sometimes walking alongside. But unlike Mayawati-Kanshi Ram or J Jayalalithaa – MG Ramachandran, Mamata never truly had a mentor. At every crucial juncture in her life, Mamata rose due to her own hard work and passion to defeat the CPI(M).

In 1984, while her name was put forward by Subrata Mukherjee and Pranab Mukherjee, Mamata became the David to CPI(M)’s Goliath due to two factors. She too rode on the sympathy wave for the Congress after Indira Gandhi’s assassination but she didn’t leave the electoral contest up to chance. Pranab Mukherjee admits that Mamata would do wall-painting herself. She also launched a door-to-door campaign to reach out to the people of Jadavpur.

It was the same drill with the other major incidents in her life. Senior leaders noticed her because of her street-fighting style of politics. She won the respect and love of the masses because even when the Congress seemed to be going soft on the Left, Mamata remained relentless. When Mamata decided to quit the Congress and start her own party, while there were supporters, she called the shots herself. The TMC was formed without anyone even knowing about its registration at the Election Commission. It was a closely guarded secret known only to Mamata’s trusted political secretary Ratan Mukherjee and current friend-turned-foe Mukul Roy. Senior Congress leaders, many of whom would later join the TMC, had tried to change her mind. But Mamata remained adamant and after rejecting several overtures from Delhi Congress leaders, she flew the nest and forged her own path.

Even the wrong decisions of Mamata Banerjee’s life were taken single-handedly by her without the sage advice of mentors. Her decision to join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) proved disastrous, with her party getting trounced in 2004. The people of Bengal refused to accept her alliance with the BJP. Only Mamata managed to retain her seat; the TMC was wiped out. Singur and Nandigram agitations were spearheaded by Mamata alone who realised quickly the opportunity to capitalise on the massive anger against the CPI(M).

Mamata, while surrounded by a core group of advisors and confidantes, has essentially remained without a mentor. This can to some extent explain her language of politics where intimidating her is near impossible. She also has a ‘self-made’ image having risen through the ranks without a godfather. She has been a lone warrior taking on the powers that be fearlessly and daringly, striding in from the grassroots into the echelons of power by sheer courage, bravado, and an undeniable connect with the masses of Bengal. She will not roll over and accept defeat, and that’s what makes her different compared to all other Opposition leaders that stand in the way of the Modi-Shah duo. The Lok Sabha Elections of 2019 have proven that.

(Shutapa Paul is the author of an unauthorised biography of Mamata Banerjee titled ‘Didi: The Untold Mamata Banerjee’ published by Penguin India that released in November 2018)

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