Twenty years ago, a young girl, barely 30 and of a humble background, stood on the burning deck of Bengal Congress. A surprise party candidate for the Jadavpur seat in the elections that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination, she stunned the CPM heavyweight, Somnath Chatterjee.
Her big moment, though, came in 1991 when she surprised her own party by taking on Somen Mitra in the elections for Bengal Congress president.
Bengal loves rebels and here was its latest icon of rebellion. Mamata Banerjee crowned her rebellion by breaking away from the Congress in 1997. She then became a leader who would try and do everything to fit into patterns of authority and accepted political conventions.
It’s the rebel-turned-leader who goes out to campaign once again in her very own South Calcutta constituency.
A thunderstorm has cooled the mid-summer air. The leader steps out and into her Tata Sumo.
Winding her way through the narrow lane, she soon hits Hazra crossing, stopping traffic and waving at people. After leading her convoy of cars through Priyanath Mullick Road off Hazra Street, she stops.
As she speaks, one cannot help missing the voice of the rebel. There’s the same venom against the CPM which, she says, has been reigning over the ruins of Bengal. She tries to strike up the politically correct line about national politics. “What’s the point of voting the CPM which has no choice but to go with the Congress after the elections'”
There’s little point for her to ask for votes for herself. This is her turf. She seems anxious about the prospects of the NDA. What do you think of the exit polls' Will the NDA do as badly as the polls suggest' she asks party colleagues and journalists before going out this evening.
Out on the road, she rubbishes the polls and tells the people not to have any doubts about Atal Bihari Vajpayee becoming the Prime Minister again. That obviously means she herself will be a Union minister again.
That is the story of Mamata Banerjee today — of the lost rebel who has joined the power game and will play it by the conventional rules like any other leader. She’ll mind the portfolios more than the “principles” that were once her watchwords.
But that’s the way with all rebels, says her aide and Trinamul Congress leader, Mukul Roy. “Didn’t even the Marxists, who came to power riding on rebellion, play the power games by flouting all rules'” To him and to the large following that she now has, Mamata’s transformation from rebel to leader is a “sign of her maturity”.
Ask Sudip Bandyopadhyay, once her closest lieutenant and now a deserter. “Together we built the party with the blood and sweat of our people. She’s destroying it with her whimsical ways,” Mamata’s Man Friday until recently says bitterly.
As she is out on yet another campaign, Mamata strikes one as a pale copy of her earlier self. All the news she now makes is about the deals she can or cannot make with the powers that be in Delhi. Or as a leader who, instead of trying to regain Bengal from the Marxists, is perennially at war with her own minions.
Not Bengal, but her little territory of South Calcutta, remains her victory stand.