Sister, Soldier

The hard-won victories of Mamata Banerjee

National headlines focus on the misdemeanours of her government and her personal foibles, but within Bengal, Mamata Banerjee is the most popular mass leader since the communist chief minister Jyoti Basu in his heyday. Jayanta Shaw / REUTERS
National headlines focus on the misdemeanours of her government and her personal foibles, but within Bengal, Mamata Banerjee is the most popular mass leader since the communist chief minister Jyoti Basu in his heyday. Jayanta Shaw / REUTERS
01 April, 2014


DELHI’S CONSTITUTION CLUB was quiet as Kisan Baburao “Anna” Hazare read out the details of his seventeen-point programme to transform India, one afternoon in mid February this year. A group of journalists huddled in respectful silence before him, listening to an expanded recitation of the objectives that had fuelled his tremendously popular movement in 2011—an end to corruption, the return of black money from the shadowy overseas accounts of India’s rich and powerful, comprehensive electoral reform, and so on.

Hazare’s agenda had been sent out, in the form of a petition, to several chief ministers late last year, in the run-up to the Delhi assembly polls. Only one had responded. Seated beside Hazare, dressed in her trademark white sari, the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, listened to him for over half an hour with unusual patience. To their left, just off the dais, sat the Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP Kanwar Deep Singh, the billionaire owner of the Alchemist Group, which is currently under investigation for its ownership of several tainted chit funds.

His seventeen points read out, Hazare announced his support for Mamata Banerjee in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, and went on to extol her virtues at length. Her honesty was lauded; so was her austere lifestyle and concern for the poor. When Banerjee’s turn came to speak, she kept it short, thanking Hazare for his support, and agreeing with all his demands. The floor was opened to questions from the press. Ten minutes in, I got my chance, and brought up the Saradha Group financial scam, news of which had plagued the West Bengal government since last year. I asked Hazare how he was able to square his support for Banerjee with his anti-corruption activism.

In February, an alliance between Mamata Banerjee and Anna Hazare appeared to signal the start of Banerjee’s national campaign, but the partnership broke down soon after a failed joint rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan that was attended by only a few thousand people. Altaf Qadri / AP Photo

In an instant, Banerjee grabbed the microphone. “I know which ideology you are from,” she snapped, looking down at me where I sat, close to her feet on the floor of the packed conference hall. I told her I was reporting for this magazine, and unaffiliated with any political ideology.

“Annaji does not know about all this, why are you asking him?” she said. “All these chit funds were started during the time of the CPI(M). They cheated people. As for my party, we have put one MP in jail.” She was referring to the Rajya Sabha MP Kunal Ghosh, who was implicated in the Saradha Group financial scam last year. Hazare sat by quietly, listening; the conference broke up soon afterward. Banerjee and Hazare departed together, seemingly bound by mutual respect for each other’s honesty and integrity. Banerjee later announced that her Trinamool Congress planned to contest all of Bengal’s forty-two Lok Sabha seats in the upcoming election, and a handful in other states. Her support elsewhere in the country, she said, would go to whichever honest candidates Annaji recommended.

Had the alliance between them actually lasted, it would have put Hazare in a position of considerable power. Whatever the result of this year’s general elections, it seems clear that Mamata Banerjee will play a central role in deciding who forms the next government. Pre-election opinion polls appear to unanimously confirm the power of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. In mid March this year, an NDTV poll predicted the party would win thirty-two seats in the state—a number that could make it the third largest party in parliament after the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. On several occasions in the past, Banerjee has extended and withdrawn her support for national coalitions led by both major parties, but one or both of them may need to make peace with her yet again in the coming months.

From 2009 to 2012, Banerjee was to the second United Progressive Alliance government what the communists had been to the first: an ideologically stubborn partner whose demands delayed the passing of major economic policies. When she eventually pulled out of the UPA, it was in protest over moves to cut fuel subsidies and allow foreign investment in retail. Her overwhelming popularity in Bengal and disruptive heft in Delhi attracted international attention; she was named in Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2012, with an accompanying article that described her as having “out-Marxed the Marxists.” This was universally acknowledged—when I spoke to him last month, Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the CPI(M), admitted to me that he did not expect “immediate electoral results” for the debilitated Left in Bengal.

In her public pronouncements leading up to this April, Banerjee was more or less dismissive of the Congress. The BJP, which Banerjee supported at the centre in the early 2000s, presented a more complicated challenge. Banerjee has repeatedly criticised Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, for being communally divisive, and largely fortunate in his reputation as a good administrator. “Will there be ‘NaMo, NaMo’ if the central government takes away Rs 74,000 crore from Gujarat?” she asked at a rally last month, referring, as she frequently does, to Bengal’s debt burden to the central government. Banerjee’s stance indicated that her decisions about any future alliance depended heavily on the approval of Bengal’s Muslim voters, who will not look kindly upon a partnership with a Modi-led government.

In the days after her alliance with Hazare was announced, speculation arose about Banerjee’s own prime ministerial ambitions. Hazare’s endorsement of Banerjee lent her some of the pan-Indian—or at least pan-metropolitan—authority that he had earned during the anti-corruption movement he led in 2011. Starting last year, Banerjee spoke often of what she considered an ideal coalition: a federal front made up of regional parties, which excluded the Congress, the BJP, and any loose federation of Left-led, third front parties. She praised Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, and indicated that she would support her as premier of a potential “fourth front” alliance. She issued cursory denials of her own prime ministerial ambitions: “I know my limitations,” she said in an interview with the Times Now journalist Arnab Goswami.

On 12 March, Banerjee returned to Delhi to address a rally with Hazare at Ramlila Maidan. The rally, scheduled to begin at noon, was delayed—perhaps because almost nobody had turned up to listen. As the hours ticked by, news came from Hazare’s camp at Maharashtra Bhavan, where the old activist was staying: he was unwell, and would be unable to attend. Over one spring afternoon, Banerjee’s national launch had turned into an unmitigated embarrassment.

Banerjee arrived with her convoy at 2 pm, and to the three thousand or so who had trickled in by then, she delivered a brave, extempore speech that lasted over half an hour. She spoke in Hindi, much of it laced with Bengali syntax and pronunciation, and claimed that she could have started her journey from anywhere in the country. “Punjab is also my state. Bihar is also my state,” she said. “Karnataka is also mine.”

The Trinamool Congress camp was taken aback by the non-attendance of Hazare, whose spokesperson later claimed he had absented himself from the rally because there were fewer than ten thousand people at the venue. Less than twenty-four hours later, Hazare unceremoniously withdrew from the alliance, and parted ways with the leader in whom he had professed such faith just days earlier.

Through her four decades in politics, brave gambits and embarrassing reversals have been the rule for Banerjee. Her career has been marked by failure, physical hazard, and a surfeit of public drama. Notoriety came early; in 1975, soon after she entered politics, she led a band of students to block the socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan’s convoy on a Kolkata street, then danced on the bonnet of his car as her protestors milled around. Over the following decades, she burnished her reputation as a street fighter, leading disruptive anti-Left protests on populist issues and calling frequent and successful strikes against the state government. She shot to fame in 1984 when she defeated the veteran communist Somnath Chatterjee to win the Jadavpur Lok Sabha seat in her very first parliamentary election. In 1998, in order to consolidate power over her supporters, she broke away from the West Bengal Congress to set up her own party—a “trinamool,” or grassroots, Congress that claimed to be closer to the people.

