Mamata Banerjee clasped a microphone with both hands, beads of sweat clinging to her brow, bathroom sandals on her feet as the crowd of mainly women shouted her campaign slogan, “Mother, Earth, People”. Many raised their mobile phones to take pictures, like fans at a rock concert.
The woman with a fiery voice belying her short frame came, spoke and conquered the Kolkata crowd in the manner of someone who is about to become the fulcrum of power in the world’s largest democracy.
She railed against the Marxist Left Front, which has ruled West Bengal, one of India’s most populous and politically important states, since 1977. She decried economic stagnation, slammed corruption and accused the world’s longest-serving democratically-elected communist government of perpetrating political violence.
Exit polls show the 56-year-old Banerjee will win a landslide vote when ballots are counted on Friday to become the next leader of this state of 90-million, a population equivalent to Germany. As the latest powerbroker to emerge in India’s fractured politics, she left no doubt about what she stood against at the rally. But what does she stand for?
“That’s very difficult to say,” said Manish Gupta in the humid, oven-like heat of this middle-class university district in Kolkata, a communist bastion. The former senior civil servant, now a leading light in Banerjee’s inner circle, paused near where his leader was addressing the crowd. He then spoke into an adviser’s ear.
“She is more of a nationalist,” he said, a little surer of himself.
He paused again, thinking of a new phrase.
“A democratic socialist,” he added, signalling the conversation had ended.
If it all seemed rather vague, it was probably meant to. Asked what she stood for, Banerjee told Reuters in a telephone interview she represented “good governance, impartiality and a return to normalcy”. Her manifesto is sparse, but includes introducing cruises on the Ganges River “in line with River Thames of London” and converting West Bengal’s tea-growing Darjeeling district into the “Switzerland of the East”.
But more than dreamy promises, it is her trademark sandals, simple white sari and humble persona that have struck a chord with millions here in the “City of Joy” — the world’s eighth-biggest metropolis, larger than Los Angeles or London.
The question for many is where will this maverick populist fit in a rapidly modernising India.
Down to earth appeal
A visit to her neighbourhood helps explain her populist appeal. Unmarried, she still lives with her mother in a small bungalow with a corrugated iron roof. The stench from a nearby stream of sewage can make unaccustomed visitors feel like retching. A crematorium lies nearby. This district, Kalighat, is also home to Mother Teresa’s first hospice.
Banerjee worships near her house at a famous temple to Kali, the Hindu goddess of death often associated with sexuality, violence and even motherly love and who has become something of a feminist icon.
The woman affectionately known as didi, or Big Sister, and born to a poor teacher’s family, rose to become the first person capable of uniting an opposition against 34 years of communist rule in West Bengal and of leading a party, the Trinamool Congress, that could make or break Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s reform agenda.
After seven consecutive election wins, the communists have stumbled, mainly due to a badly-implemented plan to seize farming land for industry to help the state’s moribund economy and provide needed manufacturing jobs. Voters saw them as stuck in a Cold War time warp and their exasperation over red tape and Marxist sloganeering has grown.
Her campaign against the communists has come to symbolise the political battles that define India today — conflicts over appropriating land for industry and infrastructure, the power of regional charismatic leaders, a growing disgust with corruption, and the push for economic reform in a country of 1,2-billion people that often resists change.
Banerjee’s tale is also one of how a single woman from a humble background can succeed in this traditional society. She joins other regional leaders in India who have emerged with the decline in popularity of national parties seen as out of touch. Their populist agenda has become more influential at the centre, where national coalitions must accommodate their views as they forge India’s path in a global economy.
Statues of Lenin and Marx stand in the main park in Kolkata, albeit rather worn by rain and humidity, and the road outside the US consulate is named Ho Chi Minh. Many bookstores stock the kind of Marxist literature that seems a throwback to the 1970s counter-culture.
But those are among the few signs of a Communist society in West Bengal. The wealthy still have their traditional gentleman’s clubs and gated suburban communities. The poor complain of undrinkable water and monsoon floods of sewage that bring plagues of dengue-carrying mosquitoes.
“At night, you cannot survive here for 10 minutes without a mosquito net,” said Kulwant Singh, a taxi car owner as he sat near a rubbish-filled pond in south Kolkata. “Fill up a bottle of water and it will turn yellow. This is 34 years of lost promises.”
