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Know Your Leader | Mamata Banerjee: Bengal’s street fighter takes on the Modi challenge on home turf

Many see her as having prime ministerial aspirations. But, this is dependent on what happens in Paschim Bangla

April 10, 2019 / 03:01 PM IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hoping to retain power in the Lok Sabha polls.

The saffron party is expected to make losses in north India, a region it had virtually swept in 2014. To offset some of these losses, the party is looking to make inroads into various untapped regions of the country. West Bengal is one such state.

With the BJP unleashing its tested election machinery in the state, Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee has come under increasing pressure. This pressure was palpable when, in February, Banerjee staged a dharna in Kolkata to protest against the raids by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar. She alleged that the raids were politically motivated.

So far, the eighth chief minister of West Bengal has not only ruled the state with an iron fist, but also calls shots in the politics of the nation.

The Bengal CM isn't afraid of street politics — that, in fact, is her home turf.

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While her biggest political success would be uprooting the Left Front from the state's politics, it could be argued that her biggest achievement was people recognising her as honest and humble.

Also read: Opinion | Mamata Banerjee’s dharna is a high-stakes political game

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

The Congress years

Born in Kolkata, Banerjee grew up in a Brahmin lower middle class 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 the Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri Law College, Kolkata.

'Didi’, as she is popularly called, became involved in politics when she was only 15.

While still studying in college, Banerjee established the Chhatra Parishad Union, the student's wing of the Indian National Congress Party. 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 of 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 ever.

While she lost the seat in 1989, Banerjee was re-elected to the Lower House of Parliament in 1991 from Calcutta South Lok Sabha constituency — a seat she held until she left Parliament in 2011.

Founding Trinamool

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 party quickly placed itself as the main opposition in the state.

Nandigram and Singur

Banerjee caught the nation’s attention when she protested setting up of Tata Motors' plant that was supposed to manufacture the Nano car. She accused the Communist Party-led state government of providing 997 acres of farmland to have the automobile company build the factory. 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 village. The protesters were unwilling to hand over their farm land — about 10,000 acres in total — to the state government for 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 34 years in power. Banerjee also used the incident during her election campaign along with the famous slogan 'Maa Mati Manush'.

Stints at the Centre

She 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 Railway Minister, having allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party-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. Banerjee was widely lauded for her work in the sector.

Leading 'Paschim Bangla'

Mamata 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 alliance was reduced to 62 seats from what was 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 a tenure marred by Saradha scam allegations.

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

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

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.

Didi’s battle this time is not only to retain the Lok Sabha seats she won in 2014 and protect the party’s structure against reported poaching from the BJP, but also to form the stem of opposition unity.

Many see her as having prime ministerial aspirations. But, this is dependent on what happens in Paschim Bangla.
Nachiket Deuskar

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