All Hail Queen Banerjee

How the chief minister of the Indian state of West Bengal went from being the people’s savior to the people’s tyrant.


In a January rally leading up to the 2011 election that made her chief minister of the Indian state of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee spoke about home cooking. “Tell me,” she said chattily, “when you cook, don’t you have to first grind the spices, wash and chop the vegetables, and light the fire?” Speaking to a rapt crowd of several thousand, the small woman in a rumpled sari invoked her knowledge of shared domestic routines to explain why she was fit to be chief minister. “Remember this,” she said, “if you know your work, you can perform.”

The crowd needed no convincing that Didi, or elder sister, as Banerjee is known, was one of their own. She comes from a modest background. Her father had run a small business supplying construction materials in West Bengal’s teeming capital of Kolkata, home to over 14 million people. She grew up in a cramped house on a narrow Kolkata street, next to an auto-parts store, and still lives there even after being elected chief minister. She has been in politics for more than four decades, and a minister in three national governments, overseeing portfolios including sports and railways, but manages to still be the face of citizen protest rather than a ruling elite. In 2011, she was the only prominent female politician in India not associated with a political dynasty or an influential male partner. “No one from my family is interested in politics,” she told us firmly when we spoke with her in Kolkata in January of that year, repeating in private what she has said many times in public.

Banerjee’s rise owed much to such performances of humility, and its implicit rebuke of the monarchic personalities that crowd India’s democracy. But in her five years in office — the results of her re-election campaign will be announced May 19 — she has transformed herself from everywoman to queen. When we returned to Kolkata in January 2016, Banerjee’s image towered over the city on massive billboards. She has decreed that all public property — including government buildings, bridges, dividers, police stations, even taxis — should be painted in the blue and white colors she favors in her saris. Even more strikingly, her government had earned a reputation for being intolerant of dissent.

In March 2012, her government banned a list of newspapers from state-run libraries, presumably because she disapproved of their coverage. When criticized, she promised worse: “Till now, we haven’t told which newspapers must be read, but in future, we will do that as well.” The following month, she ordered the arrest of a professor for forwarding a cartoon satirizing her in an email to his friends. That May, when students on a TV talk show questioned her on the arrest, she branded them “Maoists” and stormed out. And when a farmer questioned her policies at an election rally in August of that year, she branded him a Maoist too — and had him arrested. In September 2014, Kolkata police violently broke up a student demonstration, sparking yet more protests as thousands of students marched against the government.

In the most remarkable turnaround of all, she had become the founder of a political dynasty. Her nephew Abhishek Banerjee is her de facto second in command within her All India Trinamool Congress party, and two of her brothers have become visible figures in her political campaigns.

Banerjee’s new regal persona transforms her from the exception to the rule in India’s democracy, in which competitive elections coexist with authoritarian rulers. The reason that democracy in India rewards autocracy has a lot to do with India’s youth bulge — half of the country’s roughly 1.25 billion people are under 27 years old, while almost two-thirds are younger than 35. The majority of these young people are literate, and all of them aspire to better lives. But these aspirations are blocked. Only 17 percent of the Indian labor force has a salaried job, and the young and literate have a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the working age population. The economic liberalization of the past few decades has done little to address this. According to the most recent official statistics, unemployment among rural youth actually increased as the process of economic liberalization accelerated in India between 1999 and 2011. And just in this past year, agitations by young men from rural castes — such as the Patels in the relatively wealthy state of Gujarat, or the Jats in the northern state of Haryana — for quotas in government employment suggest that anxieties about joblessness in the new economy are growing.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised that he will provide jobs through reforms intended to boost India’s manufacturing sector. But even he acknowledges it won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, he offers his own personality — strong, paternal, and self-made — as reassurance. His frequent referencing of his origins as the son of a tea seller signals that if he could rise from such a station to become prime minister, they can succeed eventually too. His Movado watch, Bulgari spectacles, and tailored kurtas offer the added reassurance that success need not be self-denying.

Modi’s persona resonates among the country’s middle- and upper-class youth, but not among the poor, who voted for him in lesser proportions. Young people in India’s middle and upper classes have the education, networks, urban background, and income to take advantage of Modi’s promised reforms. But the poor, less educated, and mostly rural are more fearful about their futures. As one young man agitating for quotas — known in India as “reservations” — in employment put it: “I have studied in the village school. We can’t compete with city boys.… So without reservation, we get left behind both in government jobs and private jobs.”

Banerjee’s “everywoman” identity was a successful effort to capture the hearts — and the votes — of this electorate. To the poor in West Bengal, it conveyed empathy rather than aspiration. “I am one of you now,” it signaled, “not someone whom you could become tomorrow.”

Banerjee developed this identity in the early 1970s, when she participated in violent struggles in Kolkata between rival student unions. Then a teenager enrolled at a women’s college, she jumped into street fights with fists blazing. “She was a daredevil girl,” Partha Chatterjee, Banergee’s old associate and now the minister of parliamentary affairs in her government, told us during the 2011 election campaign, recalling how she stuck up for him in a fight.

Between 1970 and 2006, Banerjee built a reputation as the face of popular protest, first as a youth leader in the Congress party and then as leader of her own All India Trinamool Congress party, which she founded in 1998. Her trademark was an easy and open emotionality. She is quick to weep, laugh, and shout, publicly presenting this as evidence that she has not been edited to fit the conventions of politics. “By being emotional, sometimes mistakes can happen,” she wrote in her 1998 memoir, Struggle for Existence. “However, it is emotion of the soul which brings light to the conscience.”

