Column : From rabble-rouser to giant killer

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: May 14 2011, 08:39am hrs
Soon after the last phase of polling ended on May 10, party workers began descending on Mamata Banerjees tiled, single-storey home on Harish Chatterjee Street near the famous Kalighat temple in Kolkata; the crowd growing as the counting day neared. Shouting slogans like Maa, Maati, Manusher joy (victory for the people, the land), Mamata, in her trademark dhonekhali sari (from the eponymous town in Nadia district) and hawaii chappals, came out of her home again and again to calm them down. She was quiet and composed, far from her usual agitated self, and announced that there would be no victory marches, exhorting her party workers to keep the peace at all cost. In between, she painted, listened to music (she is said to love Rabindrasangeet and nationalistic songs).

Once the trends were clear that her party would sweep the state, and stop the Left Front from forming its eighth government after 34 years of uninterrupted rule, the 56-year-old Mamata, street fighter at heart, prepared to take on a new challenge by accepting the peoples verdict with humility. If she is calm, it can be said its partly because of the enormity of the situation. She had managed not only to stand up to the Left, but had also upstaged them, all in 13 years. It must be said that, although the Trinamool Congress was formed in 1998, Mamata has been a thorn in the Left Fronts side ever since she joined the Congress in the 1970s. Through the years, and especially during the land agitations of Nandigram and Singur, Mamata was perceived to be doing what the Left should have been doing, speak up for the poor and downtrodden, marginal farmers and Muslims. For years now, Mamata has been walking through the state, north to south, east to west. Even during the campaign she kept a punishing schedule, walking 20-odd km everyday to meet people from every constituency. As finance minister probable Amit Mitra told us during the campaign, Mamata knows the state like no other.

As Mamatas star began to rise, the Left, strangely apathetic, perhaps arrogant would be a better word, after a seventh landslide win in 2006 (bagging 235 of 294 seats to Trinamools 32), got further alienated from the people. Nowhere was the disconnect more evident than on the results-eve when the Left Front chairman Biman Bose insisted that the Left would form its eighth governmentthere can be nothing other than this.

The Left will have to go back to the drawing board and pick itself up from scratch, and indulge in some serious soul-searching to find out where it went wrong. The reasons are evident everywhereBengal has become a laggard in most sectors, including industry where there havent been any big-ticket investments in the state in the last two years. In 1976, just before the Left came to power, the share of industry was 27% in net state domestic productits now less than 18%; agriculture productivity is falling in a state where 60% of the population is dependent on agriculture; education, health, and infrastructure arent doing well. With Mamata about to inherit a cash-strapped Bengalit has a debt of R2 lakh crore and, since the elections were announced, the state had to borrow R5,173 crore from the banks for day-to-day operationsshe is bound to feel the weight of responsibility.With the state now giving Mamata its clearest mandate yetthe average turnout was the highest this election at 80%she will have to deliver on her promises.

In her first remarks after the results, she drew parallels with the freedom struggle and promised good governance, saying there would be an end to autocracy and atrocities. Her manifesto promises good governance, elaborate plans to rebuild the industrial might of Bengal, revive agriculture, attract large private investments in sectors such as engineering, steel, tea, jute, textiles, mining, power and food processing, rejuvenate tourism, and revive Darjeeling. But even though the people may have voted overwhelmingly for her, Mamata will be keenly watched because her track record as railways minister hasnt been good. To take just one example, she has announced 19 projects in Bengal alone, but only two are anywhere near taking off. Despite her party winning the Kolkata municipal elections last year, it hasnt managed to make life better in the city. But thats another story, and it cant take away from an incredible victory.