The world did not end in 2012 as some internet doomsday predictions had forecast. But in India, at the start of the year, political certainties became fuzzier and the sense of an ending of UPA-II increased. Shaking up its edifice was the diminutive lady in a white sari from West Bengal, its chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Her contrarian positions on policy matters and refusal to support legislation pushed by the Centre, along with a deteriorating equation with the Congress in her state, could signal a political meltdown. It is now an open secret that UPA-II is fishing for new allies, failing which, bets are on the government collapsing unless Mamata suddenly softens her stand.
The signs, however, are to the contrary, as Didi applies her own brand of didigiri. Over the years, she has acquired the reputation of being temperamental and rash, but now there appears to be a clear method to the madness. She is no Lady Gaga but quite the Lady Dada, who could be the catalyst for political change. But the question is, why is Mamata acting up now?
For Mrs G Youth Congress leaders protest the renaming of Indira Bhavan. (Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee)
The West Bengal CM is primarily charting a course as a strong regional leader and breaking free of whatever remains of her origins as a Congress politician. The decision to rename Indira Bhavan in Calcutta after the poet Nazrul Islam is not just an attempt to please her Muslim constituency, as has been suggested, but also to deny her own origins as a one-time follower of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. “Mamata Banerjee’s destiny,” says Trinamool MP Derek O’Brien, “is shaped by no one else but the people for whom she has fought and won a long and desperate battle from the tyranny of the Communists. Her long struggle on behalf of the underprivileged and the oppressed has been historic. People are her strength. They guide her actions.”
Mamata operates in a state where the concerns and grammar of politics have been determined by the Left. She must therefore speak up for the powers of the state and the idea of federalism. Hence her opposing the Lokpal bill in its current form. She must also appear to speak against the big multinational, hence her opposition to FDI in retail. With the Communists her big opponents, she must always articulate the concerns of the marginalised. She must continue to try and outdo the Left, in style if not in substance.
CPI(M) central committee member Mohammad Salim agrees that she tries to be left of the Left. “Because of Bengal’s orientation on social issues, the environment is Left-oriented. So some days, she supports the extreme Left and Maoists as a tactical move. She is also distancing herself from the mess of the Congress at the Centre and trying to pick up Bengali icons and create a cult of herself. But she believes only in symbolism, for beyond the pretence, she is cooperating with neo-liberal forces, doing away with government procurement in the rural sector, promoting the private sector in health and education.” Although Mamata defeated the Left Front less than a year ago, they are the opponents who must be countered.
It’s also good politics for her to demolish what remains of the state Congress and become the only anti-CPI(M) force in the state. During the assembly elections last year, the only Congress candidate she campaigned for was Pranab Mukherjee’s son, Abhijeet. Some months down the line, now that she has a majority on her own, there are daily squabbles with the state Congress, although they are part of the ruling establishment. According to Congress leaders, ever since her victory, there have been 61 cases of attacks on Congress offices.
Besides, the always fiercely-contested panchayat elections of West Bengal are due later this year. The Trinamool would certainly be looking to consolidate its hold in the countryside and the Congress would prove to be excess baggage. Says Shakeel Ahmed, cwc member in charge of West Bengal, “There is a perception that Mamata Banerjee wants to occupy the entire anti-Left space.”
Besides, there is the larger argument of Mamata really having no stake in the longevity of UPA-II. An early election would see her tally of MPs go up from the 19 who won in 2009 while two years down the line, in 2014, when general elections are due, the anti-incumbency against her would have increased. Although a majority of MPs want to avoid polls and complete their terms, there are three parties who stand poised to gain in the event of a mid-term election—the TMC, the AIADMK and the JD(U). Says political analyst Tarun Ganguly, “Mamata sees herself as a gainer and the Congress as a loser if early elections take place. She is also not unheard-of outside Bengal. The land agitation in UP is modelled after Nandigram and Singur, and Mamata would like to play that up during the UP polls.”
Mamata is even expected to travel to UP to campaign during the assembly polls. She has nothing to lose from building a national profile and a lot to gain. She certainly sees herself as a player in larger coalition building in the event of a non-Congress, non-BJP regime. And she would be mindful of the reality that the Left has traditionally played an important role in any third-front type formation. Mamata would like to occupy that space, hence the rhetoric and positioning consistent with a certain brand of politics that draws from both the regional sentiment and a symbolic identification with the dispossessed. Chandan Mitra, the BJP MP who had handled the West Bengal elections, says, “Mamata would now see herself as a big player on the national stage and she will put up candidates here and there. Her party will become a magnet for petulant Congressmen. But I do not believe the stories that suggest she has serious prime ministerial ambitions.”
Mamata Shadow The Teesta deal came undone on her protests
Either way, Didi spells trouble for the Congress-led UPA. Given the current numbers on which the Manmohan Singh regime survives, the government would fall in Parliament if the TMC does not support a finance bill. That is why the pension bill was withdrawn in the winter session last month. And the possibility of the TMC opposing the budget because it does not agree with the economics of Manmohan Singh cannot be ruled out. The chance of the TMC MPs opposing the proposed Food Security Bill on the grounds of states’ powers being encroached upon is very strong. And since another petrol price hike is believed to be imminent, one can well imagine the outrage and scorn Mamata would pour on New Delhi. This marriage could certainly be headed for a divorce. Asked if the TMC can give any guarantee that it would not allow UPA-II to fall, Derek O’Brien replied: “Our focus is to bring good governance in Bengal. Our MPs too have a single-minded vision: good deeds for the people. Everything and everyone else is secondary.” One can only extrapolate that the survival of a shaky regime in Delhi is not really a concern for Mamata’s party.
