Mamata Banerjee: The Left-slayer who failed to stop BJP roar in her den
Arguably the most strident critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Banerjee was courted by regional satraps of all hues--from Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu to her Telangana counterpart K Chandrasek
Kolkata: A rare blend of grit and pragmatism, Mamata Banerjee was seen as a potential prime minister in the event of the NDA failing to pass muster with voters in the Lok Sabha elections. But that was before Thursday when any such ambition she may have cherished got drowned in cacophonous celebration of the BJP's resounding victory. But for a tweet she made congratulating the "winners", the once obscure milk vendor-turned-slayer of the 34-year-old communist rule in West Bengal lay cocooned at her Kalighat home in south Kolkata through the day.
The sharp-tongued leader made friends across parties and jettisoned them with equal ease during her political career spanning nearly four decades, but probably failed to see which way the wind was blowing this time. Arguably the most strident critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Banerjee was courted by regional satraps of all hues--from Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu to her Telangana counterpart K Chandrasekhar Rao.
Born in 1955 into a lower middle class family to Promileshwar and Gayatri Banerjee, she lost her father when she was quite young. She worked for a while at a milk booth as vendor- attendant. Banerjee cut her political teeth as a student leader of the Congress during the tumultuous 1970s when a massive public upsurge against the Indira Gandhi dispensation led to its downfall and saw the installation of the first non- Congress government in New Delhi. She was mentored by Subrata Mukherjee, then a firebrand Congress leader who, ironically, is now a minister in her government.
A graduate in history and Islamic history, with a law degree to boot, she first hit newspaper headlines when she held a dramatic protest against Narayan. It was alleged that she danced on the bonnet of the car of JP, as the socialist icon was fondly called by his supporters. But the turning point in her career came in 1984 when she defeated CPI(M) veteran Somnath Chatterjee in Jadavpur in her maiden outing in a Lok Sabha election. Impressed with her organisational skills, Rajiv Gandhi, then the Congress president, appointed Banerjee, one of the youngest MPs aged 29, as general secretary of All India Youth Congress. She lost Jadhavpur seat to redoubtable Somnath Chatterjee in 1989 but was back there in 1991 from Calcutta South Lok Sabha seat, considered her pocket borough from where she remained an MP till 2011 before she took over as the chief minister.
She was appointed Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Youth Affairs and Sports, and Women and Child Development by P V Narasimha Rao in 1991. In 1993, she was divested of her portfolios after differences arose over her plans to develop sports. Banerjee's differences with the Congress leadership and its policy of keeping the Marxists in good humour in New Delhi angered her, and in 1996, during one such protest against the state Congress leadership, she had wrapped a black shawl around her neck and threatened to immolate herself. In January 1998, she broke away from the Congress and formed Trinamool Congress, vowing to oust the Left Front from the state. In her bid to defeat the Left, she cosied up to the BJP and was the railway minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet from 1999 to 2001. Just ahead of the state assembly polls in 2001, she walked out of the NDA over Tehelka expose on murky defence deals and joined hands with the Congress.
The assembly elections were a fiasco for the TMC chief and she was back into the NDA fold in 2004, holding the mines and coal portfolios. Later that year, when the Congress stormed back to power, she was the only TMC MP in the Lok Sabha, marking one of the lowest points of her political career. Another debacle came in the 2006 assembly elections, when her party could win just 29 of the state's 294 seats. When political pundits began writing her epitaph, the 'street fighter Didi' of Bengal politics sprang to life as protests erupted in Singur and Nandigram the same year over forcible acquisition of farmland for setting up industries. The four years that followed were the most momentous in the contemporary political history of West Bengal as it witnessed a tectonic political shift, with Banerjee leading a spirited fight against the Left Front government over the alleged excesses in Singur and Nandigram. She reaped the dividends of the pervasive public anger in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.
The TMC joined hands with the Congress and bagged 19 seats, virtually setting the stage for the downfall of the once formidable Left Front. The assembly elections of 2011 were historic, as she decimated the Left in one of its longest-standing bastions. Banerjee's party ended the Left Front's 34-year unbroken stint in power, winning a whopping 184 seats riding the crest of massive public outrage against the Communists, who were restricted to just 60 seats. The tempestuous and temperamental leader, however, walked out of the Congress-led UPA 2 in 2012 to protest the government's decision to allow FDI in retail. Her grip over West Bengal politics grew stronger when she beat the Communists hollow in the 2016 assembly polls, winning a staggering 211 seats. The Left Front, with just 32 seats in its kitty, even lost its position as the main opposition party which went to the Congress that clinched 44. With the BJP making deep inroads into her territory, it remains to be seen if and how the 'Bengal tigress' manages to halt the BJP juggernaut when Kolkata and Bidhannagar Municipal Corporations and 93 other municipal bodies go to polls next year.
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