By Swapan Dasgupta
The evening before the day Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress overtook the Left Front in the civic elections and clearly established itself as the number one party in West Bengal, a TV anchor described the Union railway minister as “mercurial”. The description may have been parliamentary but it was being used as a euphemism for madness.
It’s a characterisation that the lady has done little to disabuse. Whether it was her dogged and intransigent opposition to the land acquisition for the proposed Nano plant in Singur or her peremptory announcement that she didn’t need to be in Delhi to function as a Union Cabinet minister, Ms Banerjee has lived up to an image of her own making. In a world where stodginess is celebrated as wisdom, the sheer unpredictability of her political responses has made her an object of both wariness and ridicule.
Always accustomed to wearing the badge of intellectual superiority on their sleeve, the Left, for example, could never fathom how exactly to deal with Ms Banerjee. Jyoti Basu, who loved basking in his own grandeur, could hardly get himself to accepting Ms Banerjee as a legitimate Opposition — a disdain he never extended to the likes of Pranab Mukherjee or even Priya Ranjan Das Munshi. I once recall asking the very patrician Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Indrajit Gupta a question about something or the other Ms Banerjee had done. His response was an expression of profound disgust, as if to say “you can’t be serious”.
It was this sneering contempt that was also in view on Wednesday morning, even as the Trinamul Congress was notching up victory after victory. In his response to Ms Banerjee’s demand for early Assembly elections, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Nilotpal Basu mockingly retorted that such people are not even familiar with the Constitution of India.
In a way the incomprehension of the Left is understandable. The united CPI and, subsequently, the CPI(M), has traditionally viewed its opponents in West Bengal as representatives of the propertied bhadralok classes — the people who, unlike the Jyoti Basus and Indrajit Guptas of the world, had not betrayed their own class.
The equation of the Congress with privilege and property was politically convenient since it gave the Left the necessary space to project itself as the voice of the “struggling masses”. It was this deft positioning plus the economic blows directed against the mid-sized landholders through Operation Barga after 1977 which enabled the Left to dominate West Bengal for more than three decades.
Unfortunately for the Left, Ms Banerjee never fitted into the stereotype. Socially, she belonged to a lower middle class, refugee, bhadralok family — the very social category that provided the CPI(M) its most loyal members. With her frugal and even carefree lifestyle, she did not correspond to the image of the grand Congress leaders such as Dr B.C. Roy and Siddhartha Shankar Ray. She wasn’t remotely the personification of privilege. In a milieu where ordinariness was deemed a virtue, Ms Banerjee was ordinary, very ordinary.
More important, Ms Banerjee did not possess any deep attachment to the niceties of political mobilisation. As someone who cut her teeth in politics during the street-fighting years of the 1970s, Ms Banerjee had imbibed the virtues of uncompromising opposition to the Left. However, whereas her mentors such as Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and Subrata Mukherjee had evolved into traditional politicians, not averse to cutting a deal or two on the side with a deeply-entrenched Left Front government, Ms Banerjee never wavered in her blind opposition to the CPI(M). She broke away from the Congress in 1996 when it seemed that the national party had reconciled itself to being a bit player in West Bengal because it needed Left support in the battle against the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even now she nurtures the suspicion that the Congress is only too willing to compromise with the Left nationally and sacrifice West Bengal. This is why she insists on an alliance on her terms.
A feature of Ms Banerjee’s battle with the Left is her willingness to emulate the mass mobilisation techniques of the Left. She has internalised the Left penchant for calling a bandh for the flimsiest of reasons; she is single-minded in her determination to treat a public sector unit such as the Indian Railways as an instrument of welfare; and in a clash involving local interests and the larger goal of development, she is firmly on the side of the former. Ms Banerjee’s recklessness is a consequence of the economic stagnation of West Bengal. Her apparent nihilism reflects the desperation of a society that has been so left behind by the rest of India that it has ceased to care.
The irony is that Ms Banerjee has emulated the Old Left at a time when, with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at the helm, the CPI(M) in West Bengal has chosen to turn over a new leaf. Today, the chief minister stands for industrialisation, order, an end to the bandh culture and the state’s greater integration into the market economy of India. Inspired by China, Mr Bhattacharjee would like the CPI(M) to preside over West Bengal’s return to the mainstream of capitalist development.
Tragically, Mr Bhattacharjee has left it too late. Ms Banerjee epitomises the anger of a people against 33 wasted years of Left Front rule. Unfortunately, the Trinamul Congress leader has chosen to articulate that opposition in the only language of politics West Bengal is familiar with: the language of Left disruption.
It’s an approach that may well propel Ms Banerjee into the chief minister’s chair in less than a year. She may then decide to do what the present chief minister has attempted, with limited success, over the past seven years. Consequently, it will be the turn of the Left to rediscover its old inheritance — one that has been appropriated by Ms Banerjee.
Ms Banerjee’s madness, it would seem, is the collective madness of Bengal.