Restless, whimsical, megalomaniac, loud, visionless, total failure: These were some of the adjectives used by CPI(M) parliamentarian and politburo member Mohammed Salim to describe the West Bengal chief minister.
Today, Salim will be eating his words. Mamata Banerjee has made history by returning to power in the state with a resounding majority, defeating a Left-Congress opposition alliance. The win is even more remarkable because she comes back with a bigger mandate, on course to win 210 seats in a house of 294. The halfway mark is 147.
Banerjee was always seen as clean but was besieged with charges of corruption against her ministers, and of incompetence and authoritarianism. Yet she prevailed.
It took 45 days of campaigning, 185 public meetings, and relentless political work for Banerjee to register her message home.
And that message was a record of ‘pro-people and pro-rural programmes’.
Banerjee believed schemes such as distributing rice at Rs 2/kg, Kanyashree for the girl child, distribution of cycles to the students would give her returns. Rural Bengal held 156 seat, and the Trinamool’s message resonated here.
Her instruction to the party was clear: “Manage the polling booths effectively. Talk about the performance of the government and make development issue the plank to contest the polls,” she said.
Banerjee was aiming for over 220 seats. The fact that the Opposition was faceless helped. Banerjee also had a rainbow coalition in place and offered doles to multiple constituencies – women, youth, poor, farmers, minorities.
But beneath the confidence, the chief minister was worried, her aides say. There was the Rs 2,500 crore Saradha scam in 2013; the Narada sting that exposed her top leadership taking bribes in March 2016; and the fall of Vivekananda flyover in the city on March 31, 2016. This constituted the opposition’s main line of attack.
But where it probably failed was in the absence of a positive programme. The opposition is more cynical about the outcome. “Ridiculous but true. In India, corruption has never dethroned a ruler. It has not happened here either. I am not surprised,” added state Congress chief Adhir Chowdhury.
That Banerjee is a fighter is well known. She single-handedly took on the CPI (M) for decades in the state, suffering physical assaults. She struck out on her own in 1998, splitting from the Congress and forming the Trinamool Congress. After yet another electoral defeat in 2006, Mamata mobilised support around land movements in Singur and Nandigram and beat the Left at its own game by emerging as a champion of the landless and farmers.
In the 2011 elections, she allied with the Congress and swept the polls. As an administrator, Banerjee was a workaholic and micromanaged all key issues. This was similar to the way her party functioned – as a top-down, centralised structure. All files passed through her offices. She directly delegated work to bureaucrats, which left ministers unhappy.