This will be the first Lok Sabha election since Banerjee became chief minister, in May 2011. National coverage of her government is dominated by her plentiful and voluble public outbursts, financial scams allegedly involving members of her party, and allegations of nepotism. But at home, Banerjee is by far the most popular leader Bengal has seen since the heyday of Jyoti Basu, the CPI(M) chief minister who ruled West Bengal between 1977 and 2000. The Trinamool Congress swept panchayat elections in the state last year, confirming that its comprehensive victory in the state elections three years ago was no fluke. The once invincible Left is in disarray. Its leaders in Bengal do not know whether to stand by the relatively market-friendly policies ushered in by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the last Left chief minister, or to imitate Banerjee’s massively successful populism. Today, the CPI(M) accuses Banerjee of using violence and election rigging against it—exactly the things Banerjee once accused the communists of using against her.

Banerjee, the face of the anti-Left opposition in Kolkata, defeated the veteran communist Somnath Chatterjee in her first election. BCCL

“There has been an onslaught of democracy in West Bengal,” Prakash Karat told me last month. “We have lost 147 members since she came to power, thousands of our polling agents were driven out by her people during the panchayat elections. She is running a lumpen raj.”

Over all this, Banerjee’s personal history looms large. In the years of her ascendancy, bloodshed on the streets was the norm, and Banerjee herself was frequently beaten and physically humiliated by her communist rivals. Her victimhood became the foundation of her role as leader of the opposition. For years, she and the Trinamool Congress seemed to be engaged in a futile struggle against a communist apparatus with an impressive mandate and an institutional control over every aspect of life in Bengal. But in little over a decade, the new party won over the large rural voter-base which powered the communists for thirty-four years, and Banerjee finally realised her lifelong dream of ruling the state.

Her years in power in West Bengal have created the emerging impression of a leader with autocratic tendencies, guided by spontaneity and personal instinct rather than political acumen. Within her party, her rule is absolute. Over months of interviews with her present and former colleagues, and with her many long-term associates and rivals in West Bengal and Delhi, it appeared to me that Banerjee’s centrality to her party was reflected in the government it ran. Bengal’s most influential business magnate likened her to the seventeenth-century French king, Louis XIV. “‘L’État, c’est moi,’” he told me, recalling the French ruler’s famous quote. “‘The state, that is me.’ That’s Bengal under Mamata Banerjee.”


SINCE THE DAY THE LEFT ENTERED POWER IN 1977, Banerjee fought on the frontlines of the long and ugly standoff between Bengal’s communists and the Congress party. Now, having brought down the world’s longest-serving elected communist government, she leads a state as populous as Germany; yet she continues to campaign—and govern—as a featherweight contender and perpetual underdog. Paradoxically, her victory put her at the pinnacle of the very political culture that repeatedly made her its target, assaulted her health and dignity, and once, over twenty years ago, almost killed her.

Expectations of Banerjee’s victory in 2011 electrified the media as well as voters, and coverage of her campaign was largely optimistic. Bikas Das / AP Photo

On 16 August 1990, Kolkata was tense in the aftermath of a police shooting that had killed three people. A bandh  was called, and was observed citywide as an unofficial public holiday. Banerjee was leading a Congress party march in south Kolkata’s Hazra neighbourhood when supporters of the ruling communists met the group head-on, and attacked it with sticks, iron rods and chains.

“I was prepared for it, so when they came for me I wasn’t nervous,” Banerjee wrote in her memoir Paribartan (Change), published in 2012. “I just stared back at them.” Banerjee was hit on the head with an iron rod by a communist party worker, Lalu Alam. Then she was struck on the head again, and again on her elbow. “My head was bleeding profusely, my saree had turned red, but somehow I did not feel any pain right then,” she wrote.

In 1990, the CPI(M)-led alliance was in its thirteenth year in power in West Bengal. Under Jyoti Basu, its canny chief minister, it had systematically undermined the state’s Congress-led opposition with a mix of inducements, blackmail and threats of violence, and consolidated its power in the assembly and on the street. Basu, however, seems to have been unwilling or unable to buy out Banerjee, the Congress’s fiery young leader from Kalighat, who had begun as Unit Secretary for the Calcutta Congress in her college, and taken less than fifteen years to become one of the youngest MPs in the Lok Sabha. Banerjee was already known to have her eye on the post of West Bengal Youth Congress chief; she was too ambitious to be silenced or swayed. Instead of being co-opted, she became a target.

Sultan Ahmed, now a Trinamool Congress MP, has known Banerjee since the early 1980s, when they were both Youth Congress workers. He was with her on that day at Hazra, and among those who rushed Banerjee to the Woodlands Nursing Home after the attack, where a scan revealed a potentially fatal injury to her skull. As the hours passed, news of the assault spread, and large crowds gathered outside the nursing home. Banerjee had lost the 1989 general election from Kolkata South, but she was a popular leader and local celebrity; there was a very real possibility that a retaliatory riot would break out.

“We thought she would not survive that night,” Ahmed remembered. “We regretted letting her lead the rally, but then she was always fearless, always eager to challenge the Left.”

On that day, Banerjee emerged as the greatest political challenge to the juggernaut of the Bengal Left. A photograph of her lying on a stretcher in an ambulance, head and right arm heavily bandaged, became an emblem of the communist government’s methods of intimidation. In the face of communist bullying—dadagiri—a blood-soaked opponent had emerged in the figure of “didi,” the elder sister. She was thirty-four years old. As she recuperated in hospital, she heard that the post she had long coveted was hers: the Congress party chief, Rajiv Gandhi, had confirmed her appointment as president of the West Bengal Youth Congress.

This was neither the first nor the last time Banerjee would come to physical harm at the hands of her opponents. In December 1992, two years after her near-fatal encounter in Hazra, news broke of the alleged rape of a hearing- and speech-impaired woman barely out of her teens by a communist party worker in the eastern district of Nadia. The police had refused to file an FIR that named the alleged perpetrator. The Trinamool MLA Sobhandeb Chatterjee, who has known Banerjee since she was a girl growing up in his own south Kolkata neighbourhood, recalled being with her on 7 January 1993 when she led a sit-in protest, alongside the victim and her mother, that blocked the chief minister’s chamber inside Writers’ Building, the seat of the West Bengal government.

The police moved in on Banerjee and her colleagues at around 4 pm, just before Jyoti Basu was to enter his office. As she was being forcibly removed—pulled by the hair, with blows raining down on her—Banerjee screamed and swore at the communists. She was taken away in a van to the Lalbazar police station, and along with the others was thrown into the lock-up. “Some policemen were drunk that night and passing lewd comments,” Chatterjee remembered. “For once, even Mamata was scared. She said, ‘Shobhonda, save my honour if they come for me.’” Eventually, around midnight, they were released and shoved out on to the streets.

Banerjee’s fear of being sexually assaulted by the police was not exaggerated. In Bengal, rape had long been used against women as a political weapon, and the communists had developed a particularly brutal reputation in this respect. In the gravest such incident to make headlines, in 1990, CPI(M) activists allegedly raped three women—two government health officers and a UNICEF official—as they were returning from a field visit in a government car; the women had reportedly unearthed fraud in UNICEF-funded projects in the state. One government officer, Anita Dewan, was murdered; a metal torch was reportedly found in her vagina. After an attempted cover-up failed, the incident became public. In response, Chief Minister Basu famously remarked, “Such things keep happening.”