Should the UPA actually collapse and a BJP-led regime come into existence, it cannot be forgotten that Mamata was once part of the NDA. She now has a huge Muslim vote to consider, so an overt arrangement is out of the question. But she can certainly do business with another type of government, particularly if it gives greater leeway to regional parties. So, right now she is sitting pretty. Heads she wins. Tails you lose.
By Saba Naqvi in New Delhi and Dola Mitra in Calcutta
Mamata Banerjee’s populist stances recall those of Laloo Prasad Yadav’s initial years after he came to power in Bihar (Who Calls the Shots?, Jan 16). Gaining power via popular mandate and running a government are two different ballgames. While she has mastered the first with populist means such as slogans, protests and dharnas, she lacks the acumen and tact needed for the second. She needs to delegate more powers and freedom to her ministers and give up her authoritarian attitude. Instead of getting into frivolous controversies, she should concentrate on tasks that will help build the new Bengal she has promised.
Sreemoy Ghose, Jamshedpur
How did you get Mamata to pose for your cover? You should send a copy to her and all the puppets.
Suresh Deolalkar, on e-mail
Some years ago, a Bollywood star, when asked about the state of his marriage, reputed to be on the rocks, said it continued but the current had gone out of it. Honeymoon’s up.
Ashok Lal, Mumbai
The stormy petrel of Bengal politics has always been a difficult ally. The NDA found that to its cost when Mamata was in the Vajpayee government at the Centre and the Congress has had a taste of Mamata’s ire many a time. Both on FDI in retail and on the Lokpal issue, her tough stands were not without logic or reason. She was playing to, and whetting, her people’s keenness for power by making the Centre look like a supplicant. As for renaming Indira Bhavan as Nazrul Bhavan, the bard might have rephrased his immortal line—What’s in a name—were he to witness Indian politics.
J. Akshay, Bangalore
The only problem with Mamata is that she is Mamata. Her opposition is herself. In four years’ time, she will go to the polls saying she could not perform because the Centre did not give her money. She will probably rename Writers Building as well. But whoever wins the next polls, the losers will be people of Bengal.
A.N. Banerjee, Newcastle, UK
Mamata came to the frontlines using agitations/protests as a means of securing a niche in politics. Over the years, she has perfected the art of getting what she wants through negativist tactics, whether right or wrong. One wonders, though, if the same methods will help her succeed as a chief minister.
Durai Lakshmi, Gurgaon
Mamata might be able to get what she wants from the Centre at this stage. But over the long term, being seen to be as whimsical and unreliable as Jayalalitha will be a liability.
K.V. Raghuram, Wayanad
The Congress leadership may not relish Mamata’s recent oppositional stance, verbal outbursts and filibustering but she has earned this leeway for wilful action. After all, she has single-handedly achieved what was considered non-achievable in Bengal and hence commands every right to take decisions as per her wisdom—whether or not liked by her parent ally, the Congress. Mamata’s plan to spread her party’s wings to other states is a welcome move and she must take further steps towards it.
Pramod Srivastava, New Delhi
Mamata Banerjee, like her counterparts in UP and Tamil Nadu, is whimsical, arrogant, self-willed and unpredictable. Any party joining hands with her, or Maya or Jaya, knows it would be doing so at its own peril. It would be prudent for the upa-ii to amputate the limb with the festering sore before it turns gangrenous.
K.P. Rajan, Mumbai
Almost all the lady CMs in India are arrogant by nature, it seems. And the inept governance of the Congress only adds fuel to their egos.
It was a given that the real face of the tmc would be revealed to the masses, but that it would be so early was unexpected. The people of West Bengal will have to pay a very heavy price for the misdeeds of the Left government, which the tmc has very shrewdly cashed in on.
S. Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta
Looks like the Bengalis got rid of a noisy drum only to get a harsh trumpet.
Achutha Bhat, Bangalore
Mamata made a hash of the railways. She is all set to do the same to West Bengal.
West Bengal is unlikely to make any progress under Mamata. The people of West Bengal were desperate to get over the era of Left misrule. Mamata just happened to be around.
Samirajan, Portland, US
From your lead picture, it would seem Mamata and Pranabda are having an argument in Bangla and Manmohan can’t understand a word. But then again, the PM plays deaf and mute when it suits him. P.
B. Joshipura, Suffolk, US
From the picture it seems Mamta and PranavDa are quarrelling in Bengali and Manmohan Singh is not understanding any words, then again MMS has always played deaf and dumb when his ministers are interacting with each other. Case in point, Chiddu and Raja (2G), PranavDa and Chiddu (Break in).
Mamata came to the front line using agitations /protests as a means to help secure a niche in the political plane. Over the years she has perfected the art of securing what she wants by using negativistic tactics - doesnt matter whether it is right or wrong, It is difficult to assume that she will succeed as a Chief Minister using same methods.
As an impartial observer, Mamta is an honest and hardworking leader. But has no brain cells. She is now running a "Goonda" Raj. Either my way or the high way! Perhaps she is going through change of life! No wonder sensible Bengalis are moving to other States.
However Mamta is, and whatever she is doing, I must say the lady got the balls. Compared to her, look at the hapless Karunanidhi.
The Congress leadership may not relish Mamta's recent opposition to their decisions and verbal outbursts against them but she should not be blamed for her actions. After all, she has single-handedly achieved the (otherwise considered) non-achievable in Bengal and hence commands every right to take decisions as per her wisdom- whether or not liked by her parent ally the Congress. Mamta's plan to spread her party's wings to other states is a welcome move and she must take further steps towards it.
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