Even before the state election, criticism like Singh’s had begun to dent the Left Front’s political fortress. Banerjee won 19 parliamentary seats in the 2009 general election, to become the biggest party in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition government — huge clout given the government has a parliamentary majority of just 18.
A former activist of the youth Congress party, Banerjee first made headlines when she was sent by the party to battle one of the communists’ safest seats in Kolkata in 1984. Against the odds, she won.
She then had to confront two roadblocks — traditional Congress stalwarts scared of any threat to the Nehru-Gandhi family dynasty who tried to marginalise her, and Congress’s attempts to reach out to the communists as a national coalition partner.
One day in 1998 she held a meeting for disaffected Congress activists next door to a Congress party conference to protest its flirtation with the communists, giving birth to Trinamool (grassroots) Congress.
“Some say there is a Gandhian simplicity about her,” said Derek O’Brien, a quiz show host and now vice-president of Trinamool Congress.
She eats simple rice dishes twice a day and declines to live in a plush house in New Delhi that has been reserved for her as railways minister. “Look at our political stars in India. They have all had a mentor. But she has had no silver spoon,” said O’Brien, descended from an Anglo-Indian family, a legacy of British rule.
But neither is Banerjee so rustic. She owns a Samsung computer tablet and an iPod. She sends so many SMSes that party workers joke that SMS stands for Short Mamata Services.
She has a short temper, too, once grabbing an MP by his collar and marching him out of Parliament. On another occasion, she took her shawl, made it into a noose and threatened to hang herself to protest Congress’s deals with the Communists.
When Bannarjee speaks, it is always imbued with anger at the leftists. She was hospitalised for three months after her skull was fractured when she was punched to the ground by a communist cadre in the 1990s.
“Travel around West Bengal,” she told Reuters, “and you will see their brutality.”
Battle over car factory
The decline in popularity of the communists can be traced back to political violence against people such as 48-year-old farmer Nepal Kole, who lives in one of the cluster of villages around Singur, an hour’s drive from Kolkata.
Eight months ago, he was walking home along one of the irrigation ditches that cross the rich farmland here. A group of communist cadres set upon him, kicking him repeatedly as he writhed on the ground. After two months in hospital, he still has a limp and around his frail form he wears a string of leaf roots, a traditional Ayurvedic therapy.
His sin? Opposing a Left front plan to set up a car factory on land in his village.
“I was beaten black and blue,” said the former member of the Communist Party India-Marxist (CPI-M), the main group in the Left Front coalition. “That is what I got for 32 years of supporting the communists.”
His case highlighted how the heavy-handed push for industrialisation in the state has pitted the Left Front against its once fervent grassroots supporters, the farmers.
The protests were a reminder of the obstacles India faces in industrializing and competing with the likes of China as villagers, two-thirds of its 1.2 billion population, demand to be heard. The state of India’s farmers promises to be one of the biggest issues for the second term of the Congress Party-led coalition, and the communists met their match in Singur.
In 2007, Tata Motors, a unit of Indian conglomerate Tata group, made a deal with the Communist government to start rolling out thousands of Nanos — billed as the world’s cheapest car — from a new state-of-the-art factory complex in Singur. Land was seized with little compensation and a factory wall suddenly went up, cutting farmers land in two and separating them from key irrigation pumps.
The Nano itself had become a nationalist symbol and a prestigious industrial project. One newspaper compared its launch to walking on the moon.
But when the factory wall went up, some farmers committed suicide, others emigrated to the city for jobs. Many more stayed to fight and Banerjee seized on it. Soon roadblocks and street protests forced the Communists to retreat. The factory was never set up and the project moved to the western state of Gujarat in 2008.
West Bengal had not only lost a factory and much needed jobs, but also any reputation for governance.
City of palaces
As the capital of the British empire in India, Calcutta, as it was then known, was called the “City of Palaces”. It was one of the world’s richest cities in the 19th century, and few cities in India today can compete with that legacy of huge mansions, a royal racecourse, clubs and huge parks.
Strategically situated near south-east Asia, its ports could have been the centre of India’s “Look East” policy of attracting investment from China and the Asian tigers.
Even in 1960, West Bengal had the highest per capita GDP of any state in India, a sign of the vibrancy of its industry and rich farmland that often belied the widespread poverty that the communists would soon exploit.
