Mamata Banerjee was crying. ‘She put her head on my shoulders and was sobbing,’ said the Trinamool Congress leader, recalling one of the very few times that anyone has ever seen Mamata Banerjee breaking down. ‘She was weeping and telling me, “What can I do, Dada? I know how to grab power but I do not know how to hold on to it.”’
The Trinamool Congress leader, speaking off the record, continued, ‘Mamata was like a sister. And I was full of compassion for her. I saw how she struggled in her life. And how hard she fought to win the elections. Working tirelessly day and night. In Singur. In Nandigram. And then there was so much criticism of her actions. She couldn’t take it. It is rare to see this vulnerable side of Mamata. And I wanted to comfort her. But the moment I tried to give her advice, she backed up, dried her tears and said, “Forget it. Let’s talk about something else.” She just would not accept that she had made a mistake.’
Insiders are of the opinion that Mamata Banerjee almost never thinks that she can be wrong or do anything wrong. She therefore gets angry at the public outrage she draws for her actions. And on the rare occasions when she does perhaps realise that she could have done something differently (and this is usually only brought on by public outrage rather than any introspection), she never admits it openly.
This hubris, this excessive pride or self-confidence, is also Mamata’s tragic flaw—her hamartia. But she is the kind of person for whom the personal is the political. She treats politics and political relationships like extended family matters and she sees herself in the role of the mother and her constituents as her children. She runs her government like a home. She assumes she can never be wrong because she only has her children’s best interest in mind. When she disapproves of the conduct of her party colleagues, ministers, MPs, MLAs, bureaucrats, police officers and others, she scolds them like a guardian disciplining her charges. When this generates criticism, she simply doesn’t understand why there should be such a fuss.
She often chastises people, almost indulgently, not knowing why this should become offensive to anyone. ‘Aapnader chabkano uchit,’ (‘You should be whipped!’) she had shouted at her personal bodyguard—within hearing shot of a crowd of people at the Kolkata Book Fair—when there was a delay in bringing her car while she was leaving the venue. It’s another matter that the delay occurred because she decided to take an unscheduled detour and exit through a different route, and her car which was waiting at the scheduled departure area, could not be rushed to her. Video clips of the incident went viral and photographs were splashed on every newspaper. It does not quite occur to Mamata Banerjee that her coterie is made up of grown men and women who may not appreciate being insulted and humiliated, however ‘indulgently’. And like a mother, who knows that she knows best and shows her children who is the boss around the house, Mamata Banerjee shoots down any attempts at individual achievement by anyone who works for her.
Like a mother, who knows that she knows best and shows her children who is the boss around the house, Mamata Banerjee shoots down any attempts at individual achievement by anyone who works for her
She doesn’t see herself so much as a dictator than as a mother. But in practical terms, to those affected by her behaviour, it matters little what her own subjective characterisation of the power relationship is. The line between what she might conceive to be the motherly right to reprimand her children and what those at the receiving end view as a ‘ruler’ presuming to chastise the ‘ruled’ gets blurred. Even she doesn’t know when she has crossed the line from being motherly to monarchical.
But there is much in her ostentatious ‘simplicity’ that warrants a little unpacking. There is no denying that Mamata Banerjee exudes simplicity that is authentic and sustained. For all the years of her public life, she has followed the same no-fuss dress code that sees her through 365 days a year, seven days a week—a bordered white sari and a pair of rubber slippers, usually with a white sole and blue straps. Before she became chief minister, she supposedly owned only three or four saris. She doesn’t wear branded watches or carry branded purses. She doesn’t wear make up, although one insider has revealed that Mamata did have on just a hint of lipstick when Hillary Clinton visited her. But others argue that it may have been chapstick. Mamata herself admitted to not knowing the difference.
She wrote in her memoir: ‘In New York, I decided I would spend hundred dollars buying some small gifts for my friends and family back home. I picked up whatever I could, and for the girls in my family, I bought chapsticks, believing they were lipsticks. When I gave these to them, I said, “See, aren’t the colours pretty?” They said, “Sure, but they are all the same colour…these are chapsticks!”’ Her only indulgence, reportedly, is hair dye and an occasional facial. At a pre-election public rally in North Bengal’s Malda, where she kick-started her campaign, I was sitting behind a couple of women who were Trinamool party workers. As Mamata waxed eloquently on stage about how Malda’s flooding problems would be tackled, the two women in front of me were discussing Mamata’s beauty regimen and whether she waxes, threads or tweezes her eyebrows. One of the women informed the other that their leader uses a ‘fairness’ cream. ‘She never used to be so light-skinned before,’ she said. ‘Earlier, she had a lot of spots and freckles.’
