Swapan Banerjee lost his father at the age of two. The toddler was inconsolable until his ‘didi’ (elder sister) placed her hand on his head and said, “Don’t worry Babun, I will take care of you.” To this day, the now 39-year-old Swapan says that his sibling has kept her promise. The sister is none other than Mamata Banerjee, feisty politician and ‘didi’ to millions in the eastern Indian state of Bengal. Though the ‘agni kanya’ (fire-maiden) is well known not just to the people of Bengal but also across India, few realise the struggles that she has gone through or understand the support system working in her favour.
She lost her father, Promileswar Banerjee, as a teenager and took up the responsibility of looking after her mother and two younger brothers with the help of her elder brother, Ajit. An interest in politics led to her joining the Youth Congress as a student, and she rapidly rose to become the General Secretary of the State Mahila Congress. “She has always been busy with her political career, but she never neglected the family. Whenever she has the time, she cooks or knits sweaters for her brothers. Singing, poetry and painting are her other passions,” reveals Swapan, who lists the simple ‘ghughuni’ (a white gram Bengali preparation) as his sister’s signature dish. “It tastes almost like meat when she makes it,” he smiles.
Emotion has been a defining factor in Banerjee’s career from the beginning. Her speeches have successfully played on the sentiments of the listeners, enabling her to build up a massive following, particularly amongst women. Her slogan ‘Maa, Maati, Manush’ (Mother, Earth, People) seems to have so caught the imagination of the young and old alike in West Bengal that, today, her party, the All India Trinamool Congress (AITMC), is being seen as a serious contender for power.
Her connect with women is evident in her speeches. While releasing the candidate list for the Assembly elections, she said, “The mothers and sisters, the daughters, all have supported me in the most difficult of times. When I was on hunger strike during the Singur anti-land acquisition agitation, I know that kitchen fires in many homes remained extinguished as a show of support for me. I know that women of all ages back me and I consider it my greatest strength.”
Of course, not everyone agrees that she is a champion of women. Shyamali Gupta, Central Committee Member of the CPI (M), the opposition party, points out, “She was one of the leading supporters of the Women’s Reservation Bill, but when the Bill was finally put to vote in the Rajya Sabha, the two Trinamool Congress MPs abstained. Ms Banerjee later gave the flimsy excuse that the cabinet had not taken her into confidence before placing the Bill in the Upper House. It’s this vacillating attitude that makes her seem immature as a politician.”
Her political opponents also term her characteristic independence as “autocratic”. But Banerjee, 56, doesn’t appear to care. She has greatly cherished her independence, not just in her personal life but also during her long political career. Starting from scratch in 1997, after she was expelled from the Congress (I) for demanding a “clean party which was not the B-team of the CPI (M)”, Banerjee founded the AITMC, the party that has emerged as the biggest challenge to the 34-year Left rule in the state today. If the CPI(M) is defeated in these elections, the credit of ending the rule of the world’s longest-running democratically-elected Communist government would go to her.
Yet, unlike other successful women politicians like Mayawati, Jayalalithaa, or Sonia Gandhi, Banerjee has never had a male mentor or politically well-connected relatives to smoothen her political trajectory. “No one can question her struggle or the transparent honesty with which she has fought her battles. But more than a politician, I admire her and find her acceptable as someone who truly feels for the people and works towards their well-being,” remarks Mahesweta Devi, 86, Magsaysay Award winning writer and social activist.
It’s her familial bonds that give her the strength to carry on. Her mother, Gayatri has, time and again, acted as her main support and lifeline, especially when she reached her nadir after her party was routed in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. Then she had been the sole MP elected to Parliament from AITMC – down from eight MPs in 1999. She could also get only 30 seats in the 294-member state assembly in the 2006 elections. But recovering from the setback, Banerjee took her party tally to 19 MPs in 2009, making the AITMC the largest alliance partner in the UPA II government.
According to her brother, if Banerjee has displayed phoenix-like qualities, it’s because of the quiet courage imparted by her mother. “There is a special bond between them. Even today ‘didi’ does everything personally for mother, who is over 80 and ill. Whenever ‘didi’ sets out to do something, mother sees her off with ‘prasad’ (offerings made to the Gods) and a Rs 10 note. ‘Didi’ never leaves the house without that,” says Swapan.
Banerjee used to love the ‘naadus’ (sweet coconut balls) made by her mother, but now diabetes has made her more abstemious. Her one indulgence has been acquiring a treadmill at home to exercise every day. “She talks to us about the house, about changing curtains, dusting – all the sundry household work that catches her attention. Inside the house she is like any other sister-in-law,” says Kalpana, wife of Banerjee’s youngest brother.
Banerjee can also be spontaneously generous. When the young Muslim youth Rizwanur Rehman was found dead on the railway tracks after a rift-ridden marriage with a Hindu girl from a rich Marwari family, and the story of how he was victimised both by the girl’s powerful family and the state administration was exposed, it was Banerjee’s soothing presence that calmed Rehman’s family, especially his mother, Kishwar Jehan. “She is accessible not just to her party workers, but also to those in need. That’s her biggest plus point. She identifies with our problems. She clearly comes across as a people’s person, a mass leader,” says Sanahita Mondal, a Trinamool Congress Councilor from the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
It’s women like Mondal who always stand by Banerjee. Whilst addressing public meetings, during ‘padayatras’ – the mainstay of her election campaign this time – or even door-to-door campaigning and press conferences, she is often flanked by women party workers. She almost always has at least one woman aide with her when she is travelling within the state. And the women are not just companions, they form part of her core think tank. She has fielded 35 women candidates in her total list of 227 in these elections, and relies on leaders like Sonali Guha, Shamima Sheikh and Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar to convey to her the pulse of the people.
These women, besides close aide Dola Sen, are Banerjee’s ears. Swapan, however, maintains, “Though she listens to everyone, each decision she makes is her own. It’s not that her family is totally cut off from her political life. However, it is not mandatory that she takes our advice. Every decision she has made has been hers and hers alone.”
Banerjee comes across as a committed, independent politician whose softer side – although generally reserved for the family – can often be discerned in the public arena. She is absolutely unashamed of the fact that she is a woman; that she cries when she feels pain and that she cries harder when others feel pain. She has made the emotional side of her nature her USP and it has certainly taken her a long way in Bengal politics.