Mamma Mia Mamata
A newspaper editor once invited firebrand, crypto Luddite, union railway minister Mamata Banerjee to his genteel home in Kolkata. Surrounded by intellectuals and the haute-bourgeoisie, an uncomfortable Mamata told him she needed to leave because in her words, “I don’t like people like these.” However, anxious not to give offence, she told the horrified host, “Don’t take it personally baba, feed me a peda,” and popped a whole sandesh in her mouth before stomping off.
As the editor recalled later, “She was just not open to meeting people or an exchange of ideas. It had to be her way or the highway.” And, there you have quite literally the woman who put the world’s cheapest car out of the highway from Bengal.
In Ratan Tata’s immortal words, when he bid “tata” to West Bengal and probably sounded the death knell for industrial investment there, she was the “Bad M” who made Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi the “Good M” and added immensely to brand Gujarat.
So what makes Didi tick? Whether it is tilling at the Communist windmills, flinging papers at the Speaker on the floor of the House, organising mahajots, muttering darkly about Communist cadres “out to get her” or even her now-love-now-hate relationship with Sonia Gandhi, the one quality that stands out is “inconsistency”.
While her rage should be reserved for the railways, which she is running to the ground, it is rather irrationally reserved for Union Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, for whom she sheds copious tears. Whether it is the Maoists, her newest allies complete with a touch of colour provided by Swami Agnivesh or Chidambaram, her new object of hate, she has embarrassed the government to no end.
She refuses to attend office in Rail Bhavan preferring to chug along to Bengal, where she senses that she is about to attain her life’s ambition of breaching the Red fortress.
Mamata has never been faithful to a cause, an ally or ideology. Says a former supporter bitterly, “Why let the truth stand in the way of a good agitation?” Mamata has also never been consistent in her support system. While conspiracy theories did the rounds about how Rahul Bajaj funded the entire anti-Tata Singur agitation, he told me simply, “I am known as a kanjoos(miser). I would never spend my money and I have had nothing to do with the whole Mamata agitation.”
Quite apart from Bajaj’s legendary tight-fisted approach, he can be believed for a reason - insiders and those involved with the anti-Tata movement say that Mamata had lost control of her motley band of Luddites long ago. Her army was a strange crew of professional agitationists, sundry non-functional NGOs and communist bashers. There was no question of a solution because to these people it was quite literally “no retreat, no surrender, and to hell with jobs and prosperity”.
Despite West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi and Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee’s attempts at all sorts of pliant compromises, Didi’s rag-tag army was sure that an inch of land given and Didi would lose. Says a West Bengal Minister, “She has tunnel vision and a blind hatred for all Communists. Every time she came for meetings she tried to launch in to a political harangue. The nuts and bolts of the deal, the jobs it would create, the ripple effect it would have to build brand Bengal never interested her.”
And Ratan Tata, a principled man, had the courage to walk away. This fazed her because till date she was used to unprincipled political deal-making with the Congress or the NDA as the political cookie crumbled day by day. Didi, it seems, will see exactly what price she will pay for turning the clock back on Bengal’s development.
However, Mamata is her usual self, blaming Ratan Tata and her other enemies in almost alphabetical order. That is the one thing about her that is coherent and organised - the list of enemies. Though the order keeps changing.
As she told a Congress leader after Ratan Tata’s statement that she was holding a gun to his head. “All this is nonsense! I wish I had a real gun. These Communists are the people who kill and I get the blame.” The Congress leader was incredulous, wondering if she was serious or was like the queen in Alice in Wonderland who kept ordering “off with his head”.
Mamata has always clung to the heady image of a rebel without a cause. Her political ideology, if it can be termed that, is blind opposition to the Communists based on extremely personal affronts. She is a kind of Bal Thackeray of Bengal. While, she opposes the Communists, what policies she supports remain a mystery. She has supped with the NDA. As a Union Minister, she, along with Jayalalitha, gave Atal Behari Vajpayee nightmares. At the same time, she always maintained a back channel with Sonia Gandhi.