It’s a little hard to believe, considering that Mamata hardly seems bothered about her appearance, how many discussions I have heard on the topic of her looks, with comments ranging from the unkind to the eulogising.
Many Bengalis generously bandy about the statement, ‘She’s very simple.’ And they don’t mean ‘simpleton’, though many of Mamata’s critics do have that complaint about her. But when Bengalis say someone is simple, it’s a compliment. It describes someone who is unostentatious of attire, manner and lifestyle and uncomplicated of thought—a cultural darling
Many Bengalis generously bandy about the statement, ‘She’s very simple.’ And they don’t mean ‘simpleton’, though many of Mamata’s critics do have that complaint about her. But when Bengalis say someone is simple, it’s a compliment. It describes someone who is unostentatious of attire, manner and lifestyle and uncomplicated of thought—a cultural darling.
Mamata was embroiled in an acrimonious public spat with MP Kabir Suman in the Trinamool government’s very first year in office over his allegations that she is refusing to allow him to do any real work in his constituency. ‘She won’t even let me install a couple of hand pumps in the area which is in dire need of drinking water,’ Kabir Suman said exasperatedly. In July 2012, Shikha Mitra, MLA from Kolkata’s important Chowringhee constituency, was suspended from the party for her alleged ‘anti-party’ comments. She, too, had complained about not being allowed to do any social service in her area.
Considering how Mamata Banerjee has been making a big public deal about her MLAs’, MPs’ and ministers’ performances, and how serious she is in ‘grading’ them (read ‘pulling them up’), based on the work they do in their respective constituencies and departments and black-marking non-performers, it is interesting how many of them complain of not being allowed by her to do any work. It is commonly insinuated about her that to her, ‘performing’ means doing her bidding. ‘No one with an iota of self-respect can work with this woman,’ Somen Mitra, who is the latest to have decided to leave the Trinamool Congress, said to me in an interview.
‘Mamata Banerjee is running a dictatorship. Only sycophants can survive in that party,’ added Mitra, a former Congress Party stalwart who, incidentally, is married to suspended TMC MLA Shikha Mitra. He had decided to join hands with the TMC chief because, he said, ‘She seemed to bring a new hope for the state of West Bengal.’ But after two turbulent years with her, during which time he reports having felt ‘neglected at best and humiliated at worst’, he decided to quit. He has re-joined Congress and has vowed never again to be a part of ‘this autocratic party’ (that is, TMC). Insiders say there have been other instances of Mamata’s publicly displaying her displeasure but, in many cases, the concerned MLA, MP or minister has decided to take it in his or her stride.
There is a chasm of opinions about who Mamata Banerjee really is with two diametrically opposite views standing like bookends on either sides of the wide spectrum of debate. Many of those who know her closely speak about a foul-mouthed, foul-tempered tyrant, whom they compare to a pugnacious slum dweller (she has even been called a ‘koltolar jhi’—or a maid standing in a queue for collecting water, the connotation being of someone who is a lowly bickering woman, who can erupt into nasty expletive-spewing quarrel at the drop of a hat), lacking social niceties, forget class or polish.
‘She had no qualms about calling someone a “whore” the moment she fell out with her,’ Dipak Ghosh claimed in an interview vouching for the veracity of this image. He was referring to an incident about which he writes in his book. Pointing out that when Mamata Banerjee had fallen out with Trinamool MP Sudip Bandyopadhya, one of her former favourites, with whose wife—Nayna, a TMC MLA—Mamata also shared a close relationship, Mamata started calling her names. He writes, ‘(Before the relationship with Mamata soured) Nayna would often lie down on a couch in her Delhi flat adjacent to Mamata’s flat, and Mamata would comb her curly locks. (After it soured) this writer had once complained to Mamata that Nayna was not a regular in the Assembly even during budget sessions. She looked at this writer for a minute and then said, “Why ask me? Go and look for her in any nude cabaret dance floor.”
The extract has been taken with permission from Rupa Publications; Pages 288; Price: Rs 699