A decade later, two CPI(M) members were arrested for the December 2006 rape and murder of Tapasi Malik, a teenager who had been part of an agitation, in the town of Singur, against the government’s controversial acquisition of land for a Tata Motors plant. When asked for comment, the CPI(M)’s Bengal general secretary Biman Bose called the event a “fabricated incident,” aimed at maligning the government. An outraged Banerjee came out in support of the agitators, hounding the communists relentlessly until the rapists were convicted. The incident lingered in public memory, and was resurrected repeatedly in Banerjee’s campaign speeches for the 2011 elections. The Trinamool Congress announced an annual day of commemoration of the victim— “Tapasi Malik Divas”—in November 2008, and unveiled a statue of Malik in Singur in December 2011.

In 2006, protests broke out in Singur over the Left government’s plans to allocate farmland in the district for Tata Motors’ Nano plant. Ed Kashi / VII / Corbis

Then, in early 2012, mere months into Banerjee’s reign as chief minister of West Bengal, another case of sexual violence indicated that the acquisition of power had changed her attitude. On 6 February, Suzette Jordan, a thirty-seven-year-old woman, was on her way home after an evening out on Kolkata’s Park Street, the bright thoroughfare of shops and restaurants that has long held pride of place in the city’s cultural life. She accepted the offer of a lift home from a man she had befriended at a bar that night; he, along with three other men, allegedly held her down and raped her inside the car.

When news of the Park Street rape broke, public anger spread quickly. But Banerjee’s response took many by surprise. “It’s a cooked-up story,” Banerjee, provoked into a response by the media attention, stormed. “It is being done to malign our government.” To many, this was a blunt reminder of the CPI(M)’s habits of sexism and political cynicism. The Trinamool government’s reputation on women’s security took a beating in the media, and never recovered: Jordan’s case was followed in subsequent months by several other instances of actual and attempted assaults on women, both in Kolkata and in rural Bengal. Banerjee, once such a champion of sexual assault victims, grew routinely defensive, or silent, when questioned about her own administration’s grasp on law and order.

The Trinamool Congress’ response to the 2012 Park Street rape case provoked public anger in the state. DIBYANGSHU SARKAR / AFP / Getty Images

“Mamata should have waited for a confirmation before dismissing the incident,” a senior Trinamool MLA admitted to me a year later. “She can be very impulsive at times.”

I asked a former media advisor to Banerjee why the chief minister had responded as she did to the Park Street case. “She had been told that a CPI(M) leader’s son was helping the victim,” he told me, unconvincingly. Was all this not very similar to what the communists did when they were in power, I asked. “Please don’t ask me any further questions on this,” he said, clearly discomfited. “I can get into trouble.”

MAMATA BANERJEE WAS BORN IN 1955 to Promileswar and Gayatri Banerjee. Her father was a government construction contractor. While he was alive, Banerjee and her six brothers had a modest upbringing in south Kolkata’s Harish Chatterjee Street, a narrow lane just off the Kalighat bridge that arches over a fetid nullah that feeds into the Hooghly River. Banerjee still lives in the two-room house, number 30-B, where she grew up; her brothers have moved into apartment complexes that have cropped up in the area.

Banerjee’s father died of an illness when he was just forty-one years old. His eldest children, Ajit and Mamata, were seventeen and fifteen respectively. With the only earning member of the family gone, and five younger siblings to look after, the elder Banerjee siblings were in dire straits. Friends advised them to leave Kolkata and return to their ancestral village in Birbhum district. “But that is when some neighbours and block Congress workers came and stood beside us,” Banerjee wrote. “They gave us a lot of emotional support.”

She described her school life as lonely. With her mother unwell, and her older brother running a business, trying to earn enough to support the family, she became, for all practical purposes, the guardian of her younger brothers. A typical day would begin at 3.30 am, when she awoke, cooked for the boys, sent them to school, and finally prepared to go to school herself. When she returned, it would be in just enough time to make dinner for the family.

“There was no time to dream,” she wrote of those days. “In Class 10, my friends would talk about which college they would join, or about dressing up. But I would just quietly sit in a corner, stare at them. I was only worried about my siblings.” In spite of this, Banerjee went on to get degrees in history and education from two prominent girls’ colleges in Kolkata. By then, she had also become actively involved with the youth wing and trade union of the party whose workers had come, not so long ago, to Harish Chatterjee Street to help her through her bereavement.

Banerjee joined the Calcutta Congress District Committee in 1972, and established herself as a force to be reckoned with. “Right from the beginning, she was never afraid to take on responsibilities,” said Shobhandeb Chatterjee, who was several years her senior in the Congress cadre. “We were a little doubtful as she was very young, but she always put her hand up.” Chatterjee, like others who came to know Banerjee as a young politician, said that her relentless drive to be with the people who came to the party seeking help made her stand out. Banerjee’s ferocious work ethic holds to this day; party workers told me that she eats very little, keeps long hours and has incredible stamina, often holding meetings late into the night.

She announced her arrival on the big stage in the 1984 parliamentary elections, held in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The polls returned the Congress to power with a massive mandate through most of India. In West Bengal, the party swiped sixteen seats out from under the otherwise unassailable Left. (Incidentally, Banerjee was accompanying the entourage of the future prime minister Rajiv Gandhi at a political meeting in West Midnapore district on 31 October 1984, when news arrived of his mother’s death.)

Only twenty-nine years old, Banerjee was so little known before the polls that the nomination papers filed by the Congress only listed her first name. But she defeated Somnath Chatterjee in Jadavpur by nearly twenty thousand votes, then promptly touched his feet in respect when they met. Chatterjee was so crushed after the defeat that for many years he refused to mention Banerjee by name.

With her support for land agitations, Banerjee appealed to voters who had supported the left for decades. Rupak De Chowdhuri / REUTERS

Banerjee’s incredible victory did not help her popularity with the Left. Soon after the election, an unseemly controversy emerged: in her nomination papers, Banerjee had claimed to have a a PhD from a non-existent “East Georgia University.” Rajiv Gandhi, with whom Banerjee had quickly developed an excellent rapport, brushed the matter aside. But Left leaders such as Jyoti Basu tore into her once the falsehood came to light. Basu repeatedly called her a liar at public meetings, and the issue struck a chord with the public, particularly those sections of Bengali society that have traditionally placed a high value on educational accomplishment. In his speeches, Basu derided Banerjee as a “pagol mohila” (mad woman) for the drama with which she conducted herself in public.

Over the 1980s, Banerjee assumed the position of up-and-coming counterpart to the much more experienced Congress leader Pranab Mukherjee. Several people who were party workers at the time told me that Rajiv Gandhi shared an uneasy relationship with Mukherjee, who had reportedly been eager to become prime minister after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Banerjee, they said, was promoted to undermine Mukherjee. But her support from the Congress in Delhi came to a sudden end with Rajiv’s assassination in May 1991. “For the second time, since my father’s death, I felt orphaned,” she wrote. “For seven days I could not speak to anyone, could not eat. I shut myself up in a room and cried.” She would never again have such a cordial relationship with a national leader.

Banerjee’s survival in Bengal became increasingly incompatible with the party’s national agenda after Rajiv’s death. As she ascended the ranks of the Congress, her political agenda coalesced around one crucial goal: getting the communists out of power in West Bengal at all costs. In June 1991, a minority government came to power at the centre, led by the Congress, which had to lean on the communists for stability. Banerjee had decisively won her own seat in south Kolkata and was made a minister of state for sports and youth affairs in the central government, but accepting the post meant an uneasy compromise. The tactical entente with the communists, she feared, undermined her credibility as the face of the anti-Left opposition on her main battleground—the streets of Kolkata.

