Mamata Banerjee’s TMC and Kejriwal’s AAP challenged the old order, reports Archis Mohan.
Shocked by Arvind Kejriwal’s temerity to call Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “psychopath”, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders recently took to questioning the Delhi chief minister’s mental balance. “Kejriwal probably suffers from neurological problems,” said a BJP leader after the Aam Aadmi Party chief spewed venom on Modi earlier this month.
The comment was reminiscent of the time in the mid-1990s when Jyoti Basu, then West Bengal chief minister, berated Mamata Banerjee, an irrepressible young Congress leader, as “paagol mahila” (mad woman), in his public rallies.
Banerjee then, as Kejriwal now, was a street fighter. That she would resist being co-opted -- a trait that Kejriwal continues to display -- was inconvenient, not just to the Left government but also to her Congress colleagues who had their own cosy equations, or so Banerjee alleged, with the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist.
Banerjee used to describe her Congress colleagues as tormuj (watermelon), which is green from the outside but red (the colour of the CPI-M flag) from inside. They eventually expelled her from the party in mid-1997, after which Banerjee launched her own party, the Trinamool Congress, on January 1, 1998.
It would take Banerjee the next 13 years to unseat the Left in Bengal. But her emergence by the turn of the century as the sole rallying force for all wishing for a change in Bengal meant the Left could never rule in peace despite its unprecedented electoral triumphs in 2001 and 2006 assembly polls.
By comparison, Kejriwal’s rise, helped hugely by social media, has been swifter. Since engineering an anti-corruption movement in April 2011 to winning a massive mandate in the February 2015 Delhi assembly election, Kejriwal has altered the political discourse like few others in recent years.
Both Banerjee and Kejriwal have taken on influential political and corporate interests. The latter broke the conspiracy of silence against big corporate houses and did not balk at talking about the alleged corruption of the most powerful political leaders. Banerjee also took on a government and a party with seemingly deep roots, as well as one of the biggest corporate houses of the country.
Both did it without any political pedigree. Both are rebels who have emerged despite the political system, dominated as it is by the stranglehold of a few families and a political process where mainstream political parties prefer a leader who can raise significant amounts of money to fight expensive elections, rather than somebody who upsets influential interests by street action.
The lack of inner democracy in Indian political parties and resistance to give space to anybody other than sycophants with no mass bases of their own has also meant that Banerjee and Kejriwal, and their supporters, have been forced to launch new political parties. Fighting established parties, in both their cases, has come at significant personal costs.
How Kejriwal has been hounded both by the Congress and BJP, manhandled by the police when he sat on a protest against the then Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit, or slapped by men who claimed to be his former supporters but were clearly working at the behest of his opponents, are all too recent events to be recounted. But they pale in comparison with the innumerable life-threatening attacks Banerjee suffered at the hands of “CPI-M goons”.
The most grievous of those attacks was in broad daylight on August 16, 1990, at Kolkata’s Hazra crossing. “I still remember two thick rods hitting my skull, and then blood everywhere... Almost in slow motion, I saw the third rod descending towards me, and in a split-second reflex action, I covered my head with my arms. The rod hit my arm and shattered the ulna, but if it had hit the skull, I would have died on the spot,” Banerjee wrote of one such attack.
Banