As in a novel or a play, the protagonist makes all the difference. His or her strengths and weaknesses, the endearing qualities and perhaps, even the tragic flaw, draw us closer to the character. Biographies are much like a novel or a play, only here, the protagonist is real.
When I decided to write the unauthorised biography of West Bengal’s first woman chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, some key incidents from her life helped me make up my mind. I will narrate one such incident that makes Mamata Banerjee what she is today.
Her firebrand quality, her tempestuous nature now tempered with age and political maturity, almost held the Congress to ransom thirty years ago. That one incident cleared in my mind whatever doubt I may have harboured about this ambitious book, ‘Didi: The Untold Mamata Banerjee’. Mamata’s stories had to be told, the ones unknown, and especially, the ones that were forgotten. This is one such story.
In 1997, the country stared at shaky political times with IK Gujral swiftly following Deve Gowda as Prime Minister. In West Bengal, another storm was brewing. It was a time for redemption for Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. Just five years ago, she had lost her chance to be state president. This time she intended to win.
But fate had far grander plans in store for the feisty leader. Of the 416 West Bengal PCC members who made it to the list, there were none from Mamata’s camp. She immediately felt that a conspiracy was rife to thwart her attempts at winning the state presidency.
She was being side-lined, and she refused to accept the outcome of the organisational elections. Five years ago, she had, but this time she would not. After publicly decrying her own party, the Congress, she declared her intention “to meet the people and listen to them” at the Martyrs’ Day (July 21) rally.
Over a lakh Congress workers travelled to Calcutta’s Esplanade from distant towns and villages to listen to their leader. It was at this rally, in front of the teeming multitudes, when Mamata, the maverick, threw an open challenge to the Congress.
While the party top brass would gather at the city’s Netaji Indoor Stadium on August 9 for the All India Congress Committee’s (AICC) 80th Plenary Session, Mamata in open rebellion would address yet another rally at Brigade Parade Ground.
Her aggressive proclamations were cheered on by her supporters. “If they have guts, let the PCC and the AICC expel us [Mamata and her supporters] from the Congress before August 9,” she said. State party president Somen Mitra along with some senior state leaders met Kesri in Delhi soon after the rally and apprised him of all the insults that Mamata had heaped on him and the party. Somen wanted Mamata pushed to the periphery. Unfortunately for him, with every snub from the AICC and the PCC, Mamata’s mass appeal only grew further.
In my book, I write, “It is romantic to support the rebel, the underdog, the one who has the audacity to slight her masters while facing the full might of the enemy. The people of Bengal thought that at a time when Mamata needed support from the Congress, the party and its leaders were unnecessarily marginalising her. They realized that she was the heroine of the piece and that they must rally around her. They must cheer, clap and goad her on so that she could vanquish the Left regime.”
“Whether it was the grass-roots-level Congress worker or the disillusioned farmer, everyone saw hope in Mamata. She started promising change long before it became her campaign call fifteen years later. The ordinary party worker was with Didi. She was the one who could save them, and they were willing to follow her even if into a new party.”
The Delhi leadership sent several emissaries who tried to change Mamata’s mind about the rebel rally. With Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, Sonia Gandhi, slated to formally join the Congress at the plenary session, senior leaders felt that Mamata would not dare go ahead with the rally.
But making Mamata change her mind proved futile. If the leaders would be ‘indoors’ attending the plenary session at the Netaji Indoor Stadium, the workers would be ‘outdoors’ at Brigade Parade Ground, Mamata stated.
“Let them organise their functions indoors. We will be outdoors. Where is the harm? This is our democratic right. This is our freedom of expression,” she declared. Besides, she had personally invited Sonia to the rally; therefore, clarifying that she meant no disrespect to her.
Faced with Mamata’s continued obstinacy, talks of her eminent expulsion from the Congress gained mileage. The Congress leadership also began contemplating changing the venue of the plenary session to another city or postponing the date. Eventually, they too stuck their ground and the three-day AICC session kicked off in Calcutta as planned.
Even as the Congress tried to reign in its members, news reports suggest that at least 600 AICC delegates who had come from various parts of India, turned up at Mamata’s Kalighat doorstep. A temporary welcome camp had to be constructed to meet and greet the members, who despite of the official party line dropped by to show their support to Mamata.
As for her rally at Brigade Parade Ground, it was a resounding success with over 3 lakh people attending it. Mamata launched a parallel political platform within the Congress—the Trinamool Congress Committee (TCC).
“Indira-ji nahin hain, Rajiv-ji nahin hain, to ab Congress mein kya hain (Indira-ji is not there, Rajiv-ji is not there, so what is left of the Congress)?’ Mamata bellowed.
In spite of rumours of her floating her own party, Congress President Sitaram Kesri said, “Mamata is like my daughter. And her expulsion will only benefit the CPI(M) in West Bengal and weaken the Congress. She is fighting the same force that I am fighting. Soon, she will realise that chacha [as Kesri was popularly called] is right and she will come to me.” Mamata never really went to ‘chacha’ ever. But for the moment, she remained firmly within the party. The Congress, especially the Bengal unit had been spooked, and the hourglass on Mamata’s eventual departure had been turned.
The piece is by the author of ‘Didi: The Untold Mamata Banerjee’, which was released by Penguin India on November 23, 2018.