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Bengal Election 2021 | I may break but I don’t bend: Mamata Banerjee, a street fighter battling BJP head on

After decades in politics and 10 years as West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee is facing what some say is her toughest challenge so far: a surging saffron wave on her home turf

March 26, 2021 / 11:52 AM IST
File image of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during a protest march in Kolkata (Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri)

File image of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during a protest march in Kolkata (Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri)

Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal and the supremo of the Trinamool Congress, isn't afraid of grassroots politics — that, in fact, is her forte.

After spending decades fighting against the Left Front and eventually ending the Communist parties’ 34-year reign, Banerjee is now facing a new political opponent.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) has shown a dramatic electoral rise in the eastern State, posing a tough challenge for Banerjee as she hopes to secure a third consecutive term in office.

A street fighter, as she describes herself, Banerjee is contesting this election as if it’s a make-or-break moment for her political future.

From her early days in student politics, to launching the Singur agitation for farmers, running the country's railways and leading the State of West Bengal, here's a quick look at 'Didi's' political life:

The Congress years and the Trinamool

Born in Calcutta (Kolkata), Banerjee grew up in a lower middle class Brahmin family. She graduated with an Honours degree in history and later earned a Master's degree in Islamic History from University of Calcutta. Banerjee went on to pursue a degree in law from Kolkata’s Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri Law College.

'Didi’, as she is popularly called, is known to have been involved in politics since she was just 15. While still studying in the college, Banerjee established the Chhatra Parishad Union, the student's wing of the Indian National Congress. Her union defeated the Democratic Students’ Union of the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), which was backed by the Left.

The self-taught painter and poet later served at various positions in the Congress' state unit. Between 1976 and 1980, she served as the General Secretary of All India Mahila Congress, the women's wing of the party.

In 1984, Banerjee defeated veteran politician Somnath Chatterjee to win the Jadavpur Lok Sabha seat and, in the process, became one of India's youngest parliamentarians at that time.

While she lost the seat five years later, Banerjee was re-elected to the lower house of Parliament in 1991 from the Calcutta South Lok Sabha constituency — a seat she held until she left Parliament in 2011.

Accusing the Congress of acting as a stooge to the Left Front in West Bengal, Banerjee walked out of the party in 1997 and established the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC). The TMC quickly placed itself as the main opposition in the State.

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Nandigram and Singur

While she was already a major political figure in the State, Banerjee caught the nation’s attention when she protested the setting up of Tata Motors' plant that was supposed to manufacture the Nano car. She accused the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led State government of providing 997 acres of farmland to have the automobile company build the factory in Singur. The State had cited a land acquisition act from 1894 to do so. However, according to the act, farmland could be acquired only for public improvement projects.

A year earlier, a massive operation involving 3,000 police personnel was launched on protesters in Bengal's Nandigram. The protesters were unwilling to hand over their farmland — about 10,000 acres in total — to the State government for the construction of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). At least 14 people were killed as a result of the police operation.

According to political observers, the incident played a key role in dislodging the Left government after over three decades in power. Banerjee also used the incident during the election campaign along with her famous slogan 'Maa Mati Manush (Mother, Motherland and People)'.

File image: Banerjee in Singur on September 2, 2008. (Image: Reuters/Stringer - India) File image: Banerjee in Singur on September 2, 2008. (Image: Reuters/Stringer - India)

Today, Banerjee has returned to Nandigram to take on her former aide Suvendu Adhikari. Adhikari, a former minister in her Cabinet and a tall Trinamool leader, had defected to the BJP in December 2020.

To demonstrate confidence, Banerjee chose to contest from just one seat and not look at safer options such as fighting from the Bhabanipur constituency where she has been the legislator since 2011.
Nandigram is significant because it is seen as a cradle of the anti-land acquisition movement that catapulted Banerjee to power. But with 70 percent Hindu and 30 percent Muslim population, the constituency is witnessing political and communal polarisation amid the election. The seat has been held by the TMC since 2009 and by Adhikari himself since 2016.

For the 50-year-old Adhikari, the contest is being seen as a fight for his political survival. He has reportedly vowed to defeat Banerjee by over 50,000 votes in the seat or quit politics.

