x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Banerjee emerges a fiesty and astute chief

Powerful leader has proven as much a enemy as a friend to her allies.

NEW DELHI // Mamata Banerjee, the feisty and strong-willed chief minister of the prominent Indian state of West Bengal, has become the centre of power in New Delhi's chaotic national politics.

As the head of the largest ally in the Congress-led national coalition government, Ms Banerjee holds the key to Congress's traditional hold on power in New Delhi from her base in Kolkota.

But she has proven almost as much of an enemy as a friend - opposing almost every major piece of legislation the government introduced into parliament.

She stays with Congress because, as an independent, her Trinomool Congress would carry no power. And she cannot side with the main opposition party, the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as almost one quarter of her support comes from the Muslim minority.

She ousted one of the world's longest ruling communist governments last year, but her image as a maverick champion of the people has quickly been replaced by that of a populist who has yet to find the strength to make unpopular budgetary decisions.

Her campaign cry "maa, maati, maanush" (mother, motherland, mankind) symbolised her populist politics that helped earn her nickname, "Didi" (big sister).

But since winning power from the anachronistic Communists, she has done little to improve life for Bengalis, some of the poorest people in India.

"She has yet to make the transition from street fighter to political leader," said Monobina Gupta, author of Didi: A Political Biography.

Her eccentric policies have emboldened her critics. She is repainting, literally, her state of 90 million - a larger population than Egypt- in blue and white because that is her favourite colour scheme. Pedestrian crossings now play Bengal folk music.

She forced nightclubs to close at midnight as a solution to rape, after a single mother was molested in February when returning from a nightclub. Ms Banerjee outraged women activists, usually her ardent supporters, when she said the charges were a conspiracy by the Communists to imply her party was soft on law and order.

"Can you imagine a chief minister, before investigation is complete, saying it is a conspiracy to frame the party. This is very damaging," said Suhit Sen, a historian and senior researcher with the Calcutta Research Group.

Ms Banerjee has alienated the central government. Money from New Delhi is a necessary part of her deficit budget and West Bengal debt is an estimated rupees 1.6 billion (Dh12 mn). Withough heavy industry, it relies on mainly on cash crops such as jute, tea and rice.

"On one hand, she says the state has no money and on the other hand there is the blue paint and music. This creates some amount of discomfort among the urban middle-class," said Mr Sen.

Ms Banerjee's landslide victory in West Bengal ended more than three decades of communist rule. After the results were announced in May last year, Ms Banerjee strode through the narrow lanes of Kalighat, the lower-middle class neighbourhood in Kolkata where she lives. She wore her trademark white cotton sarii and rubber slippers.

"I am a simple person," Ms Banerjee said famously during her victory speech. "I want to continue my life like a commoner, like a simple man."

Ms Banerjee's speech in heavily accented, broken English is an indication of her lower-middle class upbringing where she spoke the local Bengali language, said Ms Gupta.

"Her complete unfamiliarity with the English language means what she says and what she means are totally different things. It is interpreted as garbled and is distorted," said Ms Gupta.

Ms Banerjee is aware of what is said about her in the Delhi political circles but she is determined not to be bulldozed.

She has spoken out publicly against legislation intended to attract foreign retail houses such as Walmart and Tesco.

She also attempted to block the creation of a national counter-terrorism body that would potentially have authority over the state-level security services. West Bengal is the birthplace of the Maoist insurgency wracking a larged corridor of eastern India, and Ms Banerjee has signed a ceasefire with the militants that has been heavily criticised in Delhi.

None of this has made her very popular with the Congress party, ruled by Sonia Gandhi. But the fact that the party needs Ms Banerjee's Trinamool Congress to maintain a majority government means that it will have to listen.

"Mamata has the Congress where she wants it and can exert as many concessions," Mr Sen said.

He speculates that her intransigence might be more about money than politics.

Congress has so far proved unwilling to release the bailout package for West Bengal, worried that its other allies might also come knocking.

But it is still too early to count out Ms Banerjee, said Mr Sen.

"She is a maverick. She is whimsical and impulsive, but it is not that she is not an astute politician," he said.