Mamata Bannerjee: Rise of Bengal’s tigress

She still wears her trademark flip-flops, and chooses not to live in the state residence. But West Bengal's leader may be India's most powerful woman

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The Independent Online

Every morning at around 11am, a piece of theatre plays out in the lane next to the single-storey home of chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

After police have stopped the traffic on Harish Chatterjee Street and pushed back curious onlookers, from her home emerges a convoy of vehicles that resembles the cavalcade of no other Indian chief minister. It consists of just three cars – two police vehicles following behind a small, black hatch-back, perched on the front passenger seat of which sits Ms Banerjee.

“I see myself as a commoner and will remain a commoner the rest of my life. I have risen from the grass roots level and must remain deeply  connected to the grass roots,” Ms Banerjee told The Independent. “I cannot alienate myself from the poor, the disadvantaged and the deprived. I feel that I must continue to stay in my humble home and drive in a modest car and continue to dress like the common people. All this comes naturally to me and [is] from my heart.”

It is a year since Ms Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress Party swept to power in the state of West Bengal, tapping into the support of the poor and knocking aside the communists who had held control of the· state of and its sagging, stagnating capital, Kolkata, for the previous 34 years.

In those 12 months, the 57-year-old has not just· continued to live in her simple house, eschewing the option of an official residence, but has also opted to keep with the simple white· saris and rubber sandals she has chosen all her life. Her car does not even have a flashing red light.

But while the chief minister has kept her simple lifestyle, her profile, both within India and internationally, has soared. A crucial member of the Congress Party-led coalition that runs the federal government, Ms Banerjee has repeatedly flexed her political muscles on issues she believes could be damaging for her party – most importantly blocking a plan to allow foreign supermarkets start operating in India.

Her increasing importance was underscored earlier this month, first when Time magazine named her as among the world’s 100 most influential  people and secondly when Hilary Clinton made her the first stop-off point on her recent visit to India. It was the first visit to West Bengal by a sitting US Secretary of State since India gained independence.

She has also faced allegations of authoritarianism. An academic who circulated by email a cartoon that Ms Banerjee’s supporters deemed to be insulting to her, found himself beaten up and thrown behind bars. She also sought to decide what newspapers, the state’s public libraries should stock and got involved in controversies that a number of observers she should have steered clear of. When Ms Banerjee secured power last spring, many in West Bengal were euphoric. Large numbers felt the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which had held office since 1977, had fallen into a rut.

Others were put off by the level of political violence. Answering a series of questions by email, Ms Banerjee claimed her priority on coming to office had been ending this violence, tackling unemployment and encouraging development. When she was appointed chief minister she also announced major infrastructure projects and a somewhat-mocked wish to transform Kolkata into London. Her task was not made any easier by the huge budget deficit the state faced.

“Our first objective was to bring back peace, tranquility and order in the State which would then allow the regeneration of Bengal and prepare the grounds for a renaissance,” she said. “When we took office a year ago we found that the State was in disarray, facing a severe structural collapse and total financial bankruptcy after 34 years of misrule of the Communists.”

During three days in West Bengal, a number of people spoke of a feeling a new sense of energy. Ms Banerjee’s government has set about developing the underground network and building new roads, she has cleared hawkers from the streets – a move that has upset some poor people - and told the police to enforce road and driving laws. After years of turmoil in the Darjeeling hills, her government has reached an agreement with breakaway Gorkhas. But what Ms Banerjee has not been able to do is tackle the problem that many of her supporters most keenly feel – the high prices of food, cooking fuel and other basic commodities.  “Sugar is expensive, kerosene is expensive, rice is expensive,” said a man who was selling tea opposite the labyrinthine British-era Writers’ Building where the chief minister has her office.

Even those who think kindly of her say high prices continue to plague poor people. “I have been here for 34 years. I have known her since she was a kid. He is very good, a very nice person,” said one neighbour, 65-year-old Kamala Das. But Mrs Das said that on essentials – vegetables, rice and kerosene – there had been no change.

Mrs Banerjee’s opponents claim, perhaps not surprisingly, that she has not lived up to her words. At the CPI-M state party’s headquarters, where photographs of Lenin and Stalin still grace the walls and where the pain of defeat still feels raw, spokesman Mohammed Salim claimed Ms Banerjee was failing. “A lot of promises were made. There was a lot of hype and a lot of expectation,” he said. “She promised she could deliver the moon.”

Less obviously partisan observers have been surprised by a series of incidents which appeared to show an authoritarian side to Ms Banerjee. One of the most notorious involved the beating and subsequent detention of a university professor who had distributed by email a cartoon poking fun at the chief minister.

In a classroom at Kolkata’s Javadpur University, professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, a member of the department of chemistry, said he had been beaten by activists from Ms Banerjee’s party over what he said was an innocuous cartoon. He has been charged under cyber-crime laws.

“Our country, India, is a democratic country. Our people must have the right to freely say these things,” said Mr Mahapatra, who said he was a supporter, but not a member, of the CPI-M.

Asked about allegations of authoritarianism, Ms Banerjee said the professor had been charged because he used a housing cooperative email  address to distribute the cartoon and that the law was taking “its own course”.

“I am shocked to hear that there is an allegation of authoritarianism against someone who fought for 40 years against authoritarianism and fascist behaviour of the Communists,” she added. “My motto in life is defined by democracy to the core. Therefore, this is a motivated mal-propaganda by vested interests.”

Some say the Ms Banerjee’s street fighting rhetoric underlines her failure to have yet made the shift from being in opposition to chief minister. Others say that a refusal to listen to advice or to trust people is the legacy of having broken from the Congress Party in 1996 and built her own movement from scratch. “Here is someone who clawed her way to the top in the face of insurmountable odds,” said Swapan Dasgupta, a leading journalist and commentator.

As it is, Ms Banerjee will most likely be ultimately judged by whether she can help bring development – both domestic and international - to a part of India that has often been seen as unfriendly to business, a perception she did little to change during her years in opposition.

For many years, the US talked of the “Bengal Wall” represented by the CPI-M. On her recent visit, Mrs Clinton and Ms Banerjee talked of mutual cooperation and the chief minister told a joint press conference: “[The US] will invest in West Bengal as a partner state.”