“You must keep three things in mind if you want to understand Mamata Banerjee,” a veteran UPA minister had told this correspondent after Banerjee returned to Delhi with 19 MPs after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections to become a key UPA ally. “First, she thinks she is the best judge of everything under the sun. Second, she has no permanent favourite in her coterie. And third, she thinks it is every person’s sacred duty to help her but she has no obligation to help others!”
A top Congress leader (also a former chief minister in Hindi-heartland) recently expressed his desire to visit Sundarbans during a private, light-hearted chat with some party colleagues. One of the colleagues advised the former CM: “Just wait for a few days. Let Mamata Banerjee become the chief minister. She can arrange a special trip to Sundarbans to ensure you easily spot tigers.” The leader, with folded hands, quipped: “It’s easier to face tigers alone in the jungle than to interact with Mamata Banerjee.”
Delhi’s political class may have various perceptions and skepticism about her, but during the last few years, Banerjee, a graduate from South Kolkata’s Jogmaya Devi College, has proved all her critics wrong. After 2004 elections, when her Trinamool Congress was reduced in the Lok Sabha to just one MP (Banerjee herself), many had started writing her political obituaries. But after Singur her politics got a new lease of life and she has already dispatched the longest-serving democratically-elected communist government on the planet to ICU today, and will, probably, send it to morgue tomorrow.
Born on January 5, 1955, and popularly called Didi, she is the most popular mass leader in West Bengal, going by the mammoth crowd at her rallies. Even her critics admit she has a unique way to communicate to her audience and people close to her. At her rallies, she walks around the dais and recites Urdu or Bengali couplets, drawing thunderous applause. At her house in Delhi’s B D Marg (Banerjee still uses the same flat where she first came in as an MP in 1984), she would pull an acolyte out of his deep sleep and make him eat cucumber, apple and banana at 2 am, as she feels “he is not taking care of his health properly”. The fruit diet had come after the poor fellow was made to eat half a kilo of mutton with rice at lunch and dinner.
The daughter of Promileswar and Gayatri Banerjee, from a lower middle-class family of Kolkata, she first caught the attention of Congress leaders when she, as a college student, jumped and danced on Jaiprakash Narayan’s car in Kolkata in protest. After a few years, Banerjee was anointed the chief of the Youth Congress. In the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, after the death of Indira Gandhi, Banerjee tasted her first major success against the CPI(M) when she defeated the heavyweight comrade Somnath Chatterjee from Jadavpur. Except in 1989, she never lost an election.
Banerjee distanced herself from Congress and floated her own party, Tronamool Congress, in 1997, that went on to become the largest opposition party of the state. At present, her party is the biggest ally of the Congress in the second UPA government.
The biggest challenge for Banerjee will start after the result of the Assembly elections is announced on Friday. If she becomes the chief minister, what will be her approach on industrialization — the need of the hour for the state? How will she, after having started an anti-land acquisition movement as an opposition leader herself, tackle the issue as an administrator? How will she woo investors after having forced the Tatas to shift their Nano plant Gujarat?
And, most importantly, will the temperamental lady be able to run the government for full five years with an aggressive Left and not-so-trustworthy Congress in the Assembly?