By Arya Roy:
The state of West Bengal is in the middle of a tumultuous Assembly election season. This is the second time that I will not be able to cast my vote because I will be away taking my university exams. However, since my roots are in West Bengal, I hope that everyone who is voting in the state is aware of the truth about the political leaders they elect. This will help people make informed decisions about whom to vote.
In West Bengal, when it comes to politics, only one name comes to mind – Mamata Banerjee. In all the opinion polls so far, her party has emerged at the top. I first became acquainted with her as a result of the political bandhs or strikes she conducted. Surprisingly, these bandhs were quite effective in compelling people to take her seriously. I would hear my father having heated discussions about her prospects in state politics with the neighbours. For me and my friends, bandhs were the perfect opportunity to play cricket all day without having to worry about attending classes.
I also remember listening to her as the chief guest at my school’s valedictory ceremony. She gave an inspiring speech on the role of the youth in society. A lot of the things she spoke about went over my head. The only thing that I remembered from her speech was the quote, “We cannot always build a future for our youth (referring to the lack of infrastructure) but we can always build our youth for the future.” At the time of the speech, it hardly left an impression on me. But it was hard to ignore the zeal in her voice. When the speech was over, the audience responded with a thunderous applause. Little did I know then that the enigmatic woman standing on the podium of my school auditorium would go on to become a household name in national politics. Whenever I find hopelessness and despair among friends who are disgruntled with the education system, I always remember what Mamata had said about preparing ourselves for the future without cribbing about issues that are beyond our control.
Back in 2011, Mamata Banerjee stormed the Left citadel that was Bengal, ridding the state of the 34-year-long Communist rule. It was quite a remarkable feat considering that only five years back Buddhadeb Bhattacharya emerged as a knight in shining armour of West Bengal, and the Left Front won a majority in the assembly while the opposition Trinamool Congress was totally marginalised. However, the outbreak of the Singur movement proved to be the turning point for Mamata Banerjee. By going on a month-long hunger strike, she risked her life to ensure that the distressed farmers of Singur were given back the land that was rightfully theirs.
Apart from Singur, Mamata also protested against the CPIM atrocities in Nandigram. Armed CPM cadres allegedly killed more than a dozen people and injured many more who were opposing the then Buddhadeb Bhattacharya government’s plans to take over their fertile farmlands for setting up a chemical hub over 10,000 acres of fertile land in March 2007. Banerjee’s political ambitions met a match in the clamour for change by Bengali intellectuals, especially those who were not just disgruntled defectors of the red camp but those who owed their success to talent and hard work and not favours distributed by the Marxists. The CPM government, for example, bred the amorphous entity called the ‘syndicate‘ which the party MLAs fed off at the expense of ordinary people outside the party.
Amidst growing resentment against the repressive governance of the incumbent party, the masses found Mamata’s call for ‘Poriborton’, or change, a welcome reprieve. I was amazed by Mamata’s ability to fight against all odds and never back down. She put on a brave face and gave us the courage to rise up against the dominant communists. In that sense, she proved to be an agent of change ushering in a new era in Bengal politics.
But after five years in power, Mamata has left the people of West Bengal disillusioned. Her brazen, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous, political moves had led to the coining of the term ‘Didigiri’. In this avatar, the fiery West Bengal Chief Minister has acquired a reputation for what detractors call extreme intolerance. Hell hath no fury as Didi if anything or anyone tries to scorn her. A Jadavpur University professor learnt this the hard way when he shared with friends what seemed like an innocuous cartoon that showed Mamata along with now Railway Minister Mukul Roy planning to get rid of party MP and Mr. Roy’s predecessor in the Rail Ministry, Dinesh Trivedi. It is with the same shrewdness and agility that she successfully saw off Maoist domination and the Gorkha movement in her state.
After a highly publicised sting operation blew away the already wobbly credentials of the senior leaders of ruling party tarnished by the disastrous Saradha money-laundering scandal, there was little room for anything worse especially in the era of anti-corruption sentiment engaging the whole nation. Still, most experts refused to downplay the fact that Mamata Banerjee is all set to win a second term as the West Bengal Chief Minister. All that was going to change on the fateful morning of March 31, 2016, when the most peculiar debacle rattled the unassuming city of Kolkata – an under-construction bridge in a bustling area of the city collapsed claiming the lives of 27 innocent people.
While the chief minister was away in Jangal Mahal on a crucial part of her campaign, news channels worldwide flashed the scenes of utter chaos that ensued in Kolkata after the irrevocable disaster. As the opposition came out all guns blazing to dismantle the self-esteem of the incumbent, there was not the slightest sense of tension in the Trinamool Congress camp. Quite evidently, this was not the first time that the enigmatic TMC leader was staring down the barrel of a gun and was yet hopeful of a turnaround in her fortunes. “Delhi is unleashing terror and atrocity. Nobody has seen such a thing during any election earlier. But I have accepted their challenge. I will not bow down to anyone,” Ms. Banerjee said.
The state electorate has unanimously accepted that Mamata is a ruthless woman. The corrupt syndicates that were born in the CPM era have only grown and flourished under the Trinamool government. She has fought the system to ensure that she is able to serve her followers. The same woman who routed the communists in Bengal interacts with the poor children in villages to help them. An embodiment of guts and compassion – she is truly working for the betterment of the state which, though well intentioned, seems ridiculous in the public eye at times. Her aggression gets the better of her sometimes. Thus, her heightened reactions to the slightest criticism lead to harsh judgement by the public. Her willingness to bring positive change is undisputed, but her hands are tied. She is compelled to indulge in political high-handedness to stay in power – the opium to her ambitious soul.
“They have little or no knowledge of Bengal. They speak without knowing. We are not surprised. The political bias is obvious. A lot of this is cooked up by the Delhi babus,” TMC chief spokesperson Derek O’ Brien said about the critics of TMC rule in line with his leader Mamata’s tone throughout this election season. What remains to be seen is whether her status as an indomitable firebrand politician sees her through this election. Otherwise, the dreaded odium of CPM politicians will take over Writer’s Building after a five-year hiatus.