Singur. Faded brown fields stretch outside the ramshackle town. A broken wall here, piles of concrete water pipes there. It was here, in this once fertile land, that the Tata Nano automobile factory was to be built. It was here, in 2006-2007, that the anti-land acquisition protests of Singur snowballed into a movement that dislodged the 34-year-old Left Front government and swept Mamata Banerjee and her small party, the Trinamool Congress, to power.
Today, 14 years later, Singur’s locals tell me the agitation was a big blunder. Youths whose fathers had been protestors say they would all have been far better off if the Tata factory had come up. “We want jobs, shilpo, (industry), karkhana (factory) and karmasanstha (employment), but industry is scared of Didi, and as long as she’s here, big industry won’t come to Bengal.” It’s a similar refrain even among Mamata’s strong supporters. In the 2016 polls, according to a Lokniti-CSDS poll, 48% women voted for the Trinamool, making women a crucial Mamata votebank. Today, young women at Visva Bharati University say they still admire Didi, but they’re worried about the lack of jobs and lack of industry after the Singur protests.
Yet, if there were no Singur agitation, there would have been no Didi. Love her or hate her, Mamata Banerjee dominates the 2021 Bengal assembly polls. This election is entirely about her.
A decade ago, in the ‘tsunami’ Bengal assembly polls of 2011, I travelled on the campaign trail with her in her white Innova, as she whirled through Bengal like a kal baisakhi (gusty rainstorm). Gargantuan crowds yelled “Didi, Didi.” Firing them up, she screamed, “Do you want the CPM out?” “Yes, yes!” they roared back. She was exhilarated at the response. “I am a simple man,” she told me as we munched on biscuits in the car. Year after painful year, she had been a lone battle-axe, taking on the Left in violent street fights. “Every part of my body is operated on,” she told me, “my brain, my belly, my arms, my back. I’ve been close to death so many times. The CPM tortured me for years.”
Her struggles have toughened her – but also made her suspicious, unpredictable. Just a year after her breathtaking 2011 victory, in 2012, she tore off the mic and stomped out of a TV show I was hosting because students asked her questions she did not like. Didi is quick to anger, and in her first term, Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was jailed for circulating cartoons of her; another academic, Partha Sarathi Ray, was arrested for participating in protests. She had promised to rid Bengal of the suffocating fear of the Left, but today there is the same crippling fear of the Trinamool’s local commissars.
Yet, Bengal is visibly transformed. There are impressive new roads and several new bridges. Kolkata’s streets and pavements are cleaner than ever before, new construction is everywhere. Once-destitute villages are dotted with brightly-painted pukka homes. According to a Trinamool report card, the average per person income in Bengal more than doubled from Rs 51,543 in 2010 to Rs 1,09,491 in 2019. This still lags behind other states – and big industry is still not coming to Bengal. However, well-designed welfare schemes like Kanyashree (financial assistance for women’s education), Krishak Bondhu (assistance to farmers) and the flagship Swasthya Sathi (health insurance upto Rs 5 lakh) have worked well. The phrase “kaaj hoyechhe”(work has been done) is heard from many.
Why then is Mamata Banerjee so vulnerable to a rampaging BJP, and why is the saffron party, which stood at zero just a decade ago, now looking so dominant in Bengal? The answer lies in Mamata Banerjee’s own “jhograti” or “fighter-cock” style of politics, and the manner in which she has outsourced her party to local Trinamool strongmen. Her government has notched up some solid achievements, but she is unable to project them in a rational, focused manner. Her quarrelsome, confrontational style detracts from her considerable achievements. In sharp contrast to the Modi Government, which mounts a formidable PR offensive for every small announcement, the Mamata government’s significant work in infrastructure and welfare has been glossed over in the media, partly because of her own rough-edged personality.
The BJP has been quick to seize on her personality traits to keep painting her as a childishly uncontrolled figure given to public outbursts. At a function to honour Neta-ji held at Victoria Memorial in January, she became publicly incensed when BJP supporters shouted “Jai Shri Ram.” This lack of composure (in contrast to the late Jayalalithaa’s steely calm), and failure to mature as a politician, is a tragedy given how hard she has worked at delivering a raft of welfare schemes.
Apart from her personality, Mamata Banerjee’s biggest vulnerability is her party and local party bosses, many of whom are accused of rampant corruption or ‘cut money.’ In Birbhum, Trinamool “strongman” Anubrata Mondal lives in an imposing house with Toyotas parked in front, a posse of policeman sitting in the outer room. He travels in an 8-vehicle convoy and he and his family own several rice mills. All local midday meal schemes have to source supplies from his mills.
During the 2018 panchayat polls, Mondal declared, “In my Birbhum, there is no election.” Such is the might and muscle of the Trinamool that in these polls, 34% seats remained uncontested. This terror of the Trinamool’s local ‘dadas’ is chillingly widespread. In Bahiri village in Nanoor in Birbhum, the epicenter of panchayat poll violence in 2018, bombs exploded in the streets and one person was shot dead in public, but eyewitnesses are tightlipped from fear. The ferocity of those polls still haunts the Bengal countryside.
In many ways, Mamata Banerjee has emulated the politics of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah within the BJP, dictatorially suppressing dissent and centralizing power in her own persona. Her drive for complete dominance in the party, and the rising clout of her nephew Abhishek, has led to desertions by key aides Mukul Roy and Suvendu Adhikari. Also, the Trinamool’s annihilation of the Left and denial of any opposition space whatsoever paved the way for the BJP to fill the vacuum.
In 2011, Mamata Banerjee was a lively, charismatic, plebian and pro-poor woman leader who harnessed to herself a tidal wave of goodwill and expectation. Today, at 66, she should have become a senior stateswoman armed with two big mandates, taking a lofty high ground against the BJP’s taunts and jibes. She could have ignored lesser leaders like BJP state chief Dilip Ghosh instead of fighting them on their terms. Instead, in spite of her achievements, she faces the toughest test of her political life. She would have passed this test more easily if she had moderated her own fieriness, and if the Trinamool’s power-drunk party bosses had not repressed voters so brutally. In trying to bring ‘poriborton’ (change) to Bengal, she perhaps forgot to become part of the change herself. In a bruising and tight election, this may cost her.
(Sagarika Ghose is a senior journalist and author.)
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