» News » Mamata, the 'slumdog politician', comes of age

Mamata, the 'slumdog politician', comes of age

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: March 13, 2009 12:56 IST
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Very few events can teach you as much about contemporary India as the Indian election.

Like, in Gujarat if Chief Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party wins much more seats than what it won last time in 2004 it will help him stake claim for the national leadership. It will help BJP at the Centre for playing national politics well. In the last election, BJP won 14 out of 26 seats. If BJP wins an impressive number of seats this time, one of the reasons for success will be Ratan Tata's Nano car project.


Because, Gujarati voters take it as a metaphor for development culture. People comment proudly, "Look, how fast he cleared the project? Modi is development-oriented. He cleared the entire project in flat three days…"

Tata himself praised Modi sky-high at the Vibrant Gujarat summit in Ahmedabad and said that it took only three days for the Modi government to clear the project. But, travel west and you will find that the Nano story is negative.

A Kokata-based senior journalist of Vartman, a Bengali daily, tells, "Ratan Tata's Nano project is the big issue in 2009 election. In West Bengal, people are emotional. We have attachment to our land. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was sworn in on May 18, 2006, after winning assembly election. He met Ratan Tata on same evening and the Nano project was finalised.

"Bureaucrats took Tata's men to Singur to show the land on May 25. And the land acquiring process started very soon. The haste that was shown by Buddhadeb has harmed his image irreversibly. Today, in rural area he is the most unpopular chief minister amongst the landless labours and farmers who are having small holdings. People found it very insensitive that the due process of law, which is necessarily slow, was not followed with proper valuation of land and rehabilitation of people who were going to be displaced. A new land movement was born because of undue haste shown in favour of Bhatacharjee-Tata pact for Nano."

Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, who led anti-Nano people's agitation and threw out Tata's Nano project from Singur, has got the highly favourable seat-sharing conditions with Congress. No less than Congress chief Sonia Gandhi supported her in the tough negotiation process, claims her confidante.

Congress wants to weaken the CPI-M and CPI in West Bengal and Kerala so that after the elections their bargaining power within Third Front diminishes. Congress will have tough time if the Left parties' block remains as a kingmaker.

On March 12, CPI leader Veliyam Bhargavan threatened to pull out of Left Democratic Front government on issue of seat-sharing. It may not break but if CPI and CPM do not co-ordinate campaign well it will be a rout of LDF in Kerala. Congress's larger goal for power in New Delhi has helped Mamata by default in seat-sharing exercise in West Bengal.

Her party will be fighting 28 seats while Congress will be fighting only on 14 seats. Agitation against the Nano car project has raised Mamta's stock.

Trinamool Congress claims that the land movement was born when Tata was shown land of Singur in May 2006.

Dinesh Trivedi, general secretary of Trinamool Congress who is fighting Lok Sabha election from Barrackpore constituency, tells, "Will Tata dare to write an open letter to Bal Thackarey (Shiv Sena supremo) against their policies? We have made Tata an election issue because he is a ruthless businessman who wants to gain at every step. We have exposed him."

Dwaipayan Bhattacharya, scholar of political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, tells, "First time ever, the CPM-led Left government is clearly on defensive. First time ever, opposition parties in West Bengal have with them anti-Left and popular issues."

West Bengal is divided on the issue of development. There are many people who argue that unless West Bengal's industrialization picks up at desired speed there is no way development could took place.

But, as Dwaipayan Bhattacharya says, "It's a question of rural votes. Left parties were winning because of agrarian reforms, Panchayati Raj reforms. How do rural voters perceive these issues that matter? All the issues that are being raised by Mamata are the Left issues."

What is at test for Mamata is whether she can translate sentiments of people for their land into votes through grass-root politics and electoral machinery.

"In the past, with similar issues, CPI-M was able to do that. They have a terribly strong organization on ground." says Bhattacharya.

Since 2001, Mamata has failed to deliver in state and Lok Sabha elections but now, even the Congress leaders are claiming that she has matured and is becoming calculative when she opens her mouth.

In south Kolkata constituency -- from where Mamata is contesting -- lot many new voters have been added, thanks to the delimitation exercise. A substantial addition is of Muslim votes. Breaking of ties with the National Democratic Alliance makes sense for Mamata and her party, as in many constituencies 30% voters are Muslims.

Mamata continues to live in a near-slum-like area of Kalighat temple in Kolkata. She still wears her trademark cheap cotton saree and slippers. She loves painting in her leisure time.

Her father was a refugee of partition. He earned his living out of trading building materials. To finance her studies, Mamata taught at the municipal school for girls. Her native Bengali makes her distinct in the Delhi crowd, but the lady is all set to take on CPI-M on issue of land, police excesses, Muslims and farmer's issues.

However, in every sense she is the 'slumdog politician' because in a state run by Marxists she has been able to identify herself with the issues dear to people's heart.

People who ridicule her as a 'woman full of antics' cannot ignore the fact that despite losing a series of elections, she has not quit. She believes you are not defeated unless you quit.

Soon after her anti-Nano movement, she found her first real taste of success in the Panchayat and Jilla Parishad elections.

Bhattacharya has criticized Mamata in the past, alleging that she is an insecure autocrat who does not allow anyone to come near her in stature in the party.

But, he too agrees that, "She has matured. She is not giving hasty reactions. She seems to have a good bunch of advisors." 

The fact that chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya's personal popularity and charisma has declined is now helping Mamata.

Bhattacharya says, "The chief minister was the most popular leader of the state in January 2007, but by March 2007 his popularity was gone. This rapid transformation was dramatic as well as tragic. The comments he made and actions he took in Singur brought him down. Buddhadeb's economic line politically failed."

It is not the case that the CPI-M and Buddhadeb do not have support, but in West Bengal the urban population is just 30% and out of them only 27% voters are young. Also, Mamata has Sonia Gandhi's support. It is a different story that the alliance between Trinamool and Congress has been strongly resented by Congress cadre in many parts of the state. Its difficult to judge what impact it will have on the results.

Dinesh Trivedi says, "In the election, we are going to say that this election is to bring back democracy to West Bengal. You cannot file a FIR in police station unless you flash out your CPI-M membership card. Second, we will tell traditional anti-Congress voters that why are you voting for Left front?

"As soon as election results will be out, Left parties will extend support to the Congress to stop NDA from coming to power. Do you remember how after 2004 elections, then CPI-M general secretary leader Harkishan Singh Surjit went to Sonia Gandhi to lend his support in the first few hours of the result?"

According to reports in regional media in Kolkata, BJP leader L K Advani's meeting with party cadre in Netaji Stadium did not generate excitement. In the current contest, if BJP remains weak it does not help CPI-M because their votes will add weight to Trinamool or Congress.

The land issue has changed the politics of West Bengal so much that CPI-M who wants to lead the Third Front may find soon land below their feet cracking. In view of this, Sonia's support to Mamata during the seat-sharing exercise is easy to decipher. Mamata is an important tool to keep Left front at bay for Sonia Gandhi. In 2009, India's regional politics is intertwining with national politics, completely.

Putting the 2009 election in perspective, Dwaipayan Bhattacharya says, "Indian politics is regionalized. This will be the fate of nation for 10 years to come. Support regional parties to fulfil your national ambitions. National parties are thinly spread in the country and regional parties are deeply entrenched in regions."

This time Mamata should get it right because by opposing Nano she has deeply entrenched her politics into the issue of land to win votes and in real terms, if successful, she would hit Left parties' political base at New Delhi. Advantage Congress!

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Sheela Bhatt