There were high hopes for the Left Front coalition government when it was first elected in 1977, only 10 years after a famine that for years defined the cliché image of India. The Left Front began a land reform programme that split up huge farming estates and handed plots to over one-million small farmers. The Left Front established self-governing village councils called panchayats, a system then copied across India.
The communists soon dominated the schools, universities, police and the civil service. Today, leftist cadres, many armed, have camps across the state, ostensibly to help guard against Maoists who have waged an insurgency in eastern India for years, but criticized as a tool for intimidating villagers.
In West Bengal, every district and village had its grassroots communist office, often staffed with chain-smoking cadres who ran them like fiefdoms. It seemed an unshakable model, and for years after the fall of the Berlin Wall leftist leaders in West Bengal insisted communism was a viable force.
In the 1980s, the Communists banned the teaching of English in primary schools, helping to trigger a brain drain to other parts of India. Trade unions were initially popular but soon lost support over their constant strikes. The cities were the first to see a loss of communist support, followed in recent years by farmers angry over land conflicts such as in Singur.
Cities such as Hyderabad and Bangalore were attracting the raw talent of India’s new breed of entrepreneurs. The World Bank in 2009 said Kolkata was the worst major city to do business in India.
“In power, the CPI[M] has been very inward-looking, in a time warp of the 1960s,” said Sabyasachi Chaudhury, head of political science at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata.
The stagnation was reflected on the national stage. Since the 1991 economic reforms opened up the economy, the Left Front has resisted change. They held the balance of power in Singh’s first coalition government between 2004 and 2009, opposing a civilian nuclear deal with the United States and moves to allow foreign firms to set up supermarkets.
As India’s economic juggernaut gathered pace, West Bengal began to stall. Farm productivity languished. Kolkata grew to 15-million inhabitants, but relatively few full-time jobs were created. Before the Left Front came to power, industry accounted for more than a quarter of the state’s output. Last year it was under a fifth.
The challenges ahead
Her party won local village elections in 2008. After the communists withdrew support from Singh’s coalition government, her party filled the void in the coalition and she became railway minister in Singh’s second term.
Her all but certain victory in the May 13 state elections will cap a remarkable political journey, but the road ahead poses huge challenges.
The state is heavily in debt and the communists are unlikely to fade away. Her campaign slogan “No revenge” testifies to the fear that a culture of polarized political violence will continue — both parties have armed groups.
“If Didi comes to power, we’ll just occupy the site,” said farm worker Gautam Patri, within earshot of armed guards standing by the wall separating the empty Tata factory from farmland. “This land will be ours.”
O’Brien noted that Banerjee’s ascension to power would not be just a political change, but a “huge cultural shift.” But Banerjee has no clear policy about how to rid the police, for example, of three decades of communist influence. While she railed against land seizures, her party also talks about industrializing the state.
“After Singur, you cannot even build a road,” said Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, a fellow in political science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Kolkata. “It’s just too polarized. I doubt that will change under Mamata.”
Her two-year record as railway minister has been heavily criticised for running the network into more debt to pay for populist measures such as more passenger trains.
While she has drafted in some respected advisors, including the former secretary-general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, she is still basically a one-woman-show.
“She suffers from tremendous insecurity. She does not allow others to speak,” said Bhattacharyya. “She is unique as a woman without support. But on the other hand she is reckless, populist, anarchic. She is not a leader to run a government, although she can organize an anti-government campaign,” Bhattacharyya said, adding: “It will be difficult once the honeymoon is over.”
Nor is the record of other regional power brokers inspiring. There is Mayawati, a former teacher and member of the “untouchable” caste who has been investigated for spending millions of dollars on statues of herself and her party in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states. Tamil Nadu is a state ruled by M. Karunanidhi (86) a former screenwriter whose party leaders were caught up in a scandal over selling telecom licenses in what has become India’s worst corruption scandal.
But as the ruling Congress, the party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, struggles to keep national support, they are increasingly forced to rely on these regional chieftains.
“The regional parties have moved from being casual allies into becoming critical allies,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, a Delhi University professor and political columnist.
“Regional parties . have moved from extremist ideas to populist ones. National parties have to adapt and evolve, to court and regain support of regional parties,” he said.
The Communists now concede they got it wrong.
“We have learnt something from the Singur episode,” said Biman Bose, one of the Communists’ leading politburo members. “We have learnt we have to be more compassionate before acquiring land.”
