Mamata Banerjee might be the only female Indian political leader who’s risen without a male mentor, but she’s still no feminist, finds Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
MAMATA BANERJEE is unique in more ways than one. She is arguably the only woman political leader in India — and among the few in the world — who has risen from the ranks in a patriarchal society without the support of a male mentor, be he a father, brother, husband, lover or guru. If at all she feels personally indebted to any one man, it is Rajiv Gandhi. Equally, perhaps more significantly, she has been catapulted to the position of chief minister of West Bengal and achieved her most important political ambition despite her apparently whimsical and often contradictory pronouncements.
Until even a few years ago, few could have imagined that she could virtually single-handedly oust the Marxists from power in a state ruled by them uninterruptedly for 34 years after winning seven successive elections. That she often appears more “left” than the Left Front she defeated in an ignominious manner in the 2011 Assembly elections is hardly a surprise for she came to epitomise the antithesis (to use Marxist terminology) of everything that went wrong with the Communists in Bengal — corruption and complacency that came with the arrogance of power. What the Marxists had clearly underestimated was not just her determination and tenacity but her canny ability to convert their mistakes and shortcomings into convincing strategies that swept her one-woman political party to power.
Didi had a single-point agenda. She wanted to drive the Communists out of power. That she was able to do this with consummate ease has much to do with what took place in Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh. The stupidity of the Left, which believed that these seminal episodes in the contemporary history of the state could be wished away from the popular imagination, was matched only by the naïveté of the state’s erstwhile rulers and their inability to realise how unpopular they had become.
As the subtitle of the book aptly points out, Monobina Gupta has written what is truly a political biography of one of India’s most colourful and charismatic personalities who invariably arouses extreme responses in most. The author carefully dissects the phenomenon that is Didi who has been able to juxtapose her theatrical brand of agitational politics that is in sharp contrast to the apparently genteel style of “bhadralok” politics practised by Bengal’s Marxists, which sought to conceal the ugly underbelly of venality and violence.
WHILE LAUDING her personal grit and courage, Gupta has at the same time tried not to be too gushing in her praise of Mamata Banerjee, tempering her prose by highlighting her protagonist’s tendencies towards hysteria and megalomania, the many flip-flops in her political career, her hypocrisy (she did not criticise Narendra Modi after the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat when she was part of the NDA government) and the authoritarian manner in which she runs the Trinamool Congress. Gupta has quoted more of Didi’s die-hard supporters than her detractors, but this is certainly no hagiography. What this reviewer found particularly interesting was Gupta’s comparison of Mamata Banerjee with another towering woman politician, Mayawati, as well as the author’s analysis of why Didi does not fit into a feminist mould, the description of her many mood swings, not to mention the manner in which she was able to appropriate much of the cultural space in Bengali society that had been dominated by the Left for four decades.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is independent journalist and educator.