A thorn in the side of India’s prime minister

Strings of flags showing one woman’s smiling face zigzag back and forth above the old colonial streets of this city formerly known as Calcutta.

The same face appears on the side of Kolkata’s city buses and on posters along the banks of a Ganges River branch. It even shows up in graffiti, as the face of a 10-armed Hindu goddess — and as Mother India, banishing Prime Minister Narendra Modi into the Bay of Bengal.

It’s the face of Mamata Banerjee, the popular chief minister of West Bengal — a state in eastern India that’s more populous than most countries. Banerjee governs about 100 million people.

Famous for her fiery speeches, welfare programs geared toward women and the simple white cotton saris she wears, Banerjee, 66, is beloved in her home state, especially among the poor and women. She preaches inclusivity and accuses Modi’s Hindu nationalists of trying to divide Indians along sectarian lines.

It’s a message that’s worked for her at the polls: In May, Banerjee’s center-left party, the All India Trinamool Congress, trounced Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in West Bengal, halting its sweep of state elections.

Now, with the national opposition to Modi in shambles, Banerjee — already one of Modi’s fiercest critics — has emerged as secular, liberal Indians’ best hope, analysts say, for ending what they see as Modi’s authoritarian rule.

Her profile is rising: In 2019, a Bengali-language movie called Baghini — “The Tigress” — was made about her life. This year, she was included in Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people.

But Modi is India’s most popular leader in decades. And with the next general election likely more than two years away, analysts say Banerjee — a regional leader from a non-Hindi speaking state, and a woman without the backing of a political dynasty — has her work cut out for her.

Banerjee rose from humble origins and early on made her mark in India’s patriarchal politics

Banerjee has none of the family connections that helped India’s best-known female politician — the first and only woman to serve as prime minister, Indira Gandhi — rise to the top of patriarchal politics in the 1970s. Gandhi’s father was India’s first post-colonial prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Banerjee’s father died when she was a teenager.

“She came from a family with very little means, an extremely humble upbringing, and with the loss of her father, the entire responsibility of a household pretty much fell on her,” says Shutapa Paul, author of a biography titled Didi: The Untold Mamata Banerjee. (“Didi,” Banerjee’s nickname, means elder sister in several Indian languages.)

Paul says Banerjee did odd jobs as a teenager, giving tutorials to schoolchildren and working at milk booths — kiosks where small portions of milk are sold in the street. She then won a spot to study history and law at the University of Calcutta. She got involved in student politics, attended demonstrations and drew the attention of local leaders of India’s then-dominant political party, Indira Gandhi’s Indian National Congress.

“Her speeches were fiery! She was quite aggressive even at that time,” Paul explains. “She can be brash. She’s confident — sometimes overconfident.”

There’s a famous photo from that era of Banerjee dancing atop the hood of a rival politician’s car.

“The police would come and round up [the student protesters] and throw them in prison — lock them up for half a day or so,” Paul says. “She would take her college books and start reading inside the prison cell itself.”

At first, Banerjee joined the Congress party and became one of its student leaders. She was elected to India’s parliament as a member of that party in 1984, when she was 29. She later fell out with Congress leaders, and in 1998, founded her own political party. It’s a center-left party, active primarily in West Bengal.

Banerjee’s biggest political victory came 10 years ago, when she was elected West Bengal’s first female chief minister, ending 34 years of Communist rule in the state.

She’s also served in the national Cabinet several times, in coalition governments. She was India’s first female minister of railways and of coal — both high-profile jobs. And she served as the minister for youth and sports, women and child development, and human resources.

She has begun embracing a softer version of Modi’s Hindu nationalism

Nowadays, the confrontational spirit that led Banerjee to dance on that politician’s car in the 1970s comes out in her news conferences. She often taunts Modi.

“Mr. busy prime minister, what [do] you want? What [do] you want, to finish me? Can you do it? Never!” she exclaimed in a May 31 news conference, clips from which went viral in India.

Her reputation is as a feisty, 5-foot thorn in Modi’s side.

And perhaps because Banerjee is a woman, she’s also become famous for what she wears. The simple white cotton saris she favors are made of the same material worn by Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, who helped Calcutta’s sick and impoverished and is buried here.

“What she wears is a conscious decision to project a simple, grassroots, common person. That is the image she has cultivated and honed in West Bengal — this image of being an elder sister, a mother figure, somebody who is fond of your family,” Paul, her biographer, says.

