"America's Stooge": How "Didi" Defeated the Communists in West Bengal

"America's Stooge": How "Didi" Defeated the Communists in West Bengal

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KOLKATA, India—Mamata Banerjee just felled a giant in West Bengal. The world’s longest-running democratically elected Communists government was routed by her Trinamool Congress after 34 years in power. “It’s like the fall of the Mughal empire,” said one of her awe struck supporters. Didi, or big sister as she is called here, told the throngs of reporters packing her house, “I am a simple man.”

It’s an image carefully cultivated over the years – plain white saris, no discernible make up, no jewelry, flip fliops. But this election, Mamata had to fight one other charge. The Communists, staring defeat in the face, pulled out their last card— the foreign hand. Forget the bathroom slippers, pay no attention to the simple house without air conditioning—Mamata Banerjee is really America’s stooge.

“The helicopter, being used by Ms Banerjee belongs to an American company,” accused Biman Basu, the Left Front chairman. Basu claimed the Trinamool was spending three times as much money per candidate as his party.

His party colleague Anil Basu had no doubt where Trinamool was getting its money. He likened her to a prostitute who didn’t need the small fry any more. She had her bhatar or “big client” viz. America. West Bengal’s embattled chief minister had to pause his campaign to have a press conference to dress down his foul-mouthed colleague..

“This is just Bengal’s delusion of grandeur,” scoffs Ruchir Joshi, who has been writing about the elections for The Telegraph daily here. “We need some good CIA investment. But just as foreign airlines don’t land in Kolkata these days, neither do spies. I don’t think Bengal figures in (CIA headquarters) Langley’s budget.”

Ideology is dead, long live the brand


But Basu might be on to something.

There is something very American about our Mamata. For all her careful cultivation of Bengali street cred, her candidacy wouldn’t feel out of place in American politics. And who better placed to recognize that political kinship than the Americans themselves? In a Wikileaks cable released back in April, the Kolkata Consulate notes the launch of a product named Mamata:

“Skepticism remains whether Banerjee's makeover truly represents a new product - cooler, more level-headed, and willing to accept outside advice - or simply the season's new political makeup. Consensus exists that she is conscientiously trying to transform her image from political maverick and firebrand to a woman ready, able and willing to lead India's fourth most populous state. Her party's public rhetoric, devoid of any anti-Americanism, and private outreach to post's officers are encouraging signs that a Banerjee-led West Bengal government will be friendlier to the United States than the current CPI-M one.”

Mamta may indeed be India's very first McCandidate. Just like McDonalds repackages itself from one nation to the other – Chicken Maharaja Mac in India, McFalafel in Israel , the Croque McDo in Belgium —so too has Mamata reinvented herself over and over again.

And her strategy is no different than any apple-pie loving baby-kissing American politico: bring in the pork, sops for the poor, woo the rich, and talk incessantly of change.

Mamata, as Railway Minister, has been the classic pork barrel politician showering her home state with so many trains it caused a veritable traffic jam.’

Hope and change is her latest avatar. Across from her house in a congested alley in South Kolkata, there is a picture of a revolver painted on the wall. Underneath it is the party’s election slogan – Badal chai, Badla Noy (we want change, not revenge).

Mamata is all about change. She’s joined a coalition led by the Hindu nationalist BJP and then switched back to the Congress. She was accused of being the poison pill of industrialization in Bengal because her agitation around land acquisition drove the Nano (the world’s cheapest car) factory out of the state. Now industrialists are lining up to buy her water colors.

In any other part of the world, she’d be dismissed as a flip flopper. But in Bengal, the only flip flops attached to her name are on her feet. Our Lady of the Bathroom Slippers is her own brand and therefore has no problem being true to it. She is, in short, McMamata.

“She rose because of the death of ideology,” says Sudipto Chatterjee, raised in Kolkata, now a senior lecturer at Loughborough University in the U.K. “After Perestroika and the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a shaming of ideology. Mamata can now position herself as a candidate for hope because ideology itself has a such a bad rap.”

