Can Mamata live up to the expectations people have of her? That’s the question everyone is asking.  Shoma Chaudhury looks for some answers in her journey so far

Photo: Shailendra Pandey
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

LAST WEEK, almost no one in the country could have missed the image of a tiny sparrow of a woman in a crumpled white sari, standing on a stool in a narrow crowded lane in Kolkata, yelling colloquially into a microphone, asking the heaving, sweating sea of people around her to go home and bathe. All around her a jubilant crescendo raged: conch shells blew, drums rang out and a celebratory vapour of green powder hung like a giant parasol in the air. Shout as she might, no one was listening. But they were all there to celebrate her.

This was Mamata Banerjee’s grand moment. She had just swept away 34 years of Left Front rule in Bengal and she knew the world was watching, but raucous, tactile, uninhibited, she brought her unique imprint to the moment. Milling easily among the people, she cajoled and admonished and commanded. Then as the drums rolled on unmindfully through her victory speech, she shouted through the din to a young woman in the crowd: “Aay, footballer! Bring all the kids away this side to safety.”

There was a time when this tableau would have sent a derisive ripple through Bengal’s bhadralok. In the past, with easy, unreflective snobbery, they have called her a “jhee”, an ugly diminutive for a housemaid, and mocked Mamata witheringly for her saris and broken English accents. But she has blazed on, unfazed, refusing to remould herself to acceptability.

Now, in victory, even her persona seems the antidote Bengal has long needed. For too long, Bengal’s self-understanding had been held hostage to the fussy nostalgia of the bhadralok. Bengalis have been unable to tap into the creative energies and exuberances of a new India because there was a latent sense that it was inferior to do so. With Mamata’s victory, as sociologist Ashis Nandy says, Bengal’s polity has finally been democratised. Gratefully, her early impetuousness — jumping on a politician’s car; threatening to commit suicide; picketing in the well of Parliament; hurling shawls at the Speaker; grabbing political rivals by their collar — seems to have given way to a new, more mature restraint. But Mamata still brings to the table a kind of pragmatic brusqueness born of her poor, working-class roots. This can only be good for Bengal. It might unclasp its patrician snobberies and trigger fresh churn in the state. The signs are hopeful: Mamata did not just win Bengal, she won every Kolkata seat.

THERE HAS been saturation analysis this past week about why the Left Front was trounced so overwhelmingly and why Mamata won. The question everyone is asking now is, can she live up to the high expectation everyone has?

Perhaps the answer lies in articulating more completely the full sum of her achievement. It is important to remember that Mamata did not just wipe the Left Front out with a negative campaign. Unlike other political leaders who have bent the electoral landscape before her, she did so without using caste, class, religion, language, money or any divisive identity politics. What she did use, instead, was that overly neglected political tool: a genuine cause.

Mamata was once mocked bitingly as a maid. Now, in victory, even her persona seems the antidote Bengal has long needed

Today ‘Singur’ and ‘Nandigram’ are tossed around like household words, shorthand for the rampant inequities of land acquisition. But one has to go back to 2006 to get the full measure of Mamata’s contribution to this. In 2006, when the farmers’ protests first erupted and she helped raise their ante, most Indians had dismissed her scornfully as a spoiler, deploying agitational politics for narrow gains. But Mamata had grasped the deep and inherent injustice of what was going on. And so, even though the scorn flowed thick and loud, she stuck to her guns.

It must be particularly gratifying for her, therefore, that as she claims her long-awaited chair, the most ubiquitous issue in the country today is land acquisition. Every political party is affected by it. What’s more, the aural sound around it has changed completely. In all the debates and commentary on land issues now, the media and parties are mouthing the line Mamata first articulated: consultation, consent, fair prices, rehabilitation, assured jobs, a profit share in the development projects and a caution about seizing rich agricultural land for industry.

Contrary to her early reputation for irresponsibility, in fact, right through these past five years, Mamata has shown this repeated capacity to pick the correct issues and give it a mature voice — reaching for an inclusive narrative rather than a polarising one; speaking a positive language of morality and justice even as she has run the CPM down. At no point, so far, has she fallen for the cheap, short-term trick. She has not talked agriculture versus industry just to catch a vote. And she has urged the Maoists to give up arms, even as she has defended dialogue with them over brute force.

Curiously therefore, today, Mamata has come to occupy the left-of-centre space that the CPM had long vacated. Only it is more intuitive, less ideologised. This is her great advantage: if she does it in just ways, she can bring industry to Bengal without looking like she has betrayed the farmer. She can open up the education system and depoliticise institutions and the minutiae of everyday life without any baggage.

Acetylene frustration with the CPM may have driven it partly, but it is also this open-ended language of moderation and justice that has drawn people of every persuasion to her party: farmers, bureaucrats, writers, artists, intellectuals and even corporates.

Acetylene frustration with the CPM may have driven it partly, but it is also this open-ended language of moderation and justice that has drawn people of every persuasion to her party: farmers, bureaucrats, writers, artists, intellectuals and even corporates.

So much for the good stuff: now for the thorns. Mamata is inheriting a very messy situation: a bankrupt and bruised state. An angry enemy licking its wounds. She has to balance the hopes of farmers with the aspirations of the urban young. She has to grow both agriculture and industry. To do all this, she needs a robust party structure she does not yet possess. She also needs talent and trust. More than impetuousness, Mamata has a reputation for poor administrative skills and high individualism. No one in her party has any volition. What Didi says is always right. But Didi cannot turn her eye to every problem, so she will need to learn the art of democracy within her own circle first. As a close aide said, much will depend on how much balls her generals have to start asserting themselves.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka.