Taking a challenger head on is second nature to Mamata Banerjee. Be it her fiery entry into electoral politics in 1984, when the late Pranab Mukherjee pitted her as the Congress candidate against CPI(M) heavyweight Somnath Chatterjee from Jadavpur Lok Sabha seat, or the epic assembly election battle with the BJP in West Bengal in 2021, Mamata has shown she has the staying power to emerge triumphant in the end. The BJP’s arrogant claim that Didi and her Trinamool Congress (TMC) would be thrown out of Bengal lock, stock, and barrel—“ukhaad ke phek denge”—proved hollow. Bengal reaffirmed faith in their “nijer meye (own daughter)”, putting Mamata in the saddle for a third straight term with a landslide mandate.
What sets Mamata apart is her remarkable tenacity and diligence in making the most of any fight. In Jadavpur in 1984, with meagre resources at her disposal (the Congress was not ready to invest in a ‘lost’ seat), Mamata could not mobilise party workers behind her in long processions or even hire a vehicle to go wheeling around her constituency. She did her own wall writings and posters and campaigned door to door, going to homes in the poor settlements and bonding with the women over tea and puffed rice in the kitchen. Here was a 29-year-old woman in a white cotton saree, sporting a steel bangle, an HMT wristwatch and a jhola, raring to trek the political terrain in a pair of hawai chappals (flip-flops). Somnath’s shock defeat in that contest first earned Mamata the giant slayer tag.
Image: Mamata, in a wheelchair, at an election rally in Nischinda, Howrah district, April 2021; (Photo: Debajyoti Chakraborty)
In the four decades since then, Didi, now 66, has evolved into a grittier politician ready to take on the formidable BJP and others as she eyes a national footprint for the TMC. To Mamata fans, the Bengal victory is the stuff of legend—she wasted no time ruing over the reverses suffered at the hands of the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and, with strategist Prashant Kishor and nephew Abhishek Banerjee, began revamping the TMC and tweaking welfare packages to reach every strata of Bengal’s 100 million electorate. Yet, it was a daunting challenge. The saffron camp were firing on all cylinders and—at the peak of the campaign—deputed 70 national leaders, including Union ministers and chief ministers, on its ‘Ebar Bangla (Now Bengal)’ mission. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself made 18 forays while Amit Shah crisscrossed the state 20 times.
Mamata faced it all squarely, even the staggered election over eight phases. It was a closely monitored poll. The Election Commission had deployed 700-1,000 companies of paramilitary for each phase, shunted over two dozen top state police officers, rummaged through her comfort zone of security personnel by transferring the director general of security after an alleged attack on her in Nandigram and even barred her from campaigning for a day.
None of this cowed down Didi—least of all the ankle fracture suffered in Nandigram, where she narrowly lost to protégé-turned-foe Suvendu Adhikari. Ignoring medical advice, she returned to campaign—in a wheelchair. Juggling a football (Bengal’s favourite sport) at a rally, Mamata declared “Khela hobe (Game is on)”, and inspired many a meme. “Mamata’s connect with the masses transcends elections. She has not assumed an aura of inaccessibility or leader-like superiority and distanced herself from the people,” says Jawhar Sircar, Rajya Sabha MP and former Prasar Bharati CEO. “Her welfare schemes have evolved from her close association with people at the grassroots and an understanding of their needs.”
If opponents had hoped that pressure tactics by way of sending central agencies after TMC leaders would work in the polls, Mamata hit back with a vengeance. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) came knocking on Abhishek’s door and questioned his wife Rujira over alleged money laundering. The BJP cried corruption, but Mamata turned the tables on them by describing the ED action as an attack on Bengal’s ‘daughters and daughters-in-law’. “Throughout the filthy poll campaign, the prime minister mocked Mamata Banerjee, the home minister ridiculed her, the BJP underrated her credentials. Yet, she led the party to one of the most significant victories in the history of electoral politics,” says Rajya Sabha MP Derek O’Brien. “That accomplished, her focus in the third term has swiftly shifted to industry, infrastructure and IT, all this while building the Trinamool—an organisation taking wing beyond her home state.”
Mamata had two worthy competitors in 2021—Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin and Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma. Stalin, who assumed office after waiting in the wings for years, has displayed greater maturity in governance than his immediate predecessors. He has focused on administrative efficacy rather than political expediency in administration. While aspiring to make Tamil Nadu a $1 trillion economy by 2030, he also realises the pragmatic need to fulfil populist poll promises such as free bus travel for women and cheaper milk, and has also set up a mechanism for redressing public grievances. Stalin cuts a sober image than the temperamental Mamata and is very vocal about the need for cooperative federalism and greater autonomy for the states.
Another rising star is Sarma. The architect of the BJP’s Northeast expansion led the party to its second consecutive assembly poll victory in Assam. That he replaced incumbent CM Sarbananda Sonowal underscores his importance in the BJP’s plans for the Northeast. Sarma was an efficient minister in the Sonowal regime, though several decisions of his own government have been controversial. Among them is the anti-cattle smuggling law that restricts the sale of beef within 5 km radius of temples and satras (Vaishnav monasteries). The drive to reclaim government land from encroachers, most of them allegedly illegal Bangladeshi settlers, has sparked sporadic violence with critics dubbing it as a ploy to target Muslims.
Mamata has had her share of criticism too. She is considered unpredictable and a difficult coalition partner. Her detractors are already raising the bogey of her being flighty, citing past break-ups with the Congress and the BJP. To many, the confrontations with the Congress over her remarks on Rahul Gandhi, disagreements over the joint opposition strategy against the BJP for the 2024 general election, and the rampant poaching of Congress leaders are signs of a politician who cannot be trusted fully. Her declaration that the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) is as good as “dead” indicates she is unlikely to agree to any Congress-led anti-BJP front.
Nevertheless, the emphatic win in Bengal has positioned Mamata as perhaps the most credible challenger yet to PM Modi. She has the backing of veteran leaders like Sharad Pawar, Farooq Abdullah, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Subramanian Swamy. Former Rajya Sabha member Pavan K. Varma, who joined the TMC as national vice-president, says: “Mamata Banerjee has fire in her belly to take on the BJP. She has the indomitable resolve to build a better and saner India, one where different faiths are respected and human rights and constitutional values have sanctity.”
The TMC’s expansion bid has begun with BJP-ruled Goa and Tripura, where Congress leaders are being poached and the Mamata ‘welfare model’ advertised. To Goans, Mamata asked if the BJP’s achhe din meant skyrocketing inflation while also talking about the Bengal government’s basic monthly allowances for matriarchs of poor families. In Tripura, she has promised stipends for higher education of girls and free health insurance, like in Bengal.
While it’s still early days, her moves have prompted incumbent governments to sit up and take notice. In August, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a Rs 1,300 crore package for Tripura’s indigenous communities. As parties brace for crucial assembly polls early next year, expect Mamata to pitch herself higher. Any slip in the Congress’s electoral fortunes will only posit her case as the challenger apparent to Modi in 2024.
Though Stalin and Sarma were outstanding in their electoral victories, it was the doughty Mamata who fought and won the battle of 2021 by stopping the mighty BJP in its tracks. For these reasons, she is the india today Politician of the Year.