By Chandrima Pal Jan. 23, 2019
Mamata Banerjee is all prepped for the big fight at the Centre. She has set herself up as the face of the anti-BJP team. And if her dharna in Kolkata is any proof, she has arrived on the national scene.
Eight years since she decimated the seemingly invincible 34-year-old Left Front government in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee is back on the streets. This time with the single-point agenda of ousting the BJP from the Centre.
Currently, Banerjee has launched a dharna in the streets of Kolkata, in protest of the CBI questioning Kolkata Police Chief Rajeev Kumar over alleged misconduct during the investigation of the chit fund scam. It’s a bold move, a clear statement of intent, with Banerjee placing herself across the battlefield from the BJP’s veteran campaigners at the Centre, Modi and Shah. It’s galvanised her support from Opposition leaders across the country, as leaders from parties as diverse as the Congress and the PDP have spoken out in support of Banerjee. It’s ironic for a sitting CM to be engaged in a protest, but whether this turns out to be a foolish gamble or a high risk/high reward scenario is yet to be seen.
Those in Bengal will recall the heady days of 2011, when Banerjee traversed Kolkata on foot for eight to ten kilometers a day, to circumvent the ban on loudspeakers imposed by the state government at the time. Impromptu human corridors were formed wherever she went, with balloons and festoons creating a celebratory mood. Women and children chanted, “Didi, Didi”, desperate to touch her, embrace her. She was the embodiment of the humble householder’s struggle and hope for a better life.
Sometimes, Banerjee would take her fight right into the heart of her rival constituency, in her sturdy hawai chappals and austere Dhaniakhali saree. The intellectual elite, who had so far scoffed at her artlessness, had to concede – she was far more connected with the masses, had far more grass in her roots than the Left front led by the erudite, dhoti-clad poet Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. It was this mass appeal, the image of a woman who was always up for a good protest, a contrarian and a committed rabble-rouser who fought for everyone – from displaced hawkers in illegal zones to rogue autorickshaw drivers, from women belonging to the minority and backward communities to football lovers – that handed a resounding mandate to Didi that year.
You’d have laughed at her Quixotic attempts at sounding clever. You’d have made fun of her thick accent and utter disregard for everything from geography to history, her runaway enthusiasm for poetry and painting that has produced some bizarre titles and canvases. But you were forced to appreciate her perseverance. And her utter disregard for convention.
Eight years is a lifetime in politics. And Banerjee, who has been relentless in the pursuit of better times for Bengal has found herself a new target. The threat to her flock is now the party at the Centre that is coming in the way of her avowed “poriborton”. She is now faced with the Herculean task of bringing down the twin towers of the BJP – Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.
“Ma Mati Manush” might have worked for the Bengali, but in order to make her presence felt in the national arena, the feisty chief minister will have to do better than appealing to vernacular sentiments. This time, her adversary is a party that strikes at political opposition with surgical precision, driven by men who are far more powerful than her. And Banerjee, who has better credentials as a street fighter than a suave administrator, has evidently smelled blood.
Slowly but surely she has been propping herself up as a national leader – by taking the scrappy underdog route. Despite Modi’s overwhelming popularity, she has been consistent in her criticism of the PM, not hesitating to attack him on demonetisation or GST. The BJP’s rathayatra, that has often turbo-charged the party’s electoral campaign in the major states, could not take off in Banerjee’s Bengal despite repeated attempts by both the state leadership and Amit Shah’s push. She ensured that she had enough ammo in her arsenal to get the apex court to rule against the yatra, which her government accused of stoking “communal tension”.
Banerjee pulled out of Ayushman Bharat, the high-decibel health scheme launched by the BJP, saying that the Prime Minister is wrongly taking credit for the scheme. Her government also withdrew “general consent” for CBI investigations, inspiring Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to follow suit. This was another attempt at thwarting the CBI’s attempts to pick on some of her closest aides, whose names have figured in connection to chit fund scams.
When Amit Shah – still recovering from swine flu – wanted to land in the crucial district of Malda, Banerjee ensured his chopper was denied permission to do so. Even Modi, who was supposed to address an important rally in the heart of the city, called off the event that could have been a game-changer for the BJP in Bengal. The local media has been gleefully pointing out how the Prime Minister developed “cold feet” after Banerjee’s massive Mahagathbandhan rally at the same venue.
Banerjee can no longer be dismissed as an influential regional leader who’ll pick her side depending on who is calling the shots at the Centre.
As Didi keeps stonewalling every attempt by the BJP to find a toehold in her state, she is also spoiling for the big fight at the centre. Over the past few months, she has held meetings with everyone from Maharashtra’s Uddhav Thackeray to Telangana’s KCR, kept her communication channels open with the disparate elements that have come together for the Mahagathbandhan. Even as the BJP and political commentators balk at how the Grand Alliance has “nine PM aspirants” and no one face to take on Modi, everyone from the AAP leadership to the Samajwadi Party has been talking about the possibility of Banerjee as potential PM. It is not as though they have deep conviction in her leadership qualities, but under the circumstances, the Mahagathbandhan is possibly going for the prize fighter in their midst. Someone who has a history of bringing down empires and taking on rivals twice her stature. The David in a world of Goliaths.
It is too early to say if the Mahagathbandhan will succeed. Whether UP will deliver and Mayawati will finally get that seat she has always wanted. It is also too early to say if the spunky women from Uttar Pradesh and Bengal clash or cooperate. But one thing is evident: In setting herself up as the face of the anti-BJP team that likes to maintain a calculated distance from the Congress, she has placed herself in an unenviable position. Banerjee can no longer be dismissed as an influential regional leader who’ll pick her side depending on who is calling the shots at the Centre. If Saturday’s rally is any proof, she has arrived on the national scene.
Known for a flair for the dramatic, Banerjee has set the stage for the final showdown – between the rough-woven Dhaniakhali saree and the sharp-cut Modi jacket.
Chandrima Pal is a journalist, columnist, career insomniac and caffeine snob. Loves food. Does travel. Author of A Song for I (Amaryllis) and At Home in Mumbai (Harper Collins).