A few years ago, an Indian Statistical Institute professor had come up with an interesting analysis of the Bengali language: The word used the most is “naa” (no, negative). West Bengal’s bestselling political brand, Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, is one who could be using this word the most in the next few weeks, as the selection of an Opposition candidate for the election to the President of India is finalised.
Banerjee is coasting on a high: Her party has swept the Darjeeling region in civic polls, the region that had eluded the TMC. She is now, at long last, the monarch of all she surveys. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which seemed to show so much promise in Bengal, is a poor second. Only a poll for civic bodies, you might say. But in Delhi, when the BJP won the civic elections, it was a sign of massive popularity! What is sauce for the goose must be sauce for the gander!
The sting of the Narada, Saradha scams has not gone away. But it has not touched Banerjee personally. What has moderated is her brand of whimsical politics.
Has it moderated? Both her followers and her detractors remember the day around this time of the year in 1996 when Banerjee enacted the famous “drama” of committing suicide in public, protesting the nominations of some Congress candidates for the state Assembly election. The story needs to be told in some detail. Banerjee was trying to block the nominations of Adhir Choudhury (Congress member of Parliament), Shankar Singh, Sultan Ahmed (MP and TMC minister in the former United Progressive Alliance government) and Ritesh Dutt for the Assembly elections to be held a few weeks later. Her position was that these “anti-socials with a criminal past” should be barred from getting a party nomination. At first she put pressure on the high command saying that she would not contest the election if these four were nominees for the same election. Supporters were distraught — maybe that was the intention all along. Anyway, one day, when her supporters were thronging her Kalighat home, she came out of the house, black shawl in hand and, in an attempt to manipulate emotions, threatened to commit suicide. Finally, she was persuaded by Saugata Ray to file her nomination papers and contest the election.
While her party colleagues might find her hard to fathom, Banerjee has proved time and time again that she has understood what the people of West Bengal — those who don’t support the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) — are saying. She contested her first Lok Sabha election against a CPI-M heavyweight, Somnath Chatterjee from Jadavpur, and defeated him so thoroughly that he could never return to fight an election from there again. She made much of an attempt on her life in 1998 soon after she founded the TMC, and emerged as the leader from West Bengal with the biggest mass following in the state. This was because she never lost her moorings, whether in power or out of it: She lives in a simple house with a tin roof, near a mosquito-infested open canal. She wears simple handloom saris, rubber chappals (she was wearing a white pair when she met Sonia Gandhi) and a modest Indian watch as her only jewellery. Not for her, Montblanc pens and fancy cars. She recently moved out of her home for renovation, but is back there now.
So Banerjee is against the CPI-M. So are a lot of people in Bengal. This, combined with her firebrand oratory, means that all the forces that are discontented with the CPI-M — both rural and urban — are able to coalesce behind her. But the problem is nobody knows what she is for.
Banerjee has steadfastly refused to share a platform with anyone from the Left Front barring the failed tripartite meeting at Raj Bhavan in 2007 to resolve the Singur crisis. But now, things are different. It is a matter of having a common candidate for the Rashtrapati. She has already had a meeting with Sonia Gandhi. The question is whether there will be one Opposition candidate for the post? In which case, she will have to overcome her antipathy to the Left. Can this ever happen? That will be the real test of how far Banerjee has come.