In 2006, Banerjee chanced upon the biggest fight of her political career, when West Bengal’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) announced it would use eminent domain to acquire 1,000 acres of agricultural land for a car factory in the town of Singur. Farmers began protesting, joined by a broad coalition of opposition forces. Banerjee assumed leadership of the protest and turned the next elections, in 2011, into a referendum between farm and factory. She won by a landslide. Her greatest gains were among young people and the poor: 55 percent of those 25 or younger voted for her, and the poor and lower classes were just as likely to vote for her as those from the middle and upper classes.

Once Banerjee became chief minister, however, there was no one to protest against. And, like Modi, she has not so far been able to deliver jobs in the private sector: The reputation she acquired during the Singur protest made it hard to attract industrial investment. So she turned to patronage as a means of building support. Her government created thousands of new public sector jobs and distributed scholarships, bicycles, and honorariums to the young. It has been especially munificent toward youth clubs –ostensibly non-political neighborhood associations of young men in both urban and rural areas– which have received millions of dollars annually with no strings attached.

For this strategy to pay off, voters had to trace the flow of patronage to her personally — not to an impersonal state or to her party. The boundaries between political parties in India are porous, and there is little to prevent her legislators from defecting, taking credit for beneficial policies with them. This is why Banerjee has transformed herself into a larger-than-life presence. The blue and white bedecking Kolkata reminds citizens that she — personally — is now the face of power. She has raised an unknown amount of money for her government and party by selling her own paintings (some dashed off in just 10 minutes), and distributed the money as personal largesse. When a municipal corporation needed a new logo, she designed one herself, in blue. All officials had to use it on their letterheads — lest anyone forget who they were speaking for. This is also why she has turned to dynastic politics. Family members are surrogates, not rivals: They remind people of her.

By fusing patronage with personality, Banerjee is following standard procedure in India. Earlier Congress-led national governments have named hundreds of developmental schemes after the Nehru-Gandhi family. Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu who also ran for re-election in May 2016, has attached her moniker — Amma, or mother — to every conceivable government welfare scheme. Tamil Nadu now has Amma pharmacies where medicines are sold at subsidized prices, Amma theaters where you can see a movie at absurdly low prices (less than 50 cents), Amma canteens, Amma water, Amma cement, and even Amma baby care kits. Lesser ministers routinely publish their photographs in advertisements for government projects. Even obscure legislators often insist that every government-funded bus stop or hand pump in their constituency has a plaque with their name on it.

In an era of jobless growth, in which patronage has become an important means to buy off the young, this cult of personality is not megalomania. It is sound politics in India.

But governments based on personality are fragile. This is why Banerjee, along with other regional governments in India, have begun cracking down on dissent, especially among young people. We had a glimpse of what was to come in Banerjee’s regime when we visited her before her 2011 victory. We met her in her modest office at home, a tiny figure seated behind a large desk. In her late 50s then, the skin on her hands was papered with wrinkles. But she wore the face of the “daredevil girl” she had once been, with black button eyes that danced when she laughed.

Banerjee was holding court with an audience of favored journalists. She recited snatches of poetry, made faces at the files in front of her, miming distaste for some of them, and then made up an election slogan on the spot. “From Nandigram to Netai, CPM Bye-Bye.” (Nandigram and Netai are rural areas in West Bengal in which the then-ruling CPM had infamously shot at unarmed villagers in 2007. The slogan was an apt summary of the brutal response to rural protest that ended up costing CPM the election.) The journalists applauded. She giggled, pleased with herself, as her eyes darted around the room for a reaction. “Look at me,” they seemed to say impishly, “look at me and what I dare to do.” It was charming, in the narcissistic way that children can be.

But the charm of a David can turn to chill in a Goliath. Underneath the files, she found a book that someone had written about her. Her face set as she dictated a letter in response: “If you have published something about me you have to ask me first.” When she began cracking down on dissent, many saw her actions as exceptionally thin-skinned. “In politics, you must have the capacity to tolerate and bear,” Ram Vilas Paswan, India’s minister of consumer affairs, food, and public distribution and a former colleague of Banerjee in the national cabinet, said in a 2013 interview. “The way she jailed the person over the cartoon episode, a seasoned politician would never do such a thing.”

But plenty of seasoned politicians in India have done such things, especially in response to student protests. In 1975, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of national emergency and sent plenty of student leaders to jail. Months after Banerjee’s actions, the conservative Shiv Sena party had two college students in Mumbai arrested for a Facebook post. In 2015, the state government of Gujarat, led by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), slapped sedition charges against student leader Hardik Patel for agitating for quotas in government employment for other members of his caste. And in February of this year, the BJP government charged students from the premier Jawaharlal Nehru University with sedition.

The main difference between Banerjee and the politicians leading these other governments is in the style of authoritarianism, not in the fact. What makes Banerjee’s style distinct is her disregard for even the conventions of power. Other leaders have invoked convoluted legal justifications for their actions. Banerjee rarely bothers with these fig leaves. As she wrote in her memoirs, her actions are guided by the “emotion of her soul” — in other words, by a morality that trumps institutions. This was precisely the quality that made her an authentic leader of protest. Now, ironically, it has made her a disturbing face of power.

Image Credit: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images

Kanchan Chandra is professor of politics at New York University.

Saroj Nagi is a freelance journalist and former associate editor at the Hindustan Times.

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