That’s not unlike the image Modi has cultivated on the national stage. Modi was a tea seller as a teenager; Banerjee worked at the milk booths. Both Modi and Banerjee are single, childless, from humble roots, said to be workaholics, devoted to their politics.

Another part of the image Banerjee has cultivated is that of a survivor — and possibly, a master of political theater. In May, she campaigned in state elections with a cast on her leg after she was injured in a melee that some of her party members blamed on operatives from Modi’s BJP. A BJP spokesman accused Banerjee of “putting up a drama” — essentially, milking her injuries for public sympathy.

But there are signs that Modi sees Banerjee as a threat.

Last spring, in the lead-up to West Bengal’s state elections, Modi’s party circulated a video clip of Banerjee reciting Muslim prayers. It was edited down from a longer clip in which she recited Hindu and Sikh prayers too. The suggestion was that Banerjee favors Muslims over her fellow Hindus, who are India’s majority. The BJP’s ploy backfired, and Banerjee’s party won those elections.

But Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva — a movement that seeks to make India’s Hindu faith the basis for the country’s policies — has worked for Modi nationally. Banerjee has taken note. She recently started mentioning her Hindu caste (Brahmin) in public speeches — something she never did before, says political scientist Proma Ray Chaudhury.

“Alongside these welfare mechanisms that Mamata projects, she also in a way appeals to soft Hindutva — a softer version of the muscular, aggressive Hindutva that Modi and his party projects,” she says. “She’s trying to beat Modi at his own game.”

Banerjee faces an uphill battle if she challenges Modi

If Banerjee challenges Modi in the next election, it will be a “David versus Goliath narrative,” says Shoaib Daniyal, a political reporter who has covered Banerjee for the news site Scroll.in. That’s a dynamic Banerjee is familiar with, he says.

“She’s always the David, even when she’s the chief minister,” Daniyal says. “She first defeated the Communists at a time when they looked absolutely invincible in West Bengal, and now she’s going up against the behemoth that is Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.”

The prime minister remains popular. A weekly survey of domestic approval ratings for 13 top global leaders shows Modi as the most popular for most of the past 20 months.

And Banerjee has been dogged by corruption allegations against her aides, though they haven’t seemed to hurt her at the polls, Daniyal notes.

“Indians, while they dislike corruption, it seems that if you really deliver a lot of [welfare] benefits to them, they are willing to overlook the fact that they have to pay a bribe to get them,” he says. “So it seems like welfare delivery has sort of overridden the allegations of corruption in her case.”

Another factor that may work against her at the national level is that Banerjee is not a native speaker of Hindi, a language spoken across much of northern India. (Bengali is more widely spoken in her home state.) And she heads a regional party, not a national one.

“A regional outfit expanding from a non-Hindi speaking state and trying to become a national player is something that has actually never happened before in Indian politics,” Daniyal notes.

For Banerjee to become a candidate for prime minister, her Trinamool party would have to form a pre-election pact with a wide range of other regional parties that all oppose Modi’s BJP — even if they have disparate regional interests and policies.

It could make for some odd bedfellows, says Chaudhury. “A pre-poll coalition is doable,” she says, “but it could be messy.”

Being a woman may help Banerjee in future elections

Being a woman is often a liability in India’s patriarchal politics. That may now be changing, Chaudhury says — and Banerjee’s gender may actually help her.

“Because for the first time in Indian politics, women are forming a very salient and distinctive electoral constituency. So their votes have become decisive factors,” she says. “We saw that in the [spring 2021] West Bengal elections, and in the 2019 general elections as well, that women voters have proven to be a voting bloc — and Mamata Banerjee, through her welfare trust mechanism, caters to this particular voting bloc.”

Indian women are voting more — and not just for the candidates their husbands or fathers want them to support. Banerjee appeals to women not just because she is one — but because her welfare programs prioritize women. Possibly emulating those, Modi has also introduced similar initiatives on a national scale — for example, a recent program to subsidize cooking gas canisters for women.

Other parties are also taking note of this voting trend: For upcoming state elections in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, the opposition Congress party says it will reserve 40% of assembly seats for female lawmakers. The idea is that women might be more willing to vote for a party that guarantees them representation in local office.

Meanwhile, in Banerjee’s own Kolkata neighborhood, a housewife gushes about her as she spreads grain across her dusty yard to dry in the sun.

“We love her! She gives us jobs and builds roads,” says Reeta Thakur, who moved to West Bengal years ago from Bihar, a northern, Hindi-speaking state.

Thakur says she definitely wants Banerjee to be India’s next prime minister. She’s just not sure if her relatives in other states do too.

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