Rebel without a cause

Mamata Banerjee so militates against my own self-esteem as a proudly single woman who has made her way in this world without godfathers of any sort or even the patronage of male superiors and is able to hold her head as high as her male colleagues and work shoulder to shoulder with them without having to go shrill or throwing any tantrums.

I had been all praise for the West Bengal chief minister when she swept elections in her state last year (See ‘Attagirl!’ May 13, 2011), recalling to mind what one of my earliest mentors had told me: a woman has to work twice as hard to get half the credit as a man does for doing only a quarter of the work that she is capable of any day.

I also admired her for being the only woman in Indian politics who had made it to the top without a male mentor or relative as most other women in Indian politics have had.

Then, just a few weeks ago, as her tantrums became unbearable and she increasingly appeared madder than the Mad Hatter and worse than any character from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, a top Congress leader told me his party, despite their ideological differences, much preferred doing business with the Left than with Mamata Banerjee. “They are reasonable and you always know where you stand with them.”

That I could understand. But what I could not accept, despite Mamata’s tantrums, was the reasons he attributed to her unreliability. “Unmarried, no children to tone her down. She sees all other women around her happily married and with kids and so her frustration expresses itself in these ways which is driving us up the wall.”

I jumped at his throat for that typical male chauvinistic, antediluvian reaction, trying to keep my own balance lest I be labelled akin to Mamata and was glad that he retreated swiftly, shaking his head and refusing to say another word about Mamata (though I noticed he didn’t quite take back her unkind words about her).

Now I see the unreasonableness of Ms Banerjee, too, but I will still not attribute that to her singledom. Rather, as I have gathered from friends in Calcutta and other parts of West Bengal, she is surrounded mostly by the kind of goons and nitwits whose advice is not worth the words they speak. And when she does have professionals, politicians or others like her own Finance Minister, she drives them crazy as she is now doing Dinesh Trivedi, the union railways minister, who has an MBA from Texas University and perhaps knows better than her what needs to be done with the Indian Railways and how.

It is obvious to me, sitting at the other end of the country from her, that she has no idea about Constitutional norms and when I stated that only this week to a friend from West Bengal, he snapped back, “She has no idea about anything, even the street lights of Calcutta!”

I did not know this but apparently her penchant for art has led her to design some new street lamps with gracious curves and three bulbs that consume more energy and emit far less light than the old-fashioned sturdy ones in Bengal now do. “It will only help somebody make money in a cash-strapped Bengal without doing anything for its people, including dispelling the darkness. We could forgive her for everything else but not the manner in which she embarrassed the Prime Minister over Farakka when he was in Dhaka. What message did that send out to Bangladesh and the rest of the world?”

Of course, both the PM and the Congress, as I told him, need to demonstrate a bit more spine vis-à-vis Mamata than they are doing now and they need must not fear a mid-term poll if that’s the price of putting Mamata in her place. But, as he told me, her responses over the recent rapes in Calcutta and that of the death of several new born infants in various hospitals has brought the Bengalis’ bile up (as it has mine), her worst comment being not just that the rapes were a Left conspiracy against her but that the babies who died were conceived during the Left tenure even if they were born in her regime!

This is not even an Orwellian scenario and defies every logic, leading at least me to believe that she is somehow lacking in the upper storey and is more suited to being an activist than a chief minister. That somehow negates everything she has achieved in the past decade-and-a-half and I believe she deserves better than she is now proving herself to be or else she might fritter away all her gains all too quickly. As my friend said, former WB CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya should not really have been surprised at the huge crowds he got at a recent rally — for Mamata’s mad behaviour “is contributing to the Left revival faster than could have been expected.”

I had believed that Mamata’s madness was calculated towards decimating the Congress. For, as I saw it. in the background of the Left rout in West Bengal, the next battle in that state was likely to be between Mamata and the Congress and both recognised well that they were now fighting for the same space.

But her latest tantrum over the hike of passenger fares in the rail budget tells me another story. And even as I still don’t agree with the Congress leader over the reasons for her so-called frustrations, I take comfort from the fact that Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha’s madnesses were all calculated towards deliberately insulting her rivals or getting the maximum out of her alliance partners in New Delhi. Even Uma Bharti’s tantrum as she quit the BJP some years ago was justified – for a woman has to also shout twice as loud as a man to get half the attention of the world as a man does for a quarter of similar problems that he might face. Then, again, I have reason to know how BJP leaders (both living and dead) from Maharashtra used to talk disparagingly about her even when she was the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. When I used to express my admiration about how this sadhvi. speaking fluent English, had risen in the rough and tumble world of Indian politics, I was often told with a snort or two, “You give her too much importance! We don’t.” After speaking to her and her lawyers in Hubli some years ago, during her arrest for a Constitutional violation, I knew that she was well aware of the male conspiracy afoot against her. So when she told BJP leader L K Advani off while quitting the party, to me she did not sound so much shrill as wronged and justified in letting off that steam. And certainly not a rebel without a cause as Mamata is proving to be.

I have just returned from attending a traditional Bengali wedding and, outside of the wedding hitches or the bride’s trousseau, the only subject of discussion at that event seemed to be Mamata Banerjee. “There is a little bit of madness in all Bengalis. That is why we were the best freedom fighters, the best writers and poets and the best artists. But Mamatadi really takes the cake. Do not equate the rest of us with her,” I was told.

So, even as Indian Twitterati trashed it, I was not really surprised with this comment from a Bengali friend from Calcutta when Sudip Bandopadyaya of the Trinamool Congress described the budget presented by union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee (on a personal note: I so love his round Bangla accent: brings back a lot of childhood memories!) as ‘tolerable’. Writing on Twitter, he was frankly and bitingly brutal: “It seems that Mamata and her buffoons haven’t understood a word of the budget and so (are) in a dilemma whether to oppose or praise.”

Does that say anything about where the West Bengal chief minister is, then, headed?

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