This would eventually push Banerjee into leaving the Congress and forming her own party. Through the 1990s, there was an intense factional war within the West Bengal Congress between a hard-line anti-Left faction, led by Banerjee, and those who advocated a softer approach, led by Pranab Mukherjee. (She nicknamed the moderates “watermelons”—Congress green outside, communist red inside.) In November 1992, Banerjee surprised the prime minister, PV Narasimha Rao, by announcing her resignation from his government, in his presence, at a rally in Kolkata’s Brigade Parade Ground. After the 1996 Lok Sabha election, when the Congress and the Left ended up on the same side once again at the centre—this time both propping up the United Front government with their outside support—the moderates gained the upper hand within the West Bengal Congress, and Banerjee’s relationship with the Congress’s central leadership soured decisively.

The breaking point came soon enough. In 1997, Banerjee lost the election for state Congress president by twenty-seven votes to Somen Mitra, and found herself losing ground in the internal tussle for influence in the West Bengal Congress, as her supporters and favoured candidates began to be sidelined by state and central leadership. When the All India Congress Committee held its party plenary inside Kolkata’s Netaji Indoor Stadium on 9 August 1997, Banerjee, claiming that the leaders sitting indoors had barred themselves to the workers outdoors, held her own meeting just outside the stadium.

In her memoir, Banerjee writes about a meeting at this time with the “Queen Mother,” as she called Sonia Gandhi, who was then beginning to make her first, tentative moves in national politics. Sonia, Banerjee claimed, sympathised with her predicament, but urged her to stay on in the party. Banerjee asked Sonia to take over the Congress’s central leadership from Sitaram Kesri, who was then the party president—as Rajiv Gandhi’s widow and one of the party’s first family, she would have the respect and affection of the party. Sonia demurred, saying she would not be acceptable to everyone because of her foreign origins.

In spite of Sonia’s efforts to keep her in the party, Banerjee was suspended from the Congress for six years on 22 December 1997, bringing her nearly twenty-year relationship with the party to a close. She took with her several senior leaders and thousands of Congress workers, claiming to despise the central leadership’s soft approach to the communists. On 1 January 1998, with less than two months to go before a general election, the Election Commission officially recognised the Trinamool Congress as a new party.

THE TRINAMOOL PERFORMED creditably in its first election, winning seven seats in parliament that February. Its timing had been fortuitous; it joined the National Democratic Alliance, the new coalition at the centre, led by the BJP and excluding both the Congress and the Left. The newborn party also established itself as the communists’ real opposition in West Bengal; having won just one seat, the Congress was decisively relegated to third place in the state, a position it has occupied ever since.

The first NDA government fell quickly, but it came to power again in 1999, and this time made Banerjee the railway minister at the centre. Following this, Banerjee began a series of political flip-flops that came to define her on-again off-again relationship with the NDA, and gave her a reputation as an untrustworthy ally. Between March 2001 and August 2003, Banerjee resigned from the BJP-led government three times—first to protest a petroleum price hike, then over a defence ministry corruption scandal that implicated then defence minister George Fernandes, and finally to protest the bifurcation of the Eastern Railways under railway minister Nitish Kumar, whom she accused of taking jobs away from Bengal to benefit his native Bihar. She mended fences with her allies each time; the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, paid Banerjee a personal visit at her home in 2000, and remarked, in 2001, “Mamata ke liye mere dil mein vishesh mamata hai”—I have a soft corner for Mamata.

But her plays for power at the centre were proving fruitless in Bengal, as the next few years began a steep decline in the party’s electoral success. In 2001, during one of its off periods with the BJP, the Trinamool fought the state legislative elections alongside the Congress, and won a mere eighty-six seats in West Bengal’s 294-member assembly. In 2004, Banerjee allied with the BJP for Lok Sabha elections, but this also turned out to be disastrous—only Banerjee kept her constituency in south Kolkata. The party’s parliamentary unpopularity was reinforced in the 2006 state elections, which it fought without allies. The Trinamool Congress was pretty much electorally wiped out that year, winning only thirty assembly seats as the communists returned to power for an unheard-of seventh term.

Between 1998 and 2006, Banerjee’s party had gone from an impressive debut showing to being a non-entity in Delhi, where it had only a single MP. In Kolkata, Banerjee’s penchant for vacillation only underscored her failures. A former Trinamool MLA, Dipak Ghosh, said that he had tried to counsel Banerjee to be more strategic at the time, but was given the cold shoulder. “Why do you talk so much?” Banerjee asked Ghosh after he had spoken in favour of the Trinamool’s remaining in the NDA in 2001. Ghosh piped down and started writing letters to her. Banerjee asked him: “Why do you write so much?”

When the CPI(M) secured its crushing victory in the Bengal elections in summer 2006, neither Banerjee nor her opponents could have imagined that it would be the last in the Left’s long string of electoral victories in the state. Banerjee’s old enemy, Jyoti Basu, had retired in 2000, but for the first few years of the new millennium, under the suave, urbane Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the Left appeared to have reinforced its power even as Banerjee’s political capital deteriorated. The Trinamool’s decline, abetted by Banerjee’s diminishing reputation in Delhi, seemed to end the last real resistance to the might of Bengal’s communists. In its resulting complacence, however, the Left made its biggest mistake. In 2006, it ignored a group of farmers who began protesting against a plan to set up a car factory about forty kilometres north-west of Kolkata, in the town of Singur.


“WHY DID WE CHOOSE SINGUR?” said a senior Tata official. “Because it was closest to Calcutta, so our executives could stay in Calcutta and control the work from here. We were lazy, in hindsight.”

Most farmers who lived and worked on the paddy and potato fields of Singur first learned that they would lose their land via television on 18 May 2006, the day Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was sworn in as chief minister for a second term. The Left had won 235 of 294 assembly seats, and was now in a position to steamroll any opposition to their longstanding plan to give one thousand acres of land in Singur district to the Tata Motors company. The Tata Group chairman, Ratan Tata, made the announcement almost immediately after Bhattacharya took oath.

Tata had been offered other locations for its plant, but made the fundamental mistake of choosing a district which contains some of Bengal’s most fertile farmland. While the company had, in the past, used its own officials to persuade local communities to give up land for its projects, in Singur they left the entire acquisition process in the hands of a highly politicised and allegedly corrupt state administration. A few days after Bhattacharya’s swearing in, company executives who came to see the site, accompanied by members of the local communist cadre, were greeted by angry villagers who had no intention of giving up their fields.

Within months of the election, Singur’s local MLA, the Trinamool’s Rabindranath Bhattacharya, began the battle of his life, mobilising farmers against Tata and the state. As the farmers’ movement caught the imagination of Bengal’s left-leaning intelligentsia, activists and artists began to join the protests, and news of the Singur land-grab spread like wildfire.

It galvanised the Left’s devastated opposition. Late in the evening on 25 September 2006, Banerjee arrived in Singur from Kolkata. Earlier in the day, the district administration had started to distribute cheques to those locals who had sold their land to Tata, and hundreds of people who were against the project gathered to protest. Once again, Banerjee’s presence courted danger. At around 1 am, with many protestors asleep where they were camping, without any prior warning, the police turned out the lights and attacked the gathering. Banerjee was injured, her sari torn, and she was whisked back to Kolkata by her supporters.

