Variety

Feisty Mamata

AJITHA MENON | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on April 14, 2011

Full of colour: A little girl smears colours on a poster of Mamata Banerjee on the eve of Basant Utsav in South Dinajpur, West Bengal.   -  PTI



Swapan Banerjee lost his father at the age of two. The toddler was inconsolable until his didi placed her hand on his head and said, “Don't worry Babun, I will take care of you.”

Swapan, now 39, says that his sister, Mamata Banerjee, the feisty Bengal politician and didi to millions in the eastern Indian State, has kept that promise to this day. Though well known not just to the people of Bengal, but also across India, few realise the struggles that she has gone through or understand the support system working in her favour.

As a teenager Mamata lost her father Promileswar Banerjee and took up the responsibility of looking after her mother and two younger brothers with the help of her elder brother, Ajit. Interested in politics, she joined the Youth Congress as a student, and rapidly rose to become the general secretary of the State Mahila Congress. “Though always busy with her political career, she never neglected the family. Whenever she has the time, she cooks or knits sweaters for us. Singing, poetry and painting are her other passions,” says Swapan, who lists the simple ghughuni (a white gram Bengali preparation) as his sister's signature dish. “It tastes almost like meat when she makes it,” he smiles.

Emotional side

Emotion has been a defining factor in Mamata's career. Her speeches have successfully played on the sentiments of the listeners, enabling her to build up a massive following, particularly among women. Her slogan ‘Maa, Maati, Manush' (Mother, Earth, People) has caught the imagination of the young and old alike in West Bengal and the party she leads, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), is expected to end the Left's long reign in West Bengal. She knows well that women form her main support base. While releasing the list of candidates for the Assembly elections, she said, “Mothers, sisters and daughters have all supported me in the most difficult of times. When I was on hunger strike during the Singur anti-land acquisition agitation, I know that kitchen fires in many homes remained extinguished as a show of support for me. I know that women of all ages back me and I consider it my greatest strength.”

Of course, not everyone agrees that she is a champion of women. Says Shyamali Gupta, Central Committee Member of the CPI (M), “She was one of the leading supporters of the Women's Reservation Bill, but when the Bill was finally put to vote in the Rajya Sabha, the two Trinamool Congress MPs abstained. Mamata later gave the flimsy excuse that the Cabinet had not taken her into confidence before placing the Bill in the Upper House. It's this vacillating attitude that makes her immature as a politician.”

Her political opponents find her characteristic independence autocratic. But Mamata, 56, doesn't seem to care. She cherishes her independence, in both her personal and political life. After she was expelled from the Congress in 1997 for demanding a “clean party which was not the B-team of the CPI (M)”, Mamata founded the Trinamool Congress, the biggest challenge to the 34-year Left rule in West Bengal today.



No male mentor

Yet, unlike other successful women politicians like Mayawati, Jayalalithaa or Sonia Gandhi, Mamata has never had a male mentor or politically well-connected relatives to smoothen her political journey. “No one can question her struggles or the transparent honesty with which she has fought her battles. But more than a politician, I admire and accept her as someone who feels for the people and works for their well-being,” remarks Mahesweta Devi, 86, Magsaysay Award winning writer and social activist.

Mamata's familial bonds give her the strength to carry on. Her mother Gayatri has time and again acted as her main support and lifeline, especially when she reached her nadir after the TMC was routed in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. Then she had been the sole MP elected to Parliament from TMC - down from eight MPs in 1999. She could also get only 30 seats in the 294-member State Assembly in the 2006 elections. But recovering from the setback, Mamata took her party tally to 19 MPs in 2009, making the TMC the largest alliance partner of the Congress in the UPA II government.

Her brother says responsible for Mamata's phoenix-like qualities is the quiet courage her mother has given her. “There is a special bond between them. Even today didi does everything personally for mother, who is over 80 and ill. Whenever didi sets out to do something, mother sees her off with prasad and a 10 rupee note. Didi never leaves the house without that,” says Swapan.

A rare indulgence

Mamata used to love the naadus (sweet coconut balls) made by her mother, but diabetes has made her more abstemious. Her one indulgence is acquiring a treadmill at home to exercise every day. “She talks to us about the house, about changing curtains, dusting — all the sundry household work that catches her attention. Inside the house she is like any other sister-in-law,” says Kalpana, wife of Mamata's youngest brother.

Mamata can also be spontaneously generous. When a Muslim youth Rizwanur Rehman was found dead on the railway tracks after a rift-ridden marriage with a Hindu girl from a rich Marwari family, and the story of his victimisation both by the girl's powerful family and the State administration was exposed, it was Mamata's soothing presence that calmed Rehman's family, especially his mother, Kishwar Jehan. “She is accessible not just to her party workers, but also to those in need. That's her biggest plus point. She identifies with our problems. She clearly comes across as a people's person, a mass leader,” says Sanahita Mondal, a TMC Councillor from the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.

Women like Sanahita always stand by Mamata. Whilst addressing public meetings, during padayatras — the mainstay of her election campaign this time — or even door-to-door campaigning and press conferences, she is often flanked by female party workers. She almost always has at least one woman aide with her when she is travelling within the State. And the women are not just companions, they form part of her core think tank. She has fielded 35 women candidates out of 227 in these elections, and relies on leaders like Sonali Guha, Shamima Sheikh and Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar to convey to her the pulse of the people.

Fierce independence

Swapan, however, adds: “Though she listens to everyone, each decision she makes is her own. It's not that her family is totally cut off from her political life. However, it is not mandatory that she takes our advice.” Another strong characteristic of this otherwise feisty politician is that she has no qualms about displaying her emotional side, even in public. She cries when she feels pain, and cries even harder when others feel pain. This is the USP that has taken her a long way in Indian politics.

© Women's Feature Service

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Published on April 14, 2011
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