A Synthesiser for Mamata

The fiery Mamata Banerjee, obsessed with throwing out "fascist CPM" from Bengal, loves her spartan lifestyle
Rakhi Chakrabarty Delhi

Mamata Banerjee doesn't seem to like the colour red. She doesn't wear red-coloured clothes and avoids red chillies. A close aide of the Trinamool Congress chief says, "Even if she spots red chillies in the kitchen, she refuses to eat whatever is being cooked." She doesn't drink laal cha (red tea), prepared by brewing tea leaves. She insists on adding milk to tea so that the red of the brew disappears.

There is some symbolism in this. After all, the communists in West Bengal, whose party colour is red, are her sworn enemies. Has she internalised her obsessive political animosity?

She owes her rise in politics to her rabid opposition to the Left Front. Or, to be precise, the CPM. But, Banerjee doesn't mind admitting that she respects the Left ideology. She also doesn't mind welcoming various Left Front (LF) constituents like the RSP or the Forward Bloc to her camp. That would break up the LF and send the CPM to the wilderness of politics, she hopes. Her common refrain: "They are fascists. They have finished Bengal."

Her public meetings are rarely complete without her reiterating, "I will not rest until I have thrown the CPM out of Bengal." Even in private, she spews venom at the CPM.

Mamata Banerjee was initiated into politics by Congress leader Subrata Mukherjee. Banerjee was then a student of Ashutosh College in south Kolkata. Mukherjee was then a firebrand leader of the Congress in Kolkata. Also, he was the guiding force of Chhatra Parishad, Congress' students' wing. Banerjee as a student was drafted into politics by Mukherjee.

Many in political circles called her, "Subratada's comrade". He was instrumental in getting her a Congress ticket for the 1984 Lok Sabha election. That was the first election she contested and won, defeating none other than Somnath Chatterjee, then a CPM candidate. She lost elections only once to CPM's Malini Bhattacharya in 1989.

Banerjee overtook her political guru but continued with his brand of fiery, populist politics with a penchant for playing to the gallery. Political observers say Banerjee's brand of politics is self-limiting because it is based on blind opposition to the CPM.
Banerjee couldn't be bothered. She follows the course she has charted for herself. Either you follow her, or leave. "She doesn't tolerate opposition to her views or diktats," says a senior Trinamool leader.

In 1998, Banerjee split with the Congress calling it the "B-team of the CPM" and formed her own party with the sole agenda to oust the CPM. Thus, Trinamool Congress was born. Among those who opposed her in the Congress was Pranab Mukherjee. Interestingly, after so many years, she struck an electoral alliance with her parent party on her own terms in the Lok Sabha polls. The result was phenomenal. It shook the foundation of the Left's 32-year rule in Bengal.

Trinamool is practically a one-woman party. For the rest of the leaders, it is a game of snake and ladder. "Nobody knows when he or she will fall out of Didi's favour. So, all of us try to keep her in good humour," confides a leader. "She will never allow anybody to share the limelight. If she wanted, she could have got at least three cabinet berths in the UPA government. But, she can't bear to see her party colleagues given more importance than her. For the same reason, she will never merge with the Congress. She wants unaccountable power and is loath to sharing it with anyone," says a former Trinamool leader.

Banerjee's short-temper is well-known. Even at press conferences, she snaps or even walks out, if she doesn't like the questions. Of late, she has mellowed down, say her associates.

She is not comfortable with leaders senior in age and experience. "She knows she can dominate her juniors and make them toe her line but can't do the same with her seniors. So, she prefers to keep them at an arm's length," says a Trinamool leader. However, she is respectful towards her seniors.

Her mentor, Mukherjee, had quit Congress to join Trinamool and went on to become mayor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. During his five-year stint, he had serious differences with Banerjee to the extent that the elected municipal board was on the verge of getting dissolved thrice.

Yet, whenever Mukherjee entered the room, Banerjee stood up as a mark of respect. Later, Mukherjee quit the party and eventually returned to the Congress.

Senior Trinamool leaders often complain Banerjee is guided by her whims rather than logic. "She is emotional and often her heart takes over her even while taking important political decisions," says an old associate.

She is conscious about preserving an honest image. That influences her political decisions, too. For instance, in 2002 during a Tehelka exposé of arms purchase scam, allegations of corruption were levelled against Bangaru Laxman and George Fernandes. Banerjee was then railway minister in Vajpayee's NDA government. To distance herself from controversy, she decided to quit as minister.

Her flip-flop relation with the BJP didn't go down well with the electorate. From 1998 to 2001, she was part of NDA. During 2001 assembly polls, she courted the Congress but couldn't reap dividends. She returned to the NDA and remained a BJP ally till 2006.
In the 2004 general elections, Trinamool fared badly. It got only one seat: Banerjee's. She felt that as a BJP ally, she was losing out on Muslim votes. In 2006, she parted ways with the NDA. She admitted later in private circles that quitting NDA was a mistake.

Her obsession with 'image' stretches to the way she dresses, the choice of her white handloom saris from a particular store at Gariahat in south Kolkata, her rubber 'hawai' chappals, her humble dwelling at Kalighat and her Spartan lifestyle. All this is geared to construct a political image: of a grassroots leader, a people's leader, more stoic than the communist.

Anindya Jana, journalist in Ananda Bazar Patrika, has been closely following her for years now. He says, "She might be carefully cultivating an image. But, you must give her credit for the fact that she chooses to lead a frugal life even though she can afford all the comforts. That is a sacrifice of sorts."

Beneath her fiery exterior is a caring and soft-hearted girl-next-door. "When she goes out on tours, she takes care that every member of her entourage has eaten. Only after that, she sits down to her meal," says Jana. She is a small-eater. She is fond of cooking, if she finds the time, especially, meat dishes: kosha mangsho. For the last two years, she has taken to the treadmill to stay fit.

Banerjee, 54, is devoted to her mother. "Even now, before leaving house she seeks her mother's permission. Interestingly, she takes Rs 10 from her mother before going out. Here, she's still the little girl who asks her mother for pocket money," says Jana.
She is deeply religious. Like any ordinary middle-class Bengali woman, she keeps fast for Mangalchandi and on Fridays for Santoshi Ma. She is a worshipper of Goddess Kali.

She is fond of music, especially Rabindrasangeet, and old songs by Lata, Asha and Kishore. "When she is alone, she plays the synthesizer. That happens mostly when she is in Delhi. And, she plays really well," said Ratan Mukherjee, special officer, in the railway ministry. When Banerjee first came to Delhi in 1980 to attend a labour conference, Mukherjee had received her. Since then, he has remained with her through thick and thin. Banerjee travels to work most often in his Zen, discarding the official car, and all the accompanying frills and perks which go with her high-profile job.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2009

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