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05.18.11

Mamata Banerjee, India's Political Superwoman

Mamata Banerjee stunned her country by sweeping the entrenched communists from power in Bengal.

Imagine a tiny sparrow of a woman in a crumpled white sari, in a narrow, crowded lane in Kolkata, yelling colloquially into a microphone, asking the heaving, sweating sea of people around her to go home and bathe and relax. All around her is a jubilant crescendo: conch shells blowing, drums beating, a celebratory vapor of green powder everywhere. A moment later, she shouts over the din to call out to a young girl in the crowd, urging her to bring all the children out of the scorching sun and into the modest house behind her. She is raucous, tactile, familiar. Everyone calls her Didi, elder sister.

Fifty-six-year-old Mamata Banerjee may not fit the global image of the political superstar, but she has just turned India on its head. Politics in India is no stranger to tectonic shifts, but few electoral upheavals in the country's 64-year history as an independent nation can match what Banerjee pulled off last week. On May 13, Indian democracy served up one of its most triumphal stories. With the world media jostling outside her office, she swept a seemingly invincible communist government out of Bengal after 34 years of unbroken rule. It's a feat not even the 125-year-old Congress Party could dream of. Banerjee's party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), is only 13 years old.

Banerjee's victory will have major national repercussions. The Left Front, the alliance of doctrinaire communist parties she defeated, has always led governments in only three Indian states, but its clout in Bengal gave it disproportionate teeth, making it a formidable player on the national stage. It was a bulwark against the communal politics of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party; it reined in the excesses of the Congress Party's economic policies, and it was the natural glue for any combination of parties that wished to cobble together a third political front nationally. (In 2008, in fact, the Left Front almost unseated the government when it opposed a trust vote over the Indo-U.S. Nuclear Bill.) The Front's defeat in Bengal, therefore, will open up a crucial power vacuum at the center. Banerjee will wield greater influence.

But for the moment, all the transformative exhilarations of Banerjee's story, and the incredible power of democracy, lie back in Bengal. On May 20, when she is sworn in, she will have stormed a male bastion to become Bengal's first woman chief minister. With her victory, India now has powerful women chief ministers in three of its most populous states: Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. India also has a woman president; a woman leader of the opposition in parliament, and a woman at the head of India's oldest party, the Congress. That is probably a record unmatched anywhere in the world.

In a curious twist, none of these female chief ministers is married or has children. But that's where the similarities among them end. Unlike the other two— Jayalalitha and Mayawati, who use only one name—Banerjee is a self-made woman. She has had no political godfathers; she did not inherit her party from any mentor. Banerjee started life as the daughter of poor, working-class parents in a dingy Kolkata neighborhood, close to a notorious red-light district and a putrid canal. She was 13 when her father died, and Banerjee not only brought up all six of her siblings, she put herself through college as well. They were hard years. The house was a box, and space was at a premium. At night, the family doubled up on the bed: Some lay on it, some beneath it on the floor. Banerjee still lives with her mother in that house, now only modestly improved and enlarged to accommodate the TMC party office next door.

Unlike other political leaders, she is scrupulously honest and has not used caste, class, religion, language, money, or any divisive argument to wrest power.

This humble beginning is one of the high notes in the story. In a land of legendary snobberies, ruled by starched patrician elders known as the bhadralok, the firebrand Banerjee has broken all the rules. She has taken on the entrenched party machinery. She has refused to groom herself into acceptability. She has heaped abuse on foes; danced on a politician's car; threatened to commit suicide publicly from a pole; picketed inside the well of parliament; hurled her shawl at the august speaker; and grabbed political opponents by their collars. For years, the Kolkata elite derided her as a jhee—an ugly diminutive for a housemaid—and witheringly mocked her accent and clothes. Unfazed, the mercurial Banerjee blazed on, rising in the ranks of the Congress Party.

In 1993, while on a protest march with other Congress workers, Banerjee was brutally beaten by the police and communist cadres. Thirteen of her colleagues lost their lives, and her skull was cracked. This proved to be a huge turning point. Banerjee swore she would not rest till she had wiped out the Communist Party and its autocratic regime. In 1999, disillusioned with the Congress as well, she floated the Trinamool Congress, a ragtag band of rebels, disenfranchised workers, and sullen lumpen.

Twelve years later, the miracle is done. Across Bengal, those who had once deemed her an affront have voted her in with a thumping majority. Every bastion has fallen. Her party also has won every Kolkata seat. Crucially, people of every persuasion have joined her: farmers, bureaucrats, writers, artists, intellectuals, even corporate types. Noted sociologist and writer Ashis Nandy calls her victory epochal. Bengal politics, he says, has finally been democratized.

The most extraordinary aspect of Banerjee's journey, however, is that unlike other political leaders, she is scrupulously honest and has not used caste, class, religion, language, money, or any divisive argument to wrest power. Instead, she has used that neglected political tool: a genuine cause.

In 2006, the Left Front government invited the magnate Ratan Tata to set up his Nano factory at Singur. Bengal had been in stasis for close to three decades. Its young were leaving in droves. There were no jobs, no industry, no innovations in agriculture. English had been removed from school curricula. The iron grip of the Marxists was everywhere. When the party did read the signs and try to correct course, it did so with characteristic violence. In the early years, it had earned the loyalty of the people by dismantling feudal structures, with large-scale land redistribution. Now it began to forcibly seize back large tracts of rich agricultural land for industry. There was a brutal police action. Farmers were shot. Resentment simmered everywhere. Banerjee zeroed in.

The Tata factory at Singur and, soon after, another land acquisition in Nandigram for a Salem Group-promoted chemical project became huge catalysts. As people erupted in anger against the forced acquisitions—unfair prices, police action, the absence of consensus, consultation, or compensation—Banerjee gave their grievances political wind. The Tatas were forced to withdraw their factory. The Nandigram project had to be scrapped. Ham-handed, the Left Front blundered on. Then, as Bengal slid into internecine chaos, Banerjee raised an inspired call: "Poriborton!" she urged, "Change!" It took just four years: Bengalis switched allegiance en masse.

As Banerjee is sworn in on May 20, many urgent questions will confront her. She is inheriting a bankrupt, bruised state. And an angry enemy licking its wounds. She has to balance the hopes of farmers with the aspirations of the urban young. She has to grow both agriculture and industry. Everyone is asking: Can she pull it off? Or will she go back to her whimsical theatrics?

There is no way of predicting that. But it must be of some comfort to Banerjee that as her historic swearing-in draws near, forcible land acquisition has become the most raging debate topic in India. Back in 2007, media outlets and political parties across the spectrum had dismissed her as a spoiler, merely deploying agitational politics for narrow gains. Today, every party and the media are parroting the Banerjee line.

In the meantime, she continues to speak with idiomatic brusqueness. But her utterances have grown wiser, more restrained. In the first speech she gave after she won, she urged her supporters not to take revenge. The victory, she said, was not hers, or her party's. It was a victory for democracy. For the moment, that's probably triumph enough.

Shoma Chaudhury is executive editor of Tehelka, a public-interest newsmagazine in India. She lives in New Delhi.