Mamata Banerjee is the image that till recently no Bengali wanted. She was plain, undecorated, unrefined and unchaperoned. She had almost no social background, hailed from a family of East Bengal refugees, stayed in a hutment off Kalighat, unmarried with little possibility of her being attractive to men and without a Godfather in a tow. She was cantankerous, often holding up logical political processes, calling frequent bandhs and disrupting normal life, resigning from Ministries, leaving work unfinished, not attending office or attending the same on her sweet will and showing almost no ideological path to her politics. She was an anathema to Bengal’s sophisticated women because she was so un-feminine and she was hated by men because she gave an impression of being one with whom no deal was possible. No young person found in her a role model worthy following and the poor in the city shied away from her because her contacts fetched them nothing. Yet, Mamata rose and what a rise !!
Mamata’s clout among Delhi politicians is rising and her roots in Bengal are certainly spreading but what is interesting is that as a Bengali residing in the NCR, my value has risen due to “Mamtadidi.” Retrenched workers from Okhla factory, displaced persons from Faridabad slums, harassed Dalits from the neighbouring slums and Bengali migrant workers from occupied commons of the suburbs come to me to ask me to write that one letter to Didi. The faith they have in Mamata as the messiah of the poor is unmistakeable and unflinching. This is the sole reason why she has attracted one segment of Bengal so endearingly, namely the Bhadralok, or what we would know as the Bengali intelligentsia.
Mamata’s resurgence in Bengal begins with Singur. A few villages in Singur block was recently acquired by the Tatas for their car factory, namely the Nano. Most farmers in Singur willingly sold land to the Tatas who offered them generous rates at one and a half times the market value, if not more. But a microscopic minority resisted this forceful acquisition. It was this minority that Mamata suddenly turned to and supported and said that no farmer should be forced to give up land. Interestingly, in Singur Mamata’s struggle had little chance because most farmers had shrinking size of plot holdings that had commendable productivity but in gross terms yielded incomes that would not support their growing prosperity into the middle class. Singur is perhaps India’s most fertile agricultural tract and is fully irrigated and the farmers who had land there obtained a fast track to prosperity and now naturally wanted more money which the division of land over generations could no longer give them. Farming was good but it had lost the ability to deliver more, hence the sale of farm land at rates of city land was a windfall opportunity for the farmers to fund their air conditioners, vitrified tiles and Bolero and Honda Civic !! Besides the Tatas, who are almost like a public sector employee, promised jobs and contracts for civil work and other supplies!! Tatas looked like Godsend and almost no farmer in Singur was to let go of this opportunity. But a few resisted; the few who would easily lose out in numbers in a democracy based on majority politics and hence in the equations of the ballot. Besides everyone in Bengal was tired of the stagnation and badly wanted industrialization and development. Taking up the cause of only a few farmers would have surely been looked upon as an anti-industry politics invoking the wrath of the poor and the civil society alike. Yet, Mamata took on a battle that then seemed to be lost on all fronts. For once, the angry young woman, neither organized nor strategized seemed to take up a cause because she believed in it and not because of the gains it promised her. Her abruptness for once appeared to be free from personal ambitions, she seemed to have return to the days when one fought for beliefs and not for voter calculus.
What Mamata fought was not agriculture versus industry. She fought a simple case, whether a person has a right to livelihood as a self employed when there is no alternative employment for her in the future. Her fight raised several questions, which, I am sure that even Mamata Banerjee has little capability to understand in its complete significance. Her fight raised the issue of farmers leaving farming for pursuit of higher incomes and in this effort, selling off land as real estate. The shrinking food output of the country and its rising prices are definite issues for the non food producing respectable middle class. Bengal, which has known the famine has grown to fear food scarcity and the Tatas acquisition of the country’s most fertile and fully irrigated tract raised eyebrows on whether our best lands should sacrificed for the sake of private profits of the Tatas. As Mamata suggested that the Tatas take the unirrigated tract on the other side of the road and the Tatas steadfastly refused, she helped the Bengali middle class intelligentsia to see for themselves the true face of the greedy capitalist who does not care where from the food for the common man comes. In getting caught between two sets of farmers, a majority who wanted the Tatas to move in and the other that wanted to farm on, Mamata revealed the preciousness of the minority of farmers who were still willing to grow food for us and the shortsightedness of those who were willing to abandon farming because of their greed for easy money. Her fight for Singur fed on two important qualities of the Bengali psyche, the fear of famine and the hate of private large capital.
As farmers in Singur protested it was revealed that many among them were erstwhile industrial workers who would like to hold on to land as their future security. The identity of the unwilling farmers as being retrenched workers flied in the face of the assertion that industry creates jobs. Bengal can never be told that industry means employment for sitting in each household is at least one member who was employed but is now idle. But farming, something that the Bengali bhadralok has never done emerged in their eyes as the only security against future uncertainties. In the wave of uncertainty and high inflation era of our neo-liberal politics, the small huddle of farmers clinging to their only security, a tiny piece of garden land and ramshackle homestead suddenly became a metaphor of our predicament of being hemmed in from all sides by mindless corporatization of the world that lured us as consumers but did not employ us so that we had salaries to consume the goods that they produced. Suddenly, Mamata’s politics revealed this grand paradox.
Bengal has always been oppositional and critical, defiant and disobedient. So long for 33 years the CPI(M) was doing a fine job in the ever ending maanchhi na maanbo na. But when the time came to deliver they fell upon the old path of promoting mindless capitalists who looked more like the East India Company seeking farmans and zamindari rights rather than entrepreneurs producing, employing and delivering. In this change of direction, the CPI(M) made many friends in the dreaded and villainous Marwaris as the Neotias and Todis came out from nowhere into headily building assets and displacing people at will. In the case of Rizwanur, a Bengali respectable middle class person who unfortunately married a Todi girl, the industrialist had him killed. The poor investigations revealed that the government protected not its electorate but a few powerful Mammons. Mamata Banerjee fed on this hate as she supported Rizwanur and those in Singur who were unwilling to give up land. She seemed to be on the side of those who the media makes invisible and hence is believed as not existing.
Mamata’s politics showed up a secret divide between the people at large and the few initiators of corporatization. She was successful in puncturing the neo-liberal politics of the country with at least some semblance of a coherent critique. The Bengali Bhadralok’s rise as a moral power has always been this critique and Mamata helped to find a language for the intelligentsia. It is a matter of speculation whether the CPI(M) could have gone unchallenged without the rise of Mamata. To the best of my understanding, I think that they could have. The CPI(M) has not only monopolized politics but also culture and economics. Not only Parliament, assembly and seats of local governance were monopolized by them, but contracts for construction or civil supplies, jobs in government schools and colleges, awards and accolades, cultural functions and creative endeavours were monopolized by them. The Bengali intelligentsia crashed under this weight of consensus; for no critique was allowed against the ruling party. Mamata’s politics has given back this air of freedom in thought and belief, of speech and pen and no wonder the culturally inclined and critically sensitive Bhadralok has taken to her as a breath of fresh air that the early easterly breeze often brings in the hot evenings of the month of Jyestha. In the Bengali language we call it the Pubali.