Mamata at the news conference in Delhi. Picture by Rajesh Kumar
New Delhi, June 21: Spunk met savoir faire in the person of Mamata Banerjee in a sweltering New Delhi this afternoon. Delhi is not new to her but chief minister Mamata Banerjee is new to the capital and she presented that avatar to the media corps here.
Answering questions from journalists from across the country, Mamata — she began by asking not to be addressed as chief minister — consistently put Bengal at the centre of all discussion, even when asked about Telangana, the Lokpal bill, Anna Hazare, Ramdev and the speculative merger of the CPI and the CPM that elicited the most quotable quote: Can a rasogolla and a pantua merge?
Mamata is a strange concoction herself. So long berated by the Left and her critics as whimsical and mercurial, Mamata today answered questions with the astuteness of the dyed-in-the-wool politician. Such is the change that a dramatic electoral victory after two decades of streetfighting has wrought in her.
She walked into the Press Club of India nearly 15 minutes ahead of schedule, strolling into the decrepit building as if shes been doing it for years. At first she refused to take the dais, walking instead among the ranks of journalists, shaking hands and smiling and nodding to those who have met her almost every day when she was the railway minister. Then she insisted she must see the new conference hall on the first floor.
Why not have it (the meeting with the media) here? she asked. Told that the hall could seat only 45 when there were nearly 200 journalists waiting for her, she walked down to the lawn again.
As is her wont, she struck a chord immediately, recalling that the late Chand Joshi was the president of the club when she first visited it. She said she was moved by the killing of journalist J. Dey. For some time this afternoon, the Press Club of India was a constituency that Mamata had travelled well.
Her meetings in New Delhi since yesterday have largely been about what she can get from the Centre. A special package for Bengal, perhaps?
No, no special package. I am not asking for money for swimming pools or for beautification. It is about roti, kapda aur makaan, she said and rolled out the statistics that show what a bottomless pit Bengals treasury is in.
She claimed that in just over a month in power, her government had done more than what the Left had in 34 years, that she has achieved 75 per cent of what she wanted.
Pat came the question, expectedly from a journalist working for a Telugu newspaper, if she supported the demand for a separate Telangana state. Her reply: Why are you entangling me in this? I love Andhra, I love Telangana also... keep treating me with idli and dosa and be happy. Mamata was not going to dare where the Centre fears to tread.
Fully aware that talking shops in Delhi were hotly debating if the Prime Minister should be brought under the Lokpal inspection regime, Mamata said: I am not concerned if the PM or the chief justice is under the Lokpal. I cannot answer this so casually without proper scrutiny. We are also against corruption. The system has to change whether it is about administration or corruption.
But it was in her response to the Anna Hazare-led campaign that Mamata threw a challenge: if you want to change policy you have to get into the rough and tumble of politics in a democracy. In other words, do Anna Hazare and Company have the mettle to fight it out electorally, like she has, suffering defeat upon defeat before finally May 13 happened this year?
One-day meeting, one-day bhashan (speeches) will not give any result. Tell them to join politics and fight the battle, she said.
Mamata made a strong plea for state funding of elections. That single measure would go a long way in wiping out corruption. The other was to get back secret funds stashed abroad.
Bring the money back from outside. I dont want to say A or B (account holders). I want to say, A to Z, bring the money, she said.
She repeated her promise that Darjeeling will turn into a Switzerland with the accord she has been able to strike. She was waiting only for a tripartite agreement (involving the GJM and the Centre) and if that meeting is held in Darjeeling it may give out a good signal.
We will develop both Darjeeling and Jungle Mahal. I will go there with financial package, she said, adding that there is peace in the area now. Asked if there was the possibility of talks with the Maoists, Mamata said there was no communication that was received from the rebels. The Bengal government will take it seriously if there was such an offer.
An elderly journalist who stood up to ask a question was promptly requested to sit down. He said that he was really taken by her youthfulness, vigour and good looks. What was her diet, he wanted to know.
A trifle embarrassed, Mamata said the gentleman was a fatherly figure and, therefore, she would answer — meaning she would not have entertained that question from a younger journalist. I will tell you but not everything but I will not lie, she told him.
She has two to three cups of tea in the morning and walks on the treadmill for an hour. In her office in Writers Buildings she has more tea with biscuits and murmura (muri). For dinner, she usually has rotis, and rice only twice or thrice a month.
But it was a delicately asked question — did she share Digvijay Singhs belief that Rahul Gandhi is fit to be Prime Minister? — that made her smile to herself as she tossed the answer around in her mind for a moment: was she being asked to choose between 10 Janpath and Manmohan Singh?
I love the family, she replied. I have known and liked Rajiv Gandhi as you all know and I have good relation with Soniaji also. Choosing the PM is the prerogative of the Congress. We are in UPA and we will support whoever they choose.
It wasnt just politically correct. It was savvy.