So the lady has stormed Writers Building as she told us she would. Made putty of the Communists after 34 years: exactly what the Communists perhaps deserved. Made a cadre-based party look like a confederation of goons.
So how did she do it? Whats the Mamata Banerjee magic or for that matter the Mamata mantra?
We will never know for sure because this is not a woman who is easy to deconstruct. There is a lot that has gone into the making of Mamata — belief, conviction and, more than anything else, a certain crazed behaviour which is what it takes to storm a bastion so well-erected and so craftily created.
We all heard of her about two decades ago. We saw her go on long marches which used to irritate us; we saw her go on hunger strikes with melodrama that was uniquely hers; we saw her rail against everything we thought was logical. I remember sailing into her in almost every television show when Singur happened because I could not imagine how any right-minded leader would let go of the Tatas when they wanted to invest in Bengal. But clearly the lady was unruffled.
She was not even talking to us for that matter. We were never her constituency — the average people, those who had borne the neglect of the erstwhile Left Front, were. For Mamata, Bengal never was, nor ever shall be, Calcutta. But yet again, she would speak in two debates hosted by The Telegraph, and that too in English! I remember feeling miserable because on both occasions I got whipped as leader of the proposition and that too at the hands of a rabble-rouser. But she was disarming. While you may have rued the loss, you could not but help admire the victor.
So who exactly is this lady? And how did she rise from being yet another angry politician to becoming The Leader of West Bengal? And how could this so-called rustic politician suddenly take on the might of what was clearly a well-oiled political machine?
I believe the Mamata Banerjee of 2011 is no different from the one of 1990. She is a creature of circumstances and knows how to take chances without ever leaving sight of the ultimate goal. Remember she was the one who partnered the National Democratic Alliance in 1999 and then joined the United Progressive Alliance in 2009.
She was aware that she needed to have some sort of power if she had to gain power in Bengal. She would need to build a party but much before that she would need to build Brand Mamata. On both occasions she took the Railway portfolio. Why? Because this is one ministry that has the capacity of influence and employment.
She was not an A. Raja looking for money to be made out of a central ministership. She wanted a ministry that would wield influence and help her garner state-level support.
So did she change between 1990 and 2011? No, she didnt. Will she change hereafter? I guess not, because if Mamata Banerjee ever becomes smooth or suave, shell lose the brand she carefully built. But then can we have this brand as chief minister? I guess we dont have a choice. So get ready for someone who will be emotional, temperamental and wedded not to her party folks but to the people. So the first step in the making of Mamata Banerjee is her unwavering commitment to not changing.
I believe her present stint in the Union Cabinet is more strategic than any other. Her game was (and always has been) to starve the Communists of any support from central governments: and she understands this game well. So look back at 2004 and imagine the political conundrum she must have faced when her would-be allies at the Centre were in bed with her arch-enemies, the Communists.
That brings me to the second step in the making of Mamata. Over the years she has learnt an invaluable political lesson. Being a political pariah makes it more difficult to effect real change; being an insider helps. So in her own way, without sacrificing her key DNA, she moved from being an explosive outsider to an insider. She understood the importance of being in the Union Cabinet than being outside and fighting the Communists in Bengal.
But she also recognised the time had come for her to show some sagacity and statesmanship. Her two Railway budgets were laced with goodies but more importantly with humour. The unlikeable Mamata Banerjee now wanted to be liked and loved. The Didi who never smiled could now guffaw at the drop of a joke. Remember, she was the one who pushed Calcuttas mayor into a public swimming pool. I dont know what happened to the water thereafter but surely the mayor became increasingly relevant.
She became a purveyor of the arts. Willing to take on silly English-speaking pseudo-intellectuals like me in public debates, share the dais with singers and artistes. She would be a woman of the people, but also understood soft power, the world beyond politics. This is why her confidants list ranges from an Amit Mitra to a Derek Brien.
I first met Mamata Banerjee at her office in the railway ministry in Delhi in 2009 and found her simple and arresting. She wanted me to advise her and the Railway Board on branding and marketing. She believed there was a lot of advertising inventory that was lying unused and that the Railways had not tapped into its own vast brand potential and therefore large revenue streams.
She came across as sincere and smart. She knew exactly where the problems were and, perhaps wisely, blamed the bureaucracy for the ills of the ministry. Since then we have met several times. On one occasion we had a meeting in the public area of the Calcutta airport because she refuses to sit in lounges. This should give you an idea of the woman and her intrinsic belief in people power, something that the Communists had, but lost a long time ago.
Ever since then, whenever I have met her, there is a respect with which she treats me and a certain distance that I like to maintain. Not because one is scared of her but because you never know when the temperamental side of her may emerge.
Examine her life and you will see all the contours are bathed in politics. While she loves to sketch, her canvas has no time for flowers and people except for politics.
And in many ways, she has cultivated this twin persona: of a painter who loves depicting the beauty of what life should be, contrasted with a world she sees asunder in her own home state. For many, including me, she is a game-changer.
But then again, like with everything about Mamata Banerjee, it is all about her. She has the capacity to lead like no one has ever led before or destroy like no one has ever destroyed before. But what makes my faith in her grow is the fact she has struggled but never wavered in a world where leaders and political ideologies change with every passing opportunity. Is that a good thing when you run an administration? Only time shall tell.
For me personally, the making of Mamata Banerjee has been somewhat of a paradox. She hasnt changed very much. Her inner self remains the same, though there may be some blips. But Mamata, more than anyone else, is aware of being associated with taint and corruption. She will take corrective measures when she has to. She remains as steadfast in her zeal to make the Communists repent their impression of her or for that matter the lightness with which they took her political strides. But then Mamata is not the kind who will seek revenge. She has much to do, much to correct and much to repair. Vengeance will be a silly distraction.
In fact, ironic as it may seem, her challenge for the Trinamul is much like the challenge she faced with Brand Mamata. She needs to morph a political movement into a well-run machine which, like Brand Mamata, will focus on the people and not just the power that electoral politics bestows, looking at the potential that exists rather than mourning the demise of what happened. To that extent, these shall be heady times.
The making of Mamata Banerjee has actually only just begun. She will not set her sights on being remembered as Jyoti Basu is. She will train her sights higher. Perhaps B.C. Roy. The one thing you can be certain of is that she will never cease to surprise.
Surprise is her leitmotif and has served her well. And it will continue to be her ultimate weapon.