Makeover for change: The Pioneer

It is fascinating to watch the makeover of Ms Mamata Banerjee as she campaigns for her single point “Change” agenda. It is also very confusing.

Kolkata, April 21: It is fascinating to watch the makeover of Ms Mamata Banerjee as she campaigns for her single point “Change” agenda. It is also very confusing.

A voiceover by Ms Banerjee on television declares that this is the season for change. Implicit in the message is her view that after 32 years under Communist Party of India (Marxist) hegemony, there is a mass upsurge in the offing that will sweep the Left Front out of West Bengal and deliver the State into her waiting hands.

This is confusing, even for the apolitical middle class, whose large presence in South Kolkata defines Ms Banerjee’s constituency. While some claim to be absolutely disinterested in politics, others seem passionately engaged. In a stunning demonstration of public anger, Ms Banerjee had a slipper thrown at her in Jadavpur, a constituency that had in the 1990s voted for her, ensuring the defeat of outgoing Speaker Somnath Chatterjee.

While Ms Banerjee can insist that there is a conspiracy against her, the thrown ‘missile’ is an indication that in some places the mood is decidedly ugly. Her belief that the Lok Sabha election would set in motion a tsunami-size demand for “Change” that would sweep the elected CPI(M) led Left Front Government out long before 2011 when its term officially ends, has not factored in the ravages that time can wreak.

There are three periods that need to be looked at; first, March 2008 when the catastrophic firing in Nandigram took place, in which 14 people died, including six police personnel. Second, June 2008 when the panchayat elections delivered two districts, South 24 Parganas and East Midnapore, into the Trinamool Congress’s grasp. In June, for the first time CPI(M)’s popularity dipped by three percentage points, below the psychologically critical 50 per cent mark.

Third, October 2008. Buoyed by her panchayat success, Ms Banerjee had riskily embarked on the greatest adventure of her life, a totally negative and viciously destructive campaign against Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s star project for West Bengal industrialisation, the Nano project. Clearly believing that Ms Banerjee was armed with a mantra of invincibility, the CPI(M) failed to handle her assault on the Nano project.

Between October, when she triumphantly packed off the Nano project, and now, sections of voters have begun to feel fed up with her slash and burn tactics. Between October, when even educated and intelligent people bought Ms Banerjee’s story that the Tata’s were not going to produce, in fact, the world’s smallest and cheapest car, and April 2009, when the finished Nano car is manufactured in Pantnagar has been launched on the Indian and global market, doubts have resurfaced about Ms Banerjee’s reliability.

While Kolkata is not embarrassed that it swallowed Ms Banerjee’s wild assertion that “there is no Nano car being built inside Singur” and “the three Nanos that have been displayed in Kolkata will vanish,” the slippers thrown at her are an indication that some, at least, are angry. This may not instill confidence back in the CPI(M), which it lost visibly post-Nano exit, but its leadership appears less shaky in its own abilities, now.

Aggressively confident as Ms Banerjee sounds, she cannot zip from one Lok Sabha seat to many without solid backing from her current partner — the Congress — and not when she is opposed by her former partners — the BJP and the CPI(M). Ms Banerjee expects that she will pull off the stunt, how is anybody’s guess. For, Ms Banerjee expects to ride on the back of a wave of discontent, the cumulative effects of 32 years of CPI(M) rule. This requires that the electorate buy her perception that she represents the alternative.

The point, therefore, is what sort of alternative — “Change” — does Ms Banerjee offer? That is a question for which nobody seems to have an answer.

Since the elections are for the Lok Sabha, nobody is sure what change Ms Banerjee hopes to bring about by May 16. Ms Banerjee’s decade-long struggle to win the final match by putting on a blistering performance for the semi-final has fallen into a pattern from which she seems unable to escape.

By putting all her drive and lung power into pulling off a spectacular victory at the semi-final, Ms Banerjee has made herself, for a decade, vulnerable each time her magic fails. This time, Ms Banerjee and various pundits believe, she can change the course of her own history if not that of West Bengal.