Mamata (Didi) Banerjee

The sole female chief minister (head of state government) in India today

Banerjee grew up in a lower-middle-class part of south Calcutta (now Kolkata), and her father died when she was young. Still, she was able to go to college, eventually earning several degrees, including a bachelor’s in law and a master’s in arts from the University of Calcutta. She became involved with politics while still in school, joining the Congress (I) Party in West Bengal and serving in a variety of positions within the party and in other local political organizations. She was first elected to the lower house (Lok Sabha) of the national parliament in 1984 as a representative from her home district in south Kolkata. She lost that seat in the 1989 parliamentary elections but regained it in 1991 and was returned to office in each succeeding election through 2009.

In parliament Banerjee served in several administrative capacities, both within the party and in the union (national) government, including three cabinet-level ministerial posts: railways (1999–2001 and 2009–11), without portfolio (2003–04), and coal and mines (2004). Although she was a rising star at the national level, Banerjee also retained strong ties to her home state of West Bengal.

She was known as Didi (“Big Sister”) to her followers and endeared herself to them by maintaining her identity with her humble roots — she wore simple cotton saris and still lived in her mother’s home — and never hesitating to voice her opinions bluntly and colourfully. She was especially outspoken against the communists, who had been in power in West Bengal since 1977.

In December 2006 Banerjee waged a 25-day hunger strike to protest the attempt by the West Bengal government to forcibly acquire land from farmers to build an automobile factory in the state. This issue became the catalyst for the party’s and Banerjee’s comeback from near political obscurity, and Banerjee used it as a means of rallying a growing number of supporters in West Bengal. The AITC had a strong showing in the 2009 national parliamentary elections and joined the Congress Party’s ruling coalition as the second largest faction.

In addition to her political activity, Banerjee wrote prolifically in both English and Bengali. She published more than two dozen books, including nonfiction works, such as Struggle for Existence (1998) and The Slaughter of Democracy (2006), and a volume of poetry.

Born in a lower middle-class, upper caste family at Kolkata in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s stormy political life is characterised by high emotions. The eldest in a family of several siblings, Banerjee struggled to make ends meet after her father passed away when she was 17. In her recollections of her student life, she takes care to note how her brooding temperament and existential concerns set her apart as ‘a bit different’ from her classmates.

A popular student leader during her college days, Banerjee’s organisational and oratorical skills were instrumental in her rise through the ranks within the Indian National Congress (INC), a party she was associated with until 1998, after which she broke away and established the AITC . Her earliest and, perhaps, biggest political victory was over the veteran leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) leader Somnath Chatterjee in the 1984 General Elections. Her two decade long parliamentary career, involved impassioned speeches on subjects close to her heart- often at the expense of critiquing the ruling INC. Notable among them are her campaign against the misuse of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act (TADA) in 1995.

Her career had an abundance of dramatic moments, both in the parliament and on the streets. In 1998, she came to a near exchange of blows with a Samajwadi Party MP due to the latter’s opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill in the parliament. Outside of the parliament, she led a 25-day hunger strike against land acquisition for industrial purposes at Singur in 2006. Following her participation in anti-land acquisition movements at Singur and Nandigram, she won the state assembly elections in 2011- ending the 34-year long Left Front rule in West Bengal.
Among her supporters in the Trinamool Congress, Banerjee’s status as a single woman professing her total commitment to politics, a carefully cultivated austere lifestyle involving white cotton saris, rubber flip-flops, jhola (cloth tote) bags and her welfarist policies have reinforced her image as a compassionate and protective Didi to the people of Bengal. In particular, the popular Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) schemes directed at enhancing educational opportunities for girl-students such as Kanyashree and Shobuj Sathi, have secured the support of women voters in West Bengal for the TMC in successive elections.

Like all her contemporaries, Banerjee is flawed. Who can forget the time she said rapes are on the rise because men and women interact freely? Or the times she arrested people for Facebook posts against her. She has often been accused by her critics of playing identity politics. But her appeal, for me, lies in the way she has fearlessly negotiated a man’s world — mostly alone — and emerged as one of India’s most successful politicians.

In Didi: A Political Biography, Monobina Gupta points out that when examined through the lens of gender, Banerjee’s story stands apart from the narratives of other powerful contemporary women leaders. Gupta quotes former TMC MP Krishna Bose as saying, “Mamata has not been the widow, wife, daughter or companion of somebody.” In that sense, Banerjee’s story is very different from other powerful politicians such as Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati or the late J. Jayalalithaa.

Gupta, who wrote the book during the run-up to the 2011 polls, which resulted in Banerjee becoming chief minister of West Bengal, illustrates how the CPM “leveraged gender as a weapon to trivialize, even vulgarize, their rhetoric of attack on the Trinamool Congress president, her status as a single woman without the bulwark of exotic lineage or formidable rank of wealth and class shielding her.”

In 1990, she was attacked by rival party workers during a rally and fractured her skull. She was hospitalized for a month. In 1993, she was injured again during a protest in which many were shot dead by the police. Banerjee may have lived through turbulent times but the TMC’s brand of politics isn’t any less violent than the CPM model it replaced.

Banerjee, whose father was an active Congress party supporter, joined the student wing of the party in college and in less than a decade, the student leader, already an expert protester, was noticed. Right in the middle of Jayaprakash Narayan’s campaign to topple Indira Gandhi in 1977, Banerjee managed to catch everyone’s attention, says Shutapa Paul in her book Didi: The Untold Mamata Banerjee. “When he (JP) was in Calcutta to rally the masses against Indira, Mamata blocked his convoy and threw herself on the ground. With this show of bravado, senior Congress leaders were forced to notice the new kid on the block.”

Banerjee’s larger-than-life persona — she’s always clad in white, woven Dhaniakhali saris with rubber slippers, loves to paint, has written more than 20 books, still lives in her childhood home with her extended family and is an insomniac who loves Rabindra sangeet — is reflected in her party’s power equation. “She embodies the hierarchy and the control; from her alone come the fiats, the reprimands, and the occasional praise. Briefly put, Mamata Banerjee is the sum and substance of the party she leads,” says Gupta. The TMC is as much a victim of dynasty politics as any other political party.

In 1984, Banerjee stood from the Jadavpur constituency and did the unthinkable. She defeated veteran Somnath Chatterjee, who had only heard of her until then. In 2011, she made history when she ousted the Left that had ruled West Bengal for 34 years. She did that with the support she got after protesting against the Left Front’s land acquisition steamroller in Singur and Nandigram.

Postscript: This was research as part of the #bosslady series in 2021. It never saw the light of day because both my partner and I got Covid and Delhi was literally going up in flames. I had chosen Mamata Banerjee specifically given the dramatic tension leading up to the 2021 West Bengal elections. In 2021, she was up against the BJP-trifecta — Modi, Shah & Yogi — all three campaigned aggressively to win Bengal. In 2021, she made history yet again. This time, with overwhelming support from the female electorate of West Bengal.

Courtesy: Twitter

The political future of the lone female chief minister of India remains unclear. Regardless, it is absolutely worth knowing the last woman standing better than most do.

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