In 1990, the injured Banerjee became an emblem of the resistance to state-sanctioned communist violence in Bengal. BCCL

“There were communist cadres dressed as police in there,” said Manik Das, a local Trinamool leader who led the protests. “For us it was like our war of independence. We were ready to die to save our land.”

By December, the administration began to forcefully usurp land from owners unwilling to sell. As protestors began to turn out in the thousands, led in many cases by women, the police cracked down further with tear-gas and lathi charges. Prevented by state police from entering Singur, Banerjee went on a prolonged hunger strike in Kolkata’s Esplanade grounds. By the time she called off her twenty-five-day strike on 28 December, the damage had been done. The Singur stories—including the grisly rape and murder of Tapasi Malik—were playing out in the full glare of the national media. Bhattacharya’s government had backed the losing side; eventually, in October 2008, Tata decided it had had enough and moved its plant to Gujarat.

In 2007, similar protests cropped up in the villages of Nandigram, in East Midnapore district, where the Indonesian Salim Group was developing the infrastructure for a proposed chemical hub on ten thousand acres of land. Here again, Nandigram residents claimed that local communist leaders had vested interests in facilitating acquisition of land for the project, and protests broke out. Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress came to back the protestors, and made a new set of headlines.

I asked Manik Das in Singur if there were any benefits to industrialisation here. After all, farmers elsewhere in the country, such as in Gurgaon, had sold their lands and earned a windfall. Wouldn’t it be better to work in a factory than to till land under the blazing summer sun? Das asked me in reply: “How many factories are there in Bengal and how many people do they employ? Do we have the skills to work in those factories? They should have chosen less fertile land to put up their factory.”

The success of Singur and Nandigram would have a major impact on Banerjee’s policy thinking as chief minister. When the Trinamool Congress came to power in 2011, it completely avoided land acquisition for industry—a move that warded off investment, and created hurdles for businesses. In Kolkata, it was easy for me to find businessmen to criticise Banerjee’s government, although none would do so on the record.

“A project that should take me six months to get off the ground is now taking two years,” the chief of an industry association told me. He feared the wrath of the government if his name became public. “We have to negotiate with people ourselves, and that takes time. By the time we resolve these issues, investors get impatient and take their money away.”

“Bengal’s small agricultural land-holding pattern makes acquisition difficult compared to other states,” the economist Bibek Debroy explained. “You will have to negotiate and convince many more farmers in Bengal.”

After Banerjee assumed power, Bengal’s leading industrialists held numerous meetings with her on the issue of land acquisition, but made little apparent progress. In May 2013, The Telegraph reported that Banerjee, in a meeting with industrialists, had tacitly admitted her government’s inability to secure plots of more than one or two hundred acres for industry. Still, as of March this year, the government claimed to have 106,000 acres of land reserved for industrial use. Mention of this land bank also appear in the Trinamool’s 2014 election manifesto. “Mamata Banerjee talks of a land bank that the Bengal government has created,” said the economist Bibek Debroy. “But when I have asked them about where is this land, or how much is it, I have not got any replies.”

The influential business magnate who compared Banerjee to Louis XIV was more scathing in his take on the state of Bengal’s industrialisation. “Jyoti Basu did nothing for industry in twenty years, and kept winning elections,” he said. “Buddhadeb Bhattacharya tried to change things by bringing in industry and he was defeated. Banerjee now thinks that it’s better to be like Basu and maintain the status quo.”

COMING IN QUICK SUCCESSION, Singur and Nandigram firmly established Banerjee’s popularity in rural Bengal. For the first time in her career, she was making inroads into voter bases that had supported the communists for decades: peasants; and urban, left-leaning intellectuals who helped shape opinions in the media. She had transformed from city scrapper to radical agitator—and nowhere did her pro-poor, pro-people rhetoric seem to embarrass the Left more than in the Trinamool Congress’s support of the Lalgarh agitation in 2009.

Banerjee’s brush with the insurgency came over forty years after the start of radical protests in Naxalbari had paved the way for a communist government to assume power in Bengal. In 2009, Banerjee and her party threw their weight behind a resistance movement against police atrocities in and around Lalgarh, a village in the forested belt of Jangalmahal in western Bengal. The Trinamool Congress rallied behind the political organiser Chhatradhar Mahato, a leader with considerable popular support among the region’s adivasis, who was leading the protests. Top Trinamool leaders staged numerous meetings with Mahato, pledging their support. In February 2009, seven months before Mahato was captured and jailed by the state police, Banerjee herself shared a stage with him at a public event in Lalgarh, prompting Buddhadeb Bhattacharya to allege that the Trinamool Congress was helping the Maoists.

Banerjee’s public support of Mahato did not last when she came to power. Mahato’s supporters now accuse Banerjee of having hijacked the Lalgarh movement for political gain. “When she needed him to win elections, she called him ‘brother,’ but after coming to power she said she doesn’t even know him,” Mahato’s mother, Bedona, told me in Lalgarh. “Power makes people forget everything else.”

By now, the Left’s raison d’être had been well and truly hijacked. In the most decisive evidence of Banerjee’s psychological victory over her rivals, she finally began to find support from Bengal’s influential buddhijibis (literally, those who live off their intellect), who had once derided her for being crass and lacking finesse. The buddhijibis are a political lobby unique to Bengal—the state’s influential left-leaning academics, writers, singers, film and theatre stars. During its thirty-four years in power, the communists co-opted many of these intellectuals, but after the rural protests, Banerjee’s unpretentious populism found supporters within the ranks of the intelligentsia.

“When I learnt that the buddhijibis of Kolkata had deserted the Left,” the sociologist Dipankar Gupta told me earlier this year, “I knew it was curtains for them.”

Suddenly, Banerjee’s artistic ambitions were taken seriously. Banerjee has authored forty-five books, and is also a poet and a painter. Last year, the former media advisor to Banerjee who I spoke to claimed Banerjee spent considerable time in an ante-chamber adjacent to the chief minister’s office, which had become her art studio. “The best time to catch her would be during her painting sessions,” he told me. “That is when she is totally relaxed and on her own.” To some observers, this appeared a reaction to the Left’s elitist derision of her as an upstart from the slums, a cultural arriviste who lacked the sensibilities dear to the Bengali upper class.

As the bastion of the buddhijibis fell to Banerjee, the Trinamool’s call for change—“paribartan”—became a byword, first in Bengal and then in a media narrative which spread across India, promising a regime change that had been unimaginable in the state for a generation. Expectations of Banerjee’s victory electrified the media, and coverage of the Trinamool Congress and its leader in the lead up to the 2011 assembly election was largely optimistic. In May of that year, I was among scores of journalists and thousands of Trinamool supporters who swarmed the narrow lane leading to Banerjee’s house after the party won. The mood was electrifying. Trinamool workers threw green powder at each other, distributed sweets to the media, and fell all over each other to appear on camera and extol the virtues of the wonder woman who had captured the Left’s once impenetrable fortress.

Much as the Left had done, the Trinamool Congress reciprocated the support of Bengal’s intellectuals with power and favours. The theatre director Bratya Basu, who had staged an anti-communist play based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm in 2009, became education minister. The popular singer Kabir Suman, who styles himself as Bengal’s Bob Dylan, won a Trinamool Lok Sabha ticket and became an MP in 2009. He had accompanied Banerjee in Singur and Nandigram, and wrote a book about the experience.