Significantly, after her latest misadventure, she went running to 10 Janpath and sought solace. Insiders say that she also got some limousine liberals to intercede for her with Sonia Gandhi, who held her up as a goddess of bleeding hearts.
After the Congress party cravenly vacated all the political space in West Bengal to the Communists, Mamata took advantage of the vacuum. While the Congress party only produces cigar-smoking, drawing room leaders, more comfortable in the rarefied corporate world, for the people of Singur, Mamata was their only hope.
Says a political analyst, “The one thing the lady has is political courage and also bagfuls of physical courage. The Congress made a tall mass leader by vacating all space to her as part of their policy of cutting all regional leaders to size. Now the chickens have come home to roost.”
Her war cry was that “only Mamata can take on Buddha”. And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, votary of development and liberal economics and friend of Buddha, watched helplessly while his party extended its all-out support to Mamata.
Most analysts are of the view that the development consensus that had acquired a certain unanimity in the country, with even the recalcitrant Communists coming around, has been fundamentally disturbed. If you can drive out Tata and a potentially world beating product, then really what do politicians care for development?” says a JNU political scientist.
Gujarat currently has a GDP growth rate of 12.5 per cent and is the state in the country with the maximum number of SEZs and notably the only state in the country with flexible labour laws. As Tata said on record, “If you are an industrialist you will be foolish if you are not in Gujarat.”
Contrast this with Bengal with its endemic shutdowns, hartals and fleeing capital. And, pity poor Buddha who tried to change it with a paradigm altering investment by getting the Nano to Bengal. He had to face opposition not only from the hardliners within but the redoubtable Didi.
Her indignation knew no bounds when the Nano came to Bengal. And each time Buddha and Tata posed for photographs and the CII hailed Buddha as an enlightened Chief Minister, Mamata threw a fit.
Says a Trinamool party Rajya Sabha MP, “We would find her brooding with the press clippings.” He reveals that on one occasion, “She was so upset that at a meeting with the Congress party which would ensure that we would have got an extra seat in the Upper House, she voluntarily gave away the deal and kept criticising the Prime Minister’s closeness to Buddha.”
This seems to be a pattern with Mamata. Upping the ante in a shrill, taking no prisoner’s way and leaving no escape route. Recall her tenure as a Minister. “She would repeatedly exasperate even the calm and almost Zen-like Vajpayee. She hardly ever attended office. Made ridiculous policy statements and then would throw diva-like tantrums.”
Didi has had a stormy life. Even with her family she has had frequent quarrels. She often left her home and sulked and then had to be persuaded back. Even at her much-publicised exhibition of paintings, which was supposed to give her an image makeover, a typical didi-diva tantrum almost derailed the show.
And the Trinamool spin-doctors were left scratching their heads. How to repackage a kinder, softer Didi? The dilemma persists to this day. A meeting was arranged with Mamata and me, by a party leader. Mamata was cold and huffy and kept drawing attention to her bathroom slippers asking, “Have you seen any other mass leader wearing this?” I was taken aback. I tried to ask her some questions about her policies. Mamata retorted huffily, “I am a mass leader. You elite English journalists will never understand me.”
The disconnect between what is expected of a modern leader, with even Lalu Prasad Yadav repacking himself as a liberal reformer, and Mamata’s old school and outdated agit-prop approach is telling.
Be it industrialisation, job creation, civic reform and labour reform, Mamata persists in her Luddite beliefs. She does not use a computer, calling it a waste, and feels that it adds to her image as a leader of the masses. But does it? Or is she the face of the modern-day Don Quixote who, along with her band of Sancho Panzas, drove the Nano out of Bengal? And maybe after the elections she would turn it into a train wreck, much like the kind of accidents that have dogged her tenure in UPA part two.