Left discovers 39-year-old ‘mass leader’ to pit against Mamata and BJP in WB
An 2,200-km Insaf Yatra and a successful rally attended by a mammoth crowd have signalled the emergence of a future leader of the Left in West Bengal
“I regret not going to the ‘Brigade’ (the Brigade Parade ground on the sprawling Maidan opposite Fort William in Kolkata) yesterday,” lamented an octogenarian former communist in the city on Monday. The nostalgic comrade wanted to witness what he and many leftists believe was a ‘historic turn-around’. The DYFI (Democratic Youth Federation of India) rally at Brigade was its first in 17 years, and the first after the Left Front lost power in West Bengal in 2011.
On Sunday, 7 January, the ‘Brigade’ witnessed a mammoth rally, the culmination of the 'Insaaf Yatra' by the DYFI, a youth organisation which claims to have no affiliation with any party but is known as an associate of the CPI(M).
The rally, attended by several thousands, has come as a major morale booster for the beleaguered CPI(M) in the state, which failed to win a single Lok Sabha seat in the general elections of 2019, just as the Left Front led by the CPI(M) drew a blank in the West Bengal Assembly elections in 2021. A party, which ruled Bengal uninterrupted for 34 years from 1977 to 2011, was reduced to zero in merely 10 years.
While the Left Front lost its deposit in 158 of the 177 Assembly seats it contested, the CPI(M) came in second position in just four seats, actually coming in at seventh place in Darjeeling. It was the end of the road for the Left and the CPI(M) in the state, was the popular consensus.
Not surprisingly, therefore, when the DYFI’s West Bengal chapter launched its 'Insaaf Yatra' in November, it was greeted with considerable scepticism. The mainstream media gave it little coverage as the motley group, just 450 ‘permanent walkers’ led by state secretary Minakshi Mukherjee, walked a 2,200-km route in 50 days from Cooch Behar to Jadavpur on the outskirts of Kolkata. The march for justice was for ‘education and employment’ and against the ‘divisive BJP and the corrupt Trinamool’.
The 39-year-old Mukherjee first grabbed the limelight when she was pitted against chief minister Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram for the 2021 Assembly elections, a segment eventually won by Suvendu Adhikari of the BJP. While she was winning recognition within the party, though, there was little enthusiasm outside, which explains the generally lukewarm response to the Insaaf Yatra.
The odd social media posts and video clips that popped up from time to time, however, showed that the yatra had touched a chord with many ordinary people. Very old men and women, some unable to walk or even stand, were seen waiting for the walkers. The star attraction was clearly Mukherjee, who would be embraced and hugged by the elderly while young girls would insist on taking selfies with her. Hailed as ‘captain’ by several CPI(M) old-timers, she was clearly someone special.
How special she is became clear on Sunday at the Brigade. The media reported that those who turned up for the rally wanted to just see and hear the young woman. A report in Anandabazar Patrika referred to a desperate plea by an attendee who sought the reporter’s help to meet the meye (girl).
Why did he want to meet her, asked the curious reporter. “She is fighting for us, against the corrupt; I just want to hand over Rs 200 that I have brought,” said the man, a daily wager. He was apparently not alone. There were women who wanted to hug Mukherjee, and a lady from Memari in Purba Bardhaman district extracted a promise that the next time Mukherjee passed that way, she would have a meal at her home.
Two features marked the rally on Sunday. Both Mukherjee and DYFI president Md Salim spoke in Bengali as well as Hindi. Mukherjee is at ease in both languages, though towards the fag end of her speech, when she started quoting from a poem by Kazi Nazrul Islam, she fumbled after a few lines and then disarmingly told the crowd that she had forgotten the rest. Salim, who addressed the gathering after her, would not miss the opportunity to point out that neither Mamata Banerjee nor Narendra Modi would have owned up to a mistake.
The second remarkable feature of the rally was that all front-ranking leaders of the CPI(M) in the state turned up but sat in the audience, leaving Mukherjee and her other comrades to bask in the glow of addressing the 1 lakh or more people who thronged the ground.
In her short, 22-minute speech, Mukherjee reminded the people that the fight for justice was bound to be long but reassured them that it was not going to be a fight between the ‘dhoti’ and the ‘lungi’ or between the ‘teeka’ and the ‘topi’. The fight is for ‘roti’ and ‘rozgar’ and not religion. “Kiske paas dharm seekhne jayenge? Billi ka toh dharm hai chuhe ko maarna… (who will teach you religion? It is the cat's religion to kill the mouse)”, she added in Hindi.
While she was undoubtedly the showstopper, she is unassuming and grounded enough to get down to cleaning up the ground once the rally had ended, with volunteers in red shirts.
Leftists in the state see hope in her, and she has shown that she has the connect with people and the party cadre. The octogenarian communist, a former teacher, echoed the hope of many when he declared, “she will be chief minister one day”. High hopes or hyperbole, she is now clearly a mass leader.