Banerjee and her associates may not have foreseen that this newly accumulated social capital would begin to evaporate almost immediately after the Trinamool Congress came to power in Bengal. Suman would soon turn rebel, quitting the party and becoming a fierce critic of what he claimed were Banerjee’s authoritarian ways, and her insidious control over the media. (In a Tehelka interview in 2012, he compared her to Josef Stalin.) The outcry over the Park Street rape had barely died down when Ambikesh Mahapatra, a professor of chemistry at Jadavpur University, found himself beaten and arrested for circulating a cartoon making fun of Banerjee. Her response when she was asked about the incident was, “If someone commits some mischief, what will the police do? Will they not arrest him?”

“Mamata has led a media-centred life ever since she joined politics,” the senior Trinamool MLA, who is close to Banerjee, told me. “Since the media has turned against her now, she has become more erratic, which the media feasts on. It has become a vicious cycle.”

After only a few months of Trinamool rule, media coverage of the new government became consistently negative, focusing ever more on Banerjee’s outbursts and her administration’s apparently dictatorial style. Yet all its misdemeanours, real and perceived, seemed minor compared to a scandal in late 2012 that revealed corruption deep within the Trinamool Congress, close enough to central leadership that it jolted Banerjee herself.


“FOR ALL ITS EVILS, the Left was not as corrupt as Mamata’s people,” the business magnate told me wistfully. Dressed in spotless white dhoti-kurta, incredibly rich and refined, a self-confessed child of Macaulay, a globe-trotter and lover of good wine, he is the paragon of the Bengali bhadralok. He is also the antithesis of Banerjee, the coarse leader of Bengal’s hooch-drinking underclass.

The magnate threw his weight behind Banerjee for the 2011 elections, and his backing is widely believed to have helped her dislodge the communists. “We all wanted change, a change of values, not just personnel,” he said. But a few months into Banerjee’s stint as chief minister, he fell out with her government. After this, according to him, he was hounded by the state police, to whom instructions had come from the very top. If the Banerjee government’s wariness of industry-friendly policy confirmed the fears of many among Bengal’s entrepreneurial classes, the allegations of nepotism and corruption against her family only added to the bhadralok’s disapproval.

“One central minister calls her the Slumbitch Millionaire,” the magnate told me. (The upper-class male disdain for the “basti woman” was a constant theme in my Kolkata interviews.)

In every report accusing people connected to Banerjee of corruption, the sums involved are small change compared to those in other scams across India. But in a stagnant state economy, the quick upward mobility of those who have allegedly benefitted from malfeasance sticks out. In 2012, Dipak Ghosh, the former Trinamool Congress MLA who fell out with the party, published a book, Mamata: As I Have Known Her, which contained a number of allegations about how the Banerjee family came by its newfound wealth. “Ajit Banerjee, Mamata’s elder brother, runs a small hardware store,” Ghosh explained to me, by way of example. “So how did he come to own the Sonar Tori hotel in Puri, worth Rs 6 crore?”

In his book, Ghosh made startling claims about the origins of the money used to build Sonar Tori. According to him, in 2001, when Banerjee left the NDA and joined the UPA, the Congress party offered her Rs 10 crore, to be paid in installments. Ghosh claimed he was eyewitness to the first transaction, of Rs 3 crore, brought in from Delhi and delivered to Banerjee from the airport in an ambulance by two senior Congress leaders. Ghosh said Banerjee put much of the money into the Trinamool’s election fund, but set some aside for her brother to build the hotel.

When I called Ajit Banerjee, he dismissed every claim Ghosh had made about the Sonar Tori funds. “I got the money from my business,” he told me. When I asked him what this business was, he said it involved “general order-supply”—not a hardware store—but refused to reveal further details.

Since 2011, the family’s sources of wealth and influence repeatedly came under scrutiny, but the Banerjees offered little by way of public explanation. They came in for severe criticism when Ajit was appointed chief of the Bengal Olympic Association in 2012 with seemingly few credentials. When I asked Ajit about his prior experience and qualifications for this task, he told me, “I have always been interested in sports. In fact, I am speaking to you now from a football match.”

Within the Trinamool Congress, the most troubling controversy was the meteoric rise of Banerjee’s twenty-six-year-old nephew, Abhishek Banerjee. Last year, the former CPI(M) MLA Goutam Deb accused Abhishek’s company, Leaps and Bounds, of running a Ponzi scheme—a claim that was widely reported in the media. Abhishek’s influence within the party came under scrutiny too; in 2011, a second Trinamool youth front, called Trinamool Yuva, was created, with Abhishek at its head. The Trinamool’s original youth wing was headed by MP Suvendu Adhikary, whose supporters claimed Abhishek was given charge of Yuva to dilute Adhikary’s growing clout among young party workers. “We don’t have a problem if Abhishek wants to work for the party,” said one Trinamool member who supported Adhikary. “But he should have been promoted gradually.” Abhishek was nominated as the Trinamool Congress candidate for the Diamond Harbour constituency in this year’s elections.

Unease has grown in the party over these alleged acts of nepotism, and how they hurt Banerjee’s carefully cultivated image as an honest politician. “Mamata’s relationship with her brothers is all about money,” said the senior Trinamool MLA. He claimed to be a well-wisher of Banerjee’s, and called her “incorruptible,” even if her family was less than upright. “Mamata’s brothers do not have any love for her, they just use her,” he said. “She was very close to her mother, but after her death Mamata has no real family.” This person also told me that two of Banerjee’s six brothers had once threatened to join the BJP after a disagreement with her. When I asked Ajit Banerjee about this alleged quarrel, he said that he had never, at any time, threatened to quit the party.

But all these accusations paled in the face of a scandal that arose in October 2012, when the Serious Fraud Investigation Office began to look into the workings of several of Bengal’s chit funds and collective investment schemes, and uncovered a scam, the size of which was unprecedented in the history of the Trinamool Congress.

The Saradha Group of companies, incorporated in 2006, had faced inquiries into its financial operations as early as 2009, when the Securities and Exchange Board of India challenged the procedures by which the company ran its collective investment schemes. Over the years, however, the group expanded these operations, often with emphatic and high-profile success. In doing so, Saradha was luring investors, mostly from suburban and lower-middle-income groups, with the promise of high returns on investments as small as Rs 100. An official estimate said the group had raised Rs 1,200 crore in this manner; in an April 2013 report, NDTV said that unofficial calculations put the number closer to Rs 4,000 crore from as many as 3.5 lakh investors.

Instead of investing these funds in high-yield assets, the Saradha group used money collected from one depositor to pay off another, and to prop up its other businesses—particularly its media arm. Meanwhile, it acquired, in the public eye, a certain glamour, much of it derived from its political connections. Its associates included several prominent members of the Trinamool Congress; some of its glossy brochures featured former matinee idol and Trinamool MP Satabdi Roy, and in 2010, its annual employees’ meeting was addressed by the Bengal sports minister Madan Mitra. Banerjee herself inaugurated two of the company’s offices.

Ashimpada Chakrabarti, a former senior editor of Shokalbela, the Saradha group’s now-defunct Bangla newspaper, told me a story about the apparent links between Saradha and the Trinamool Congress. Late one evening in 2011, about a month after Banerjee came to power, Sudipto Sen, the chairman of the Saradha Group, called an editorial meeting at the offices of Shokalbela. There he reportedly said to a group of senior editors, “We should avoid all criticism of the Trinamool government.” Some of those present protested the order, which they saw as a form of censorship; they were marked, Chakrabarti said, and gradually shunted out.