Chatterjee tells a story of how the New York Times reporter John Burns came to Calcutta to do a story in the mid-90s. He met Anil Biswas, the editor of CPI(M)’s party mouthpiece and noticed a dog-eared copy of the Communist Manifesto on his table. Burns pointed out that Biswas’ chief minister was wooing American capitalists. Biswas smiled and said “We welcome capital, not capitalism.”

The Left Front might be shedding ideology in practice but always counted on winning the rhetorical battle when it came to ideology. But Mamata answers to nobody. She cannot be held to an ideological standard and thus cannot be accused of hypocrisy

Mamata—the reality show

Mamata’s party platform, a glossy 55 pages, spells out her Action Agenda for the first 200 days. But nobody is voting for her because she wants to promote a cruise on the Ganga (“in line with River Thames of London, Nile in Cairo, Seine in Paris, Hudson in New York”) or a micro health insurance scheme for the poor. She is like an American presidential candidate who has to sell, not his policies, but his life story to the public.

Obama’s big hurdle was that his life story felt so foreign to many Americans. Mamata is very much of Bengal, from the lower end of the middle class. She speaks a very pedestrian Bengali says Sudipto Chatterjee. She dresses like a widow but who is she widowed from?” wonders Chatterjee and then adds,” This is a remarkable performance of plebianness.”

But what’s really put her on the cusp of toppling the Communist giant, according to historian Bharati Ray, is that she’s a fighter. “In Bengal, I am sorry to say, we are not known for courage and grit,” says Ray, once a Rajya Sabha member, now the vice president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. “We are intellectual, emotional, poets, and philosophers. This woman did not have the S of sophistication. But she fought.”

“She is like a figure in a reality show,” says novelist Amit Chaudhuri. “She is famous because of what she has gone through. We want people to struggle, be tortured in public and see if they survive.”

Mamata has not only survived. She has thrived. She showed the New York Times her scars. "From my belly to my back to my eyes,” she said. “I’m covered with these things.”

Obama and Mamata —It’s all about scale

Derek O’Brien, her party’s affable vice-president is careful not to emphasize Mamata's "American" image, but he is in no hurry to dispel that notion either. He was in New York when Obama won his election, and has obviously drawn all the right lessons. It’s no accident that Candidate Mamata is now Candidate Change. I meet O'Brien on the heels of a brainstorming session with Sabeer Bhatia, the man behind Hotmail. O’Brien is vague about Bhatia’s role, which is irrelevant. All that matters is Sabeer Bhatia is interested in Mamata and the press was invited. It builds the brand.

Two young freshly-minted IIM graduates are interning with the campaign. They are working on web architecture, they tell me. Neither are from Bengal but have been drawn to Mamata much like many young Americans were drawn to Obama back in 2008.

“This is a great period in the electoral history of West Bengal,” says Hariharan Sriram. “I want to look back and say I had a part to play.” His fellow intern, Mansha Tandon says she knows you cannot just transplant the Obama campaign to Kolkata. “There you have t-shirts, badges, Facebook quizzes,” she says. “Here your audience is rural, mass. You need a very basic website that you can load with a dial-up connection.”

“The scale is different,” agrees Hariharan. “But Barack Obama and Mamata Banerjee – in a sense they both embody a kind of hope. Each generation in any part of the world needs to have a new leader even if they are not able to do all of what they seek out to do.” Of course Obama, in his first term in the U.S. Senate, really came out of nowhere while Mamata who first won an election in 1984 is hardly “new”.

But that kind of shiny-eyed idealism is what O’Brien is banking on. That is also what O’Brien must guard against. Gandhi famously said “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Obama became all the change everyone else wanted to see in the world. As president, he just couldn’t live up to it.

“The biggest learning of the Obama campaign for us is you have to manage expectations,” says O’Brien. “So everyone does not believe M for Mamata, M for Magic.”

Mamata has pulled off her victory. Now she is in charge of a state that is so broke it has not been able to pay its own legislators their allowances for the past couple of months. But if Trinamool cannot “manage” those expectations, come re-election time, Mamata may have to start hoping herself – for her very own Osama bin Laden.

An earlier version of this story first appeared on Firstpost.com.