Stints at the Centre

Banerjee first became the Union Minister of State for Human Resources Development, Youth Affairs and Sports, and Women and Child Development in 1991, in the PV Narasimha Rao government.

In 1999, she took over as the Railway Minister, having allied with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

Later in 2009, she became the Railway Minister again, this time under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and was widely lauded for her work in the sector.

File image: Banarjee, then the union railway minister, sitting on the footboard of a railway coach in Bangaon, West Bengal on October 25, 2000. (Image: Reuters/Jayanta Shaw) File image: Banarjee, then the union railway minister, sitting on the footboard of a railway coach in Bangaon, West Bengal on October 25, 2000. (Image: Reuters/Jayanta Shaw)

Leading 'Paschim Bangla'

Banerjee led the Trinamool Congress-Congress alliance to a resounding victory in the 2011 West Bengal Assembly election. The alliance won 227 of the 294 seats. The Left was reduced to 62 seats from what were 230 in 2006.

She was sworn in as the first woman chief minister of West Bengal on May 20, 2011.

According to political observers, Banerjee made strides to reform the education and health sectors in her first tenure marred by Saradha scam allegations.

In 2012, she was listed as one of the ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’ by Time Magazine.

In an internal poll conducted by India Against Corruption (IAC) — one of India's largest anti-corruption coalitions, ‘Didi’ was voted as India's most honest politician in 2013.

Banerjee retained power in the 2016 Assembly polls, winning 211 seats. Congress, with whom she did not ally with that time, came second with 44 seats while the Left slipped further to 32 seats.

The new challenge

Over the last few years, the Trinamool Congress has come across a new opponent. The BJP, which had not been successful in making a mark in Bengal for decades, has entered the State’s political arena all guns blazing.
The saffron party’s efforts on the ground led to the party winning 18 of Bengal’s 42 parliamentary seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, up from just two in 2014. This rise came at the cost of not just the opposition parties such as the Left and the Congress, but also the TMC itself, which saw its tally fall from 34 to 22.

BJP’s vote share in the State soared to 40.6 percent in the 2019 general election from about 17 percent in 2014. This brought the saffron party’s vote share close to the TMC’s 43.6 percent.

Having been in power for two terms, Banerjee may theoretically face some level of anti-incumbency. The introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed pan-India National Register Citizens (NRC) remain contentious issues, especially in the State of Bengal which borders Bangladesh. The BJP has promised in its manifesto to implement CAA if it comes to power in the State.

Additionally, her government’s handling of the pandemic will also be among key factors that would decide which way voters sway.

Recent election results and voting trends have clearly shown that India has moved towards ‘split-ticket’ voting where voters tend to vote very differently for elections at the Centre and in the State.

Knowing what she was up against, Banerjee roped in election strategist Prashant Kishor’s Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) and unveiled the ‘Didi Ke Bolo’ campaign as early as July 2019.

File image: Banerjee during a roadshow in Bardhaman in 2019. (Image: Twitter/AITCofficial) File image: Banerjee during a roadshow in Bardhaman in 2019. (Image: Twitter/AITCofficial)

The Trinamool has, however, seen a series of defections in recent months. Not just Adhikari, other senior leaders such as his father Sisir Adhikari (a Member of Parliament from Kanthi) and former Union railway minister Dinesh Trivedi have left the party to join the BJP.

There were others, such as actor-politician Mithun Chakraborty who was associated with the party earlier, have now joined the rival camp.
More recently, Banerjee received another setback after sustained injuries on her left leg, hip, forearm, neck and shoulder due to an incident in Nandigram soon after filing her nomination papers on March 10. She alleged that the BJP had hatched a conspiracy to prevent her from campaigning by organising an attack, a charge denied by the saffron party.

The Election Commission (EC) concluded that the Chief Minister had suffered injuries following an accident, due to a security lapse.

“Many had thought that Mamata Banerjee won’t be able to come out and they would take advantage of it. But they don’t know that I may break but I don’t bend. None should dare try to stifle me till I retain my last drop of blood and my last breath,” Banerjee said at an election rally in Purulia district.

“I am a girl from an ordinary family and hence I fight on the streets. I am a street fighter,” Banerjee asserted.

An earlier version of this profile was first published by Moneycontrol in April 2019 ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

Click here for Moneycontrol’s full coverage of the 2021 Assembly elections

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