He sat in the drab Communist party headquarters in Kolkata, smoking at his desk, which sported a small red flag and books on Mao and Lenin. It was a contrast to the headquarters of Trinamool Congress, where young university graduates with laptops worked on campaign strategies.
He still held out fading hopes of a Communist comeback in the election. Indeed, the Communists still have grassroots support and the ability to mobilize its 300 000 card-carrying members.
“We are not behind the times. We have day-to-day contact with the people,” Basu said.
But Singur wasn’t the only setback for the left. The state government was also forced to shelve plans for a chemical hub in Nandigram after dozens of villagers died in protests.
The Maoist insurgency in the state, which has used the land issues as a lightening rod for new recruits, has led to more political violence.
It is a sign of the communists’ plight that they have not just lost support to the Maoists in the countryside, but many urban intellectuals have deserted them as well.
Mahasweta Devi, one of West Bengal’s foremost leftist activists, is one of them.
She recounted how cadres this year defecated into 19 wells in a cluster of villages around Lalgarh where the communist’s battled farmers they claimed were supporting Maoist insurgents.
“How can you forgive a government for doing this do the people?”
She repeated the question, adding: “We expected so much from them and they have failed us.”
Like an American suburb
On the outskirts of Kolkata lies one vision of the future for West Bengal. The suburb of Salt Lake is home to an information technology park, one-million square metres of modern office towers for West Bengal’s outsourcing industry. Some 75 000 professionals are employed there with multinationals such as Infosys, Deloitte and Price Waterhouse.
Bikram Dasgupta, chairperson of the software services company Globsyn, is one of its pioneers. He first leased land off the Communist government in the 1990s and his software company has been a magnet for others.
Many thought him mad for trying to set up an IT firm in this bastion of Indian communism.
“We’ve grown here in spite of the government,” he said. “We lead our own lives here. “There is no room for expansion in places like Bangalore or Hyderabad. It’s just too crowded.”
Dasgupta has just bought 15 acres to expand his business school on land near the airport. Unlike Tata, he managed it without protests.
Rather than negotiate with the state, he went directly with a lawyer to the villages. He negotiated with a village head representing around 90 separate land holders, and showed them a model of the development.
“People misunderstand the land problem here and in India,” he said. “Tata should have sent in their own people, not rely on the government.”
His main problem is not with land but with labour. While West Bengal’s workforce is known in the rest of India as one of the most literate, the state still has a shortage of skilled knowledge workers. Only 16 000 engineers graduate every year in West Bengal, compared with 100 000 in southern Tamil Nadu state.
Dasgupta also yearns for stability. Political conflicts have eaten into his company’s growth — some foreign investors still ask him about Singur and Nandigram.
“The last three years have been lost,” he said.
The imminent demise of the Communists could signal that India is shedding the last vestiges of Cold War political groups that often shackled national coalition governments with their ideology.
But Banerjee’s rise shows that regional populists may be just as difficult and uncertain figures to handle.
“In many ways, the communists were easier to deal with,” said one senior Congress party official, who asked not to be named so he could speak frankly about a coalition partner. “They were predictable.”
Banerjee’s party is against key reforms such as allowing more foreign investment in the insurance and modern supermarket sectors.
Their ambitions do not stop at the state level.
“If we do a good job, we can talk about getting 30 seats in the [552-member] national Parliament — and that is huge,” said O’Brien, “It would be a huge check on the power of Congress or the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition group].”
But don’t count out the left in a country with abject poverty and a growing rich-poor gap.
In one Kolkata slum, residents queued to vote in the first phase of the election last month. Again, the retching smell of sewage and human excrement was pervasive. Kids and dogs played in open gutters. This was the Kolkata of folklore, of Mother Teresa and the City of Joy, the novel and movie about a young Polish priest and the hardships of a rickshaw puller.
But this corner was not Banerjee’s Kolkata.
“You can contact our CPI councillor 24 hours a day here,” said local trader Satrughan Shaw. A crowd of onlookers muttered in agreement. “Mamata doesn’t come here.”
The problems that made the Communists popular in the first place remain. Banerjee is untried.
“The presence of leftist parties is important amid all this globalisation,” said political science professor Chaudhury.
“When you have abject poverty in India, if there is no responsible leftist politician taking up the causes of the poor, my suspicion is that the more radical foes like the Maoists may take this space.”
“In many ways, the communists are India’s conscience.” — Reuters