Mamata Banerjee was not an unique Bengali Congress leader who revolted against the High Command and broke off to form her own party.
Chittaranjan Das (Swarajya party) and Subhas Bose (Forward Bloc), Ajoy Mukherjee (Biplobi Bangla Congress ) and even Pranab Mukherjee ( Rastriya Samajwadi Congress) did what Mamata Banerjee did much after them.
But while these stalwarts could not get their party anywhere in their lifetime and Pranab Mukherjee had to return to Congress fold , Mamata Banerjee not only eclipsed the Congress to first emerge as West Bengal’s principal Opposition party but also ultimately overthrew the three-decades-in-power Left Front in a stunning victory in 2011. She then held off against a countrywide BJP upsurge led by PM Modi in 2014 and has now enjoyed a decade in power — like Sheikh Hasina has in neighboring Bangladesh.
Now as she fights a two-front war against a fiercely aggressive BJP and a Left-Congress combine joined by a new Muslim-predominant party , braving inevitable anti-incumbency , endemic inner-party factionalism and a Covid surge depleting her administrative resources, Mamata accquires almost a Joan of Arc or a Rani Laxmibai persona.
She has achieved what Sushma Swaraj could not within the BJP or Sonia Gandhi could not at the helm of India’s Grand Old Congress party. No woman — or man — before Mamata has taken the fight to the male patriarchy of the Sangh Parivar , led by two ruthless tacticians backed by the money power of a strong section of the Indian corporate world in the last seven years and the administratice heft of the federal government.
Former home minister P Chidambaram has publicly admitted the future of the country ( read Opposition) rests on the Bengal voter ( read Mamata). Many opposition patriatchs admit that in private — the battle for Bengal is to the Indian Opposition now what the battle below the gates of Vienna was for Europe in 1683. A battle for existence . Even if Mamata’s Trinamool Congress does not win an absolute majority and has to form a government with Congress and ISF support ( not sure if Left will support her) , it will be a moral victory, though a Pyrrhic one. A slim majority can be undone by a BJP salami slicing operation a la Madhya Pradesh.
Mamata’s lack of ideological moorings ( her alliance with both BJP and Congress) and failure to replicate a Left ( or RSS-BJP) style organisation has been seen by many as her major weaknesses . Some say her decline began the day she promoted nephew Abhishek as her anointed successor. Neither Suvendu Adhikari nor Amit Shah have the moral basis to blame Mamata for nepotism — and it is the BJP and the media , not so much the Trinamool, which has projected Abhishek as Mamata’s successor . In the TMC chain of command , the likes of Firhad Hakim and Partha Chatterjee even now figure higher than Abhishek.
Mamata’s real failure — for which she might well pay dearly in her bruising battle with BJP — is her failure to chart out a clear persona for Trinamool Congress. After she parted company with the Congress and intensified her battle against BJP, her only chance of success lay in promoting a fiercely assertive brand of Bengali regionalism. She stuck on with the ” All India” tag as a prefix to Trinamool Congress, perhaps to project herself as a future PM. At the grassroots, her party choir singers sing a passionate tune ‘Banglar Trinamool’ that evokes much passion. But that is drowned in speeches by her party leaders who emphasize on ‘Sorbo Bharatiyo ( All India) Trinamool Cobgress , perhaps a Congress hangover Mamata could never get over.
The only way to confront BJP’s Hindutva was by a passionate brand of Bengali regionalism but Mamata only paid lip service to it. Only after the 2019 Lok Sabha debacle, she started raising ‘ Joi Bangla’ slogans and rake up Bengali pride. ‘Biswa Bangla’ has not quite worked as a commercial brand, she could tried just ‘ Bangla’ .
The Shiv Sena brand of exceptionalism may not work in Bengal but Mamata could have taken a cue from Sheikh Hasina ‘resurgent Bangladesh’ thrust that puts economy and infrastructure , culture and technology at the heart of a turnaround of Bengali fortunes. Also promote a brand of cultural resurgence that draws on Bengal’s syncretic folk traditions to checkmate the BJP Ram-driven communally divisive politics.
She should have played down the Singur-Nandigram legacy, not drummed it up because the two locations are living witness to Bengal’s failed industrial revival. Hasina has promoted special economic zones to promote foreign investments, Mamata’s visits abroad failed to garner a single big ticket investment. This despite having one of the best finance minister in the country, a man very well connected to Indian industry . He was asked to ‘learn politics’ when he resented large-scale financial outgo in popular social support schemes but which did not create any wealth.
Bengalis fought the British Empire within the parameters of inclusive Indian nationalism but the language and expression of protest was rooted in Bengal’s very distinct cultural mores that grew out of its 19th century social and cultural rennaissance. Mamata started playing the Bangali card only after 2019 Lok Sabha debacle but that was more tactical and did not exude her conviction about Bengal’s distinct place in the Indian universe. She even failed to raise a loud enough concerted protest over the exclusion of lakhs of Bengali Hindus and Muslims from the NRC in Assam.
If the BJP is superficially raking up demography to attack Trinamool’s ‘Muslim appeasement’ , Mamata should have pointed out that Bengal’s Muslim majority districts today were Muslim majority even in 1947. And that Muslims of Nandigram are locals, like their hero in 1942 Quit India, Sheikh Alladin, and not East Bengali migrants.
Such ripostes can come from politically experienced leaders, not from corporate style political consultants. That she became Bengal’s first top leader to appoint someone like Prashant Kishore points to her failure to develop both a Bengali identity driven politics and a bottom’s up Trinamool (grassroots) organisation to build on her early success. Imagine CPM’s legendary Promode Dasgupta having to hire a political consultant !
The future of regional politics in India depends on not just exploiting local tradition and pride for elections, but in beefing up governance, economy, public delivery of benefits and taking on Delhi when the interest of the state is at stake.
The intensity of competition in the current eight-phase West Bengal elections proves Mamata’s TMC is no pushover . But it is her defeat, if that happens, that may actually trigger the emergence of a more assertive Bengali regionalism.
( Subir Bhaumik is a veteran BBC and Reuters correspondent in East and Northeast India and author of 4 books on the region)