Mamata Banerjee is very skilled at outwitting her political rivals in West Bengal. The Jul 21 rally which she holds every year is in remembrance of 13 Congress supporters, who were killed in police firing during a peaceful protest rally in Kolkata, on this day in 1993. Both the national and Bengal state politics have seen sea changes in the last 19 years, but the Trinamool Congress chief, who was a Youth Congress leader during the 1993 shootings, has continued to use the occasion to flex her muscles and exhibit the immense following she has in the state, much to the dismay of her rivals.
During the Left Front rule, the Martyrs' Day rally on Jul 21 had served a big platform to the leader and her party (she formed the Trinamool Congress in 1998) to fuel the anti-incumbency mood against the deep-rooted CPI(M)-led regime. The fact that Mamata was the only and most effective anti-Left symbol in West Bengal was evident when she hijacked the Jul 21 occasion from the Congress, they party which had actually lost 13 members, with a thumping authority. The Congress, which had lost its credibility and virtually turned a non-entity in the state politics by then, became increasingly dependent on Mamata's charisma to make itself relevant in the subsequent Jul 21 programmes.
Mamata, meanwhile, went on to strengthen her popular politics around July 21, a occasion she religiously observed each year. The year 2010 was when Mamata observed the Martyrs' Day as an opposition leader for the final time and the huge welcome that she received each year proved that an election victory or not, the Trinamool chief's mass base was always a strong one.
The Congress was also invited to the show for Mamata knew well that to transform the huge public support into an electoral success, it was necessary to display a joint stand. The Trinamool had a great electoral success just the year before in the Lok Sabha elections and the Left Front was in a serious decline. Mamata's message was clear then: "We have the Left Front in the coffin. Let's put the final nails on it".
Underlying aims changed after Left's departure
The occasion remained close to Mamata's heart even after she trounced the Left in the 2011 elections. But the underlying message gradually changed, for her main mission of toppling the Left Front had been accomplished. From the 2011 and 2012 Jul 21 rallies, it could be seen that Mamata was trying to execute two plans. On one hand, she was trying to include more social sections within the 'Martyrs' Day party' by inviting people from various walks of life.
Through this, she was trying to give the occasion more of a social identity, a forum to interact with her electorate and not exclusively a political workshop. Last year, she was even seen inviting local actors on the dais and sing songs from popular Bengali movies. The Trinamool, after coming to power, has also taken more technological help (read giant screens) to air its popular muscle-flexing in a more effective way. Mamata used the moment to propagate her government's 'good work' in the last 14 months and also asked the party members to start preparing for the panchayat polls.
The other aim of Mamata was purely political and this time it is the Congress which was at the receiving end. Mamata did not bother to invite the Congress, the party with which her party is in alliance both at the state and central governments, at this year's rally. Minister Mukul Roy said they wanted to confine the programme within Trinamool Congress and hence did not invite the Congress.
Stern message to Centre & Congress
It clearly shows that Mamata is still in no mood to entertain the Congress, particularly after she was forced to swallow the bitter pill by compulsions at the national politics over supporting Pranab Mukherjee's presidential candidature. The Trinamool chief said at Saturday's Jul 21 rally that they were spreading wings in various states apart from West Bengal, including UP (the party opened its account in the state in the recent by-polls) and warned the Centre that if it continued to neglect Bengal, the Trinamool will not mind to go alone in the next panchayat elections in the state. "I am a rough and tough administrator," she said.
Mamata Banerjee is unquestionably the only Bengali leader with a huge mass following. But the question is: Apart from eyeing electoral dividends and display what noted scholar Ranabir Samaddar termed a 'new nationalism' whereby Mamata hates courting the Centre for funds and wants acknowledge of its rights, why does not she turn her attention to utilise the huge public energy towards a more realistic good?
Mamata toppled the Left but not the old style of functioning
Mamata has thrown the Left Front into the dustbin of history but has not really parted with the way her predecessors used to function, albeit with a lesser party machinery.
In the past, the CPI(M) banked on a solid party structure on the ground and appeal of leaders like Jyoti Basu from the podium to draw huge crowds to fill up the maidens. But never did the Left Front leaders try to transform the massive mandate they once had to improve the economic conditions in the state. Poor economics is bad politics in these times and the Left Front realised it in the last Assembly elections. The economy came to such a grinding halt and the Left's last-ditch efforts to turn the wheels back resulted in a political debacle.
Mamata, in a way is placed even a mark higher in terms of popular appeal for she has little party structure to support her charismatic appeal to the masses. A second advantage for the Trinamool chief is that she has also succeeded in bridging a gap between various sub-regions of Bengal, which were so dangerously left to widen by the former rulers. She has turned the state's focus on a social class of achievers and felicitates them on every other opportunity.
All these add up to a huge mandate for Mamata in the state but is she capable to engineer an economic turnaround? There is no doubt that she has a huge resource, both in terms of man and material, to back her if she takes an objective initiative for the betterment of the state. But just slamming rivals who are anyway lagging miles behind and oversimplifying complex issues resulting in economic self-defeats will only make Bengal revisit the old saying: Poor Economics is bad politics.