When former Indian President, the late Pranab Mukherjee wrote in his memoir, “She (Mamata) has an aura about her, which is difficult to explain but impossible to ignore,” this perhaps held and still holds true in every sense of the word. Draped in a crisp white sari and sandals as usual, Mamata Banerjee — the chief minister of West Bengal and the country’s only female state leader — may be a lone fighter taking on an army of Hindu nationalist men on her turf, but she has never conceded ground politically. Fondly called ‘Didi’ or ‘big sister’ by her loyalists, the firebrand leader of Trinamool Congress (TMC) has personified populist force in Indian politics over her decade-long rule in the state.
While the Modi wave has been raging in West Bengal largely due to an anti-incumbency sentiment, there’s no denying that Banerjee's position as the ‘Bengal Tigress’ remains intact. Undeterred by her detractors, she has taken on the role of a ‘street fighter’ (as she claims herself), leaving no stone unturned to regale the audience by exposing the mudslinging and dirty politics played by the BJP to oust her from the chief ministerial position.
Modi might be a folksy orator, but Banerjee has an indomitable spirit. Even when many of the men from her party defected to the BJP before the polls, she refused to let power and intimidation weaken her grit. The BJP found every opportunity to target Banerjee with sexist remarks, but every single time, her scathing backlash was enough to silence them. As always, the Opposition tried playing the communal card, but Didi didn’t let her secular brand of politics fade under the burden of threats.
Whether it was choosing the Nandigram constituency over her home turf Bhawanipore or parading around on a wheelchair on the campaign trail, Didi has yet again shown that she can’t be pinned down by the political structure of male supremacy.
Surviving as a woman leader
The political landscape in our country also sheds light on how a woman leader needs to go beyond her means to win the loyalties of her voters. Banerjee, who hails from a modest background, might have been targeted by critics for being shrewd and brash, but it is nothing short of a victory for her to survive in a climate that is entrenched in toxic masculinity.
Banerjee is the only woman in politics to have founded her own party, and this is only one of the many feathers in her political cap.
What’s remarkable is how she has never let gender politics come in the way of her success. Banerjee neither belongs to a political family nor has an influential background, yet she rose to the higher echelons, all because of her undying determination and her capacity to take risks.
Her political journey started in 1975, when she burst onto the circle by dancing on the car of one of the most influential leaders of that time, Jayaprakash Narayan, as a mark of protest. It was in 2011 when she became the chief minister of West Bengal, by decimating the 34-year-long CPI (M) rule, one of the world’s last democratically elected communist governments.
From thereon, her journey has witnessed a series of ups and downs.
An illustrious journey
Even before she took on the mantle of the chief minister, Banerjee had created quite a stir when she supported peasants who were enraged by the government’s acquisition of their land by Tata Motors in Nandigram. That incident marked her journey as a formidable grassroots leader, a woman of the people.
It was in 1984 when she became a national leader, and was elected as a Member of Parliament for the first time, after defeating CPI (M) leader Somnath Chatterjee. Banerjee also assumed the role of the president of the All India Youth Congress. Her string of achievements are endless — she has been elected to the Lok Sabha seven times, she was India’s first Minister for Railways and Minister of Coal and Mines. She has also held other portfolios, including the minister of state for human resources development, department of youth affairs, and women and child development.
Banerjee has closely worked with three prime ministers, including PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh.
Focus on women voters
This time around, her clarion call for being reinstated to power in the third term is "Bangla nijer meyekei chaye" (Bengal wants its own daughter). According to media reports, Banerjee endorses her governance as the rule of three M’s, that is, 'Maa', 'Mati' and 'Manush' (mother, soil and people). But, the Bengal elections seem to have another 3M factor this time, that is, 'Mamata', 'Modi' and 'Muslim'.
It was last month that the Election Commission of India released information about the share of voters in the state. According to the data, the total number of voters in the state are 7.32 crores, among whom 3.73 crore are male and 3.59 crore, female.
TMC has always been favoured by the women electorate, and there's a good reason for that. Over the past decade, Banerjee has worked towards the upliftment of women and girls through its various policies. One of them is Kanyashree, which was launched in 2013, and provides financial assistance to girls between 13 and 18, provided they are school-going and unmarried. The scheme was introduced to reduce child marriage in the state, and encourage more girls to go to school. Praised the world over, the scheme also won the United Nations Public Service Award at The Hague in 2017.
Introduced in 2018, another scheme called Rupashree provides a one-time financial grant of Rs 25,000 for economically-distressed families at the time of their adult daughters’ weddings.
“Through her policies she is breaking the patriarchal structure of our society and bringing women to the forefront,” state minister Chandrima Bhattacharya told the media.
Didi’s iron grip over state politics looms over the vote. Whether she returns to power or not, it will be difficult for any man to take her place. After all, Bengal can have only one ‘big sister’ — Mamata Banerjee.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)