In early 2012, the Trinamool MP Kunal Ghosh was made the CEO of Saradha’s media group, which then consisted of five newspapers and three television channels. Under Ghosh, who was drawing a monthly salary of Rs 15 lakh from Saradha, the group’s media holdings expanded further, at one point employing about 1,500 people. Chakrabarti told me he clashed several times with Ghosh, including once over an editorial he had written criticising the state government over its response to the Park Street rape case. The editorial was never published.

“I told him it was a stigma on Shokalbela that we were being forced to parrot Mamata’s words,” Chakrabarti said.

If the Trinamool Congress emerges as the third largest party in parliament following this election, Bengal may get unprecedented financial concessions from the centre. sandipan chatterjee / outlook images

Eventually, the extravagance of Sharada’s media companies contributed to the collapse of its financial schemes in late 2012, leaving thousands of investors penniless. When the story broke, it made headlines in Bengal and around India, and as SEBI began to investigate Ghosh in earnest, Banerjee herself faced serious questions about corruption within her party for the first time in her career.

She was defiant. A few days after Saradha’s collapse, she presided over a rally in Shyambazar in north Kolkata. “Am I a thief?” she asked the crowd. “Is Kunal a thief? Are all my ministers thieves?” She took a bundle of newspapers out from her jhola and waved it at the crowd. “These are all Ganashakti [the CPI(M) mouthpiece] issues that have chit fund advertisements,” she claimed. “They are the real thieves.”

But in September last year, Kunal Ghosh was suspended by the party. In November, he was arrested by the West Bengal police for cheating, criminal breach of trust and conspiracy. A few hours after his arrest, a post appeared on Ghosh’s Facebook page asking the police to “seek the help of twelve top Trinamool Congress leaders in the Saradha probe. Mamata Banerjee was on the list. The post mysteriously disappeared the next day, and the police said that someone else had posted the message on Ghosh’s behalf. At the same time, a video CD emerged, with footage of Ghosh claiming that Saradha’s media arm was set up with “the motto to promote Banerjee as the country’s next prime minister.”

After requests to the chief minister’s office for an interview with Banerjee were denied, I called a nationally recognised Trinamool spokesperson to comment on these allegations, and on the strong perception of nepotism in the Banerjee family. Although I was instructed to keep the conversation off the record, the only response he gave me was to say: “You are doing yellow journalism.”


TO SEE BANERJEE AT A RALLY is to see her in her element. “Comrades, you have put cotton in your ears and stoppers on your backsides,” she taunted the communists at a rally in Howrah last June, as the crowd, gathered on a football field beside the Hooghly, cheered in approval. “The communists left the state with debts of Rs 2 lakh crore, so we hardly had money to pay salaries to government employees. They even tried to steal official files to sabotage the new government,” she said. Then, her voice rising in pitch, finger wagging defiantly, she said, “Like you, I have been beaten up by those communists, and I promise you today that I will never let them return to power, to destroy Bengal.” The crowd roared its approval.

Over the last couple of years, the goodwill Banerjee accumulated with her support of the land agitations, and her role in ousting a sclerotic government, has shrunk. But in suburban and rural Bengal, and most of all in public meetings, she remains utterly in control. She can seem out of sorts at business summits, sometimes even in television studios, but she speaks an idiom that her people understand. In contrast to the aloof erudition of her communist predecessors, Banerjee makes her listeners feel as though she is one of them. If the CPI(M)’s connection with the masses was sustained by its party organisation rather than its leaders, the Trinamool does the opposite: here, Mamata Banerjee is the party.

Many of her listeners held vivid memories of the intimidation and violence of the previous regime. “After 2 pm they [the communists] would not allow anyone to vote,” said a woman at the rally who runs a cybercafé in the Howrah area. “Only didi could have changed that, and now she has done it.” Others in the crowd said they knew that two years of controversy had tarnished Banerjee’s image. “But people still know that this is a better government than the Left,” a listener told me. “It takes time to overturn thirty-four years of misrule.”

The Trinamool Congress government has performed marginally better than the communists on some indicators. According to data from the Central Statistical Organisation, Bengal’s Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) grew by 9.22 percent in 2010–11, its last year under communist rule; that figure fell to 6.58 percent in the first year of Trinamool government, before rising to 7.6 percent in 2012–13. However, the average growth rate across the three years of Banerjee’s government is 7.1 percent, which is an improvement on the last decade of communist government, which averaged 6.5 percent growth per year. At the Howrah rally, nine months ago, Banerjee proclaimed: “We have already done 99 percent of the work we had promised.”

Banerjee also began to show signs of maturing in her dealings with industry. The first two editions of the annual business summit Bengal Leads, held in 2012 and 2013, seemed like little more than the mega-sized cultural soirees that Banerjee has become famous for hosting as chief minister. At the first one, held in Kolkata, most of the participating industrialists concurred that the food was the only saving grace. During the second meet, in the port town of Haldia, Banerjee whimsically made two leading industrialists sing Rabindrasangeet on stage. But a closed-door meeting held in Mumbai in August 2013 saw a better turnout than these events; the attendees included the Reliance Group chairman Mukesh Ambani and bank directors Uday Kotak and Chanda Kochhar. This time, Banerjee made a more positive pitch for investment in West Bengal, with particular emphasis on the assertion that labour trouble and strikes are no longer an issue in the state. (Banerjee has desisted from calling any strikes since she came to power, and has used the full force of state resources to thwart those called by her opponents. As a result, the number of bandhs—a phenomenon for which Bengal is often mocked in other parts of the country—has fallen dramatically.)

Several people in Kolkata’s business community told me of their discontent over extortion rackets, allegedly run by prominent Trinamool leaders. “The communists would also extort,” said the senior Tata executive who spoke to me, “but with them there was a clear chain of command. Now, if we pay off a Trinamool member of parliament, their MLA comes later and asks for more money.”

But over the course of my reporting, it also emerged that the Trinamool Congress government had made a variety of improvements in West Bengal. In the last two years, Kolkata’s government-run hospitals have expanded and improved their services: outpatient care has improved, and more specialty units dealing with maternity and burn injuries have come up. In Lalgarh, where relations between the people and the administration had broken down, there were signs of greater stability: since Banerjee came to power, unpopular police officers have been transferred, and the Trinamool Congress won zilla parishad elections in all three districts that make up Jangalmahal last year. In north Bengal, Banerjee pragmatically managed demands for a separate Gorkhaland state, promising development in the area while foreclosing the possibility of separation. In late 2013, fears that the Telangana bill would spark a fresh round of agitations in Darjeeling proved unfounded.

Every journalist I interviewed in Kolkata told me that the Trinamool leaders were more accessible to the media than the communists; a senior assistant to Banerjee said that he had been “shocked by the work culture” in Writers’ Building, the seat of government in Bengal. “We are gradually trying to change that.” The state secretariat, including Banerjee’s offices, moved en masse out of Writers’ Building in late 2013 to allow renovations to the 237-year-old structure, and currently functions out of Nabanna, a tower block in Howrah.

From conversations with several people who have known Banerjee closely, she emerged as an intuitive politician, not particularly concerned with the details of policy-making and administration. She rarely has the patience to listen to number-crunching or policy prescriptions: she picks out her favourite numbers quickly to use in her speeches. Many observers complained that her policy talk is devoid of specifics, laden with platitudes. Her administrative style can be brusque. Both a journalist known to be close to Banerjee and a Trinamool Congress MLA told me that she could sometimes humiliate her colleagues in state cabinet meetings, swearing at them and once even aiming a kick at another person.

