From Jumping on Cars to Hunger Striking, Firebrand Shakes Up India’s Status Quo
Mamata Banerjee has always been something of a maverick.
As a student leader in India, she jumped up and danced on the hood of a politician’s car to keep it from advancing. As one of the nation’s youngest parliamentarians, she occupied government offices to protest impunity. And now as chief minister of West Bengal, India’s fourth-most populous state, she meets global investors wearing crumpled homespun clothes and flip flops.
That image as a champion of the masses has Banerjee, 61, poised to win another term on May 19, when election results are due for five states accounting for roughly a fifth of India’s population of 1.3 billion. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party only has a chance to win in one of those contests, reflecting the strength of regional parties that continue to dominate large swathes of India.
Modi’s struggle to expand his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s reach beyond its strongholds in predominately Hindi-speaking areas threatens to further hobble his reform push. State elections, like those in Banerjee’s Bengali-speaking stomping ground, determine the composition of India’s upper house of parliament, which has blocked key Modi proposals such as a national sales tax aimed at turning India into a single market rather than one that taxes goods across state lines.
What’s more, state leaders stand to become power brokers in the next national election in 2019 if Modi fails to regain a majority in the lower house, which was a once-in-30-year accomplishment. For investors, that risks a return to the days of weak coalition governments that rise and fall on the whims of independent-minded politicians like Banerjee who are more beholden to local interests.
“For 20 years now, various regional parties have held national-level cabinet berths and have been critical in either bringing down governments or keeping them afloat,” said Adam Ziegfeld, assistant professor at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who’s studied Indian regional politics.
Banerjee has shown herself to be a swing vote on key Modi policy proposals. While she supports the stalled national goods-and-services tax, she was part of a vocal opposition that forced him to backtrack on a bill to make it easier for companies to acquire farmland.
Her party—which is supported by one of India’s largest Muslim populations—has blamed Modi’s Hindu nationalist party for policies that worsen social strife. Lawmakers have on several occasions stalled the functioning of parliament to protest similar issues.
“It’s one thing to do things at the federal level where you have control, but policies that rely on regional or state governments is sometimes where you see policy objectives slow,” said Warren Mar, New York-based head of emerging markets corporate debt at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. “Because then it’s about whether your party has a majority in that state, and then it’s about negotiation.”
Banerjee’s foray into politics began as a student leader of the Congress party, in opposition to the Left Front, an alliance of Communist parties that ruled West Bengal for 34 years. Her memoir talks of street protests, slogan shouting, violence. She suffered an almost fatal attack by a Communist party worker in 1990, which fractured her skull.
She split from the Congress in 1997 and the next year founded the All India Trinamool—or grassroots—Congress. Its slogan, “Maa, Mati, Manush,” means mother, homeland, people. Under this banner, Banerjee championed the rights of farmers and the state’s Muslim minority.
Two events catapulted her to national visibility. In 2006, West Bengal’s Communist government allocated farmland to the Tata Group, which was looking to build a factory to manufacture the world’s cheapest car.
To protest what she called a forceful acquisition, Banerjee went on a 26-day hunger strike and eventually compelled Tata to leave the state. The following year, she sought justice for at least 14 peasants who were shot dead by police at a gathering to protest the creation on their land of a Special Economic Zone.
These actions won Banerjee the admiration of the masses and some top intellectuals. In 2011, she unseated the world’s longest-ruling, democratically elected Communist government, winning 184 of 294 seats.
“She portrayed herself as one of the masses,” said Chittatosh Mookerjee, a former chief justice of the Bombay High Court who helped mediate between Banerjee and the state government during the anti-Tata protests. “There was a fire within her, which all Bengalis appreciated. She was willing to challenge.”
This time around,various exit polls published Monday predict her garnering from 163 seats to about 210. The focus of the campaign had centered around blame over the March 31 collapse of an under-construction flyover in Kolkata, which killed 24 people and crushed cars, buses, trucks and balconies of apartments near the overpass.
“During the previous election, we kept hearing about ‘mother, homeland, people,” Modi told supporters at a rally in West Bengal. “What have we been hearing since then? Death, death, death.”
The Left Front—which is allied with the Congress party to fight Banerjee in West Bengal—has been heightening criticism and leveling allegations of corruption that involve syndicates supplying poor-quality construction material and the awarding of government contracts to companies run by Banerjee’s brothers. Strong-arm tactics are on the rise, too, after Banerjee’s nephew last year made a public threat to “gouge out the eyes and chop off hands” of anyone who hurts Bengal’s interests.
The goal of the election is “to free the state of the intolerant and impatient Trinamool government,” Biman Basu, chairman of the Left Front, said in an interview at the Communist Party of India (Marxist) office.
Banerjee’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview.
The chief minister herself has blamed the massive budget deficit she inherited, a “debt trap,” for her inability to increase spending on public works and stimulate gross domestic product growth—which slowed to 13 percent last year from more than 15 percent annually when she first came to power. Per capita incomes remain below India’s median.
The communist government had commissioned large debt-funded programs, and Banerjee is extremely concerned about looming repayments, said Pradeep Gooptu, secretary of the Kolkata-based liberal think tank Bengal Initiative. More than 10 percent of West Bengal’s outstanding bonds—along with their massive repayments—will be maturing in one to three years, according to central bank data, the second-highest share among the 18 Indian states that don’t enjoy debt-relief from the federal government.
Still, Banerjee has expanded West Bengal’s rural road network at one of the fastest paces in the country. Multiple overtures to Modi seeking debt relief have been rejected, but a massive win by her party could see it turned into a bargaining chip in exchange for her legislative support.
“She was correct to blame the Left for the debt burden, but you cannot just blame the past all the time,” said D.N. Ghosh, a former Indian official who has served as chairman of State Bank of India and Larsen & Toubro Ltd., among other roles.
If Mamata triumphs as predicted, it would solidify her status as one of the most important chief ministers in India, said Milan Vaishnav, senior associate, South Asia Program, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.
“A repeat victory also puts her in the conversation about possible prime ministerial candidates in 2019,” Vaishnav said, noting that she still has a way to go to fully consolidate power at home. “Winning re-election in 2016 will be an important element in her cementing her own legacy.”
--With assistance from Sandy Hendry.