Didi: Her turf, on her terms

Mamata emerged from her one-room house with shouts of Mamata Banerjee zindabad .

Update: 2018-12-01 20:10 GMT
'This operation is being carried out by BJP during the night when campaigning is over. It is surprising that no enforcing agency is taking any action. We need to keep a watch on this,' Banerjee said. (Photo: File)

Following is an excerpt from the chapter ‘The TMC and the Years in Between’ from the book Didi: The Untold Mamata Banerjee.

With elections around the corner, the discontentment among Congressmen with Sitaram Kesri began to grow. Several prominent leaders quit or threatened to quit the Congress; the party was in shambles. Kesri’s power-hungry and yet incompetent handling of party matters upset many...

With the anger against Kesri gaining impetus, the call for Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, Sonia Gandhi, to take over the reins of the party also gained credence… many leaders, including Mamata Banerjee, were convinced that Sonia could play saviour… During this time, even as she herself tussled for power in West Bengal, Mamata became one of Kesri’s loudest critics and a passionate supporter of Sonia...

She entreated Sonia to take over as party president and save the Congress from disintegrating... Mamata also tried to enlist Sonia’s help to resolve the feud brewing within the Bengal Congress and take on Kesri and WBPCC president Somen Mitra.

With a view to placate Mamata, Sonia called her to Delhi. Mamata met her on 12 December 1997 accompanied by Ajit Kumar Panja and MLA Sudip Bandyopadhyay. “I know you have not been treated well. I know you have been denied tickets but with elections round (sic) the corner, we will all have to work together for the party,” Sonia told Mamata.

“Who will you contest the elections with? The Congress president is not acceptable to the party members as well as to the people at large. Why don’t you step in and take responsibility?” Mamata inquired. “I cannot. I am a foreigner. Not everyone will accept me,” Sonia replied…  

Sonia did not want Mamata to leave the Congress, and in order to get her grievances rightfully addressed, she asked Oscar Fernandes, the AICC general secretary in-charge of West Bengal, to prepare a note in consultation with Mamata and Ajit Panja... With Sonia taking an active interest in Bengal matters, Mamata was hopeful that a solution would emerge. But no real help ultimately came forth. After the preparation of the note, Oscar did not get in touch with Mamata. As the Election Commission’s deadline of 17 December to register a new political party drew closer, suddenly, from feeling buoyant, Mamata started suspecting foul play. All along she and her cohorts had alleged that Somen Mitra had been a pawn in the hands of more powerful leaders. In her memoirs, Mamata makes an oblique reference to Pranab Mukherjee, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi and Somen Mitra, alleging that they had kept Oscar busy and dissuaded him from working out a solution in her favour. “The troika worked hard from morning to night to convince Delhi that they will quit if we were given equal opportunities,” Mamata said. “Secondly, they said no one was supporting us, not even the people, and if the party leadership listened to us, we would end up losing our deposit in the elections.”

With every hour that passed and no word from Oscar, Mamata strengthened her resolve to register the TMC as a separate party. Her last hope had been Sonia and when she saw that there was no help forthcoming from her either, she decided it was time to go it alone.

…News that she had sought time from the election commissioner with the obvious intention of forming her own party was speedily disseminated. Ajit Panja was tasked by the Congress to convince Mamata to cancel her meeting with the election commissioner and wait for another 24 hours… Mamata relented… In her memoirs, Mamata writes that she cried for an hour at the thought of letting down her Trinamool supporters.

The tactic to delay and ultimately quash Mamata’s plans of forming a new party would have succeeded had it not been for Mamata’s own shrewdness... Unknown to all, she had a trick up her sleeve. She would not go to the Election Commission but documents for party formation would be submitted surreptitiously. This would be her insurance in case the Congress did not acquiesce to her demands...

With two hours to the deadline, it was decided that Mukul Roy, then a young Congress worker, would accompany Mamata’s political secretary, Ratan Mukherjee. The duo first went to Gole Market to get the party seal made and then straight to the Supreme Court for the affidavit, followed by a visit to the election commissioner’s office. It was all done in complete secrecy...