Within the party, her autocratic style was described as a necessity. The MLA Shobhandeb Chatterjee said that without a tough leader, it would be difficult to control unruly party workers. According to Sultan Ahmed, the image of a perpetually angry Mamata Banerjee was a media caricature of a truly kind-hearted person. “She cools down within five minutes,” he said. She can display a spontaneous generosity that wins her admirers. One party member remembered that she used to invite her colleagues home and cook for them. A young party worker from a north Bengal district told me that once, when Banerjee came to a political rally in his area, she came to pay her condolences at his home after she heard that his father had passed away. These stories confirmed another thing I had heard repeatedly in Bengal: Banerjee’s populism comes from a deeply ingrained desire to be appreciated by people. It was the desire that had brought her into politics in the first place.


IN EARLY MARCH THIS YEAR, the BJP received a sharp rebuff from Banerjee. Having evaded questions on Narendra Modi for months, when she finally made a public comment, Banerjee came out against the prospect of him as prime minister, calling him the “face of the riots.” (In the same breath, she said that the Congress had lost all credibility with the people, so there was no question of going with them either.) Banerjee’s criticism of Modi cut particularly deep because, at a rally in Kolkata earlier in the year, Modi had pulled his punches. Even as local BJP leaders attacked her “Muslim appeasement,” Modi went soft on her: “While at the state level, you will have Mamataji for development, at the centre you will have me,” he assured his listeners at the Brigade grounds. “And above all there is President Pranab Mukherjee, who is also from here.”

The BJP understood that it might yet have to do business with Banerjee after the elections: no senior BJP leader aggressively challenged her remarks against Modi. While Banerjee’s comments did not signal a definite end to chances at a post-poll alliance, they certainly delayed the possibility of announcing one. “Mamata Banerjee’s personal attack on Mr Modi is uncalled for,” the BJP’s general secretary for West Bengal, Varun Gandhi, told me. When I asked him about the possibility of a post-poll partnership, he said, “We have never been in talks with her for an alliance. We are only concentrating on increasing our own vote share in West Bengal.”

Banerjee herself may soon be staring at the hard choice. In her campaign speeches this year, one running theme has been Bengal’s unequal relationship with the centre, inherited from the profligate communists. At rally after rally, Banerjee repeated the fact that her government has paid back thousands of crores of rupees as interest “on the loans taken by the Left Front.” She complained of the state’s Rs 2 trillion debt burden, incurred during the communists’ time in power. In November 2013, her government sought Rs 2.55 trillion from the Finance Commission, up from Rs 1.17 trillion the year before. Banerjee also demanded other concessions, including a waiver on Rs 0.14 trillion worth of debt.

“The problem is, unless she becomes prime minister, she cannot get what she wants for her state,” the economist Bibek Debroy said. “No central government can waive loans for one state government. It sets a bad precedent. Also, the centre will ask what the state has done to raise its own revenues.” Debroy suggested that while there have not been big-ticket investments in Bengal, small-scale industries had grown significantly, and government schemes now suffered less leakage in distribution, contributing to the 7.1 percent average annual economic growth under Banerjee.

If the Trinamool emerges as the largest regional party in the Lok Sabha, Banerjee will be able to leverage her power to gain unprecedented financial support from the centre. But this will only be possible if the Trinamool Congress is part of, or supporting, the new government.

Observers question Banerjee’s ability to retain the support of Bengal’s Muslim voters—who form nearly 30 percent of the electorate, and who were key to the Trinamool’s success in 2011—if her party joins a Modi-led NDA. In the 2011 elections, Banerjee managed a feat that had eluded even the Left parties for decades. She united two distinct classes of Muslims in support of her: the poor Bengali-speaking peasants who traditionally supported the Left, and the relatively affluent, urban Urdu speakers who had historically favoured the Congress.

The Bengal arm of the BJP has regularly protested overtures made by Banerjee to the Muslim community. In 2011, when she decided to recognise ten thousand madrassas across the state, BJP leaders alleged that many of these institutions were cover for “anti-national activities.” Last year, BJP members filed a public-interest litigation against the West Bengal government’s April 2012 decision to disburse a stipend to nearly thirty thousand imams and muezzins. (The Kolkata High Court ruled that the stipend was unconstitutional in September 2013.) One BJP leader called Banerjee “Mumtaz” after she made public appearances wearing a burqa and appeared to recite the namaz.

Yet in many ways the BJP would be a more natural ally for Banerjee than the Congress: the right-wing party is least likely to cooperate with her arch enemy, the Left. A Trinamool Congress MP told me, on condition of anonymity, that a BJP without Narendra Modi at the helm could well have been Banerjee’s first-choice. Having worked in Vajpayee’s cabinet, she could have done business with a BJP leader in the same mould.

“But it is not our sole responsibility to keep Narendra Modi out of power,” the MP added. “The Congress is responsible for his rise.”

LAST JULY, THE TRINAMOOL CONGRESS comprehensively won the Bengal panchayat elections, gaining control over thirteen of the seventeen district councils, and further cementing its dominance of the state’s grassroots politics. The communists’ rural strength was shown to have decisively crumbled, and senior communist leaders, including Prakash Karat, admitted it would take time for the Left to rebuild. Many of the bureaucrats, intellectuals, local leaders and goons who once supported the Left moved over to Banerjee’s side.

The panchayat elections also saw a degree of violence reminiscent of the excesses of Left rule; at least twenty people were killed over the five phases of polling. During the campaign, it was reported that several Trinamool leaders threatened the opposition and disrupted electoral activity: one leader called for bombs to be hurled at central security forces, and for homes of independent candidates to be burnt down. Banerjee herself vowed “democratic revenge” against the Election Commission after a spat over the deployment of central forces during voting, which she opposed. It was a stark reversal of her tactics while in the opposition, when she had consistently demanded that elections be held under the watch of central forces to prevent the “CPI(M)’s rigging.”

Banerjee is herself the most famous survivor of this blood-soaked political culture, but has shown little sign of trying to change it after her victory. In June 2013, in a small, two-room apartment in Kolkata, I met Sumita Sengupta, the sister of Sudipta Gupta, a twenty-three-year-old student leader of the Left, who died in police custody in April 2013 after he and other students were arrested for protesting the postponement of college elections in the state. On the evening after his death, Banerjee visited the hospital where Gupta was declared dead to pay her condolences. Sengupta remembers sitting in the hospital, in a state of shock, as a crowd met Banerjee outside, protesting her brother’s death.

“I expected the chief minister to come and speak to me that evening,” Sengupta said, holding back tears as she recounted the tragedy. “But she completely avoided me, and never even bothered to call later.” Gupta’s family were further shocked when, two weeks after the incident, Banerjee called the death a “petty matter.”

“I had voted for her too this time, because I believed didi would bring in some change,” Sengupta said, “but as chief minister she has not been independent.”

Gupta was a young idealist from a lower-middle-class family, just like Banerjee had been in her youth. The person his sister described to me sounded familiar in many other ways. Like Banerjee, he had enjoyed being around people; like Banerjee, he had been an enthusiastic local activist and organiser; like her, he had fearlessly led protests from the front, and paid dearly for it. Before I left, Sengupta showed me a diary of poems that Gupta had kept, and in it I read these lines:

I do not want any superpower,

Nor do I crave wealth,

All I want is some space,

Some space in the hearts of people.