Sonia called Mamata, as promised, in the evening and instructed Oscar to initiate the negotiations the next day. Ajit Panja and Sudip Bandyopadhyay accompanied Mamata to Oscar’s residence. Mamata found the tone and tenor of the negotiations non-conducive, and while Oscar apprised Sonia of the developments over the telephone, sniffing a chance, Mamata left...

On Ajit’s reminder the next day, Oscar, Ajit and Mamata gave the finishing touches to the draft at 10.30 pm. As per the draft, Mamata would be made chairperson of the Pradesh electioneering committee… In her new role, she would plan the poll strategy for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. The most important power that was bestowed upon her was the right to select 50 per cent of the candidates for the state’s 42 parliamentary seats…

Mamata had convinced Sonia that she and her supporters would contest under the plank of the Trinamool Congress, which would remain a platform within the Congress. But no announcement to this effect was made. On 21 December, Kesri announced in Hyderabad that Mamata would be the convenor of the election campaign committee, but would look after only the campaigning aspect of the elections in the state and play no role in the selection of candidates. Ajit Panja and former West Bengal chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray sent off a fax condemning this announcement. This was not what had been decided in the draft.

On 22 December, Mamata got word from the journalists attending the AICC session in Bangalore that the party was mulling her expulsion… Mamata called a press conference (and) declared that she and her supporters would fight the upcoming elections as Trinamool Congress candidates. While the press conference was still under way, Mamata received news that she had been expelled from the Congress for six years... Heartbroken and emotionally hurt, Mamata rushed to meet her mother.

Gayatri Devi had so far been imploring Mamata to remain with the Congress. It was the party that her late husband had borne allegiance to. Her daughter too had followed in his footsteps and had spent over 27 years working for the party. But that day, on hearing the news of her expulsion, both mother and daughter broke down. “I will never ask you to work for the Congress again... go ahead and work for Trinamool and my blessings will always be with you...”

The evolution of Mamata Banerjee as a political leader of substance is an important episode in contemporary politics of West Bengal,” Pranab Mukherjee writes in his book The Coalition Years. Ironically, at the time the Congress expelled Mamata, bypassing the compromise formula that had Sonia Gandhi’s assent, Mamata’s camp directly blamed Pranab for her expulsion. “She has become a victim of Pranab Mukherjee’s machinations,” Gautam Basu, a member of the Trinamool Congress steering committee said. “Mukherjee has paid his debt to the CPI(M) for giving him a Rajya Sabha seat by ensuring her exit…”

“After Sitaram Kesri took over as the Congress president, I found that only one person controlled his entire thought process and movements. And this man was Pranab Mukherjee. That was not a problem, till I discovered that he was out to grab all power and concentrate it in his hands with the assistance of certain vested interests,” said Ajit Panja, former central minister and MP and Mamata’s first high-profile Congress defector to join the Trinamool Congress. “His motive is vicious, he doesn’t want anyone to rise in the Congress hierarchy…”

…With the odds stacked against her, Mamata worked round the clock. As one of the only star campaigners of the TMC, she was forced to campaign for all 28 seats... Lack of funds and other resources were crippling her but it was not a time to crib; it was a time to find solutions. Posters were being made in kitchens belonging to TMC supporters… Mamata was campaigning the good old way, focusing on the people-to-people connect.

Mamata’s party did not disappoint. With seven Lok Sabha seats, the TMC opened its political books well; its ally, the BJP, secured one seat. The Congress managed just one seat with veteran Congressman A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury winning from Malda...

Mamata emerged from her one-room house with shouts of “Mamata Banerjee zindabad”. Flanking her, in the makeshift shamiana constructed for the press conference, were six of her victorious MPs... “I am no longer alone,” Mamata beamed. “I have six MPs with me. Now, those people in Delhi will have to give us a separate room in Parliament.” A room may be a minor factor for a national party but for a new one it was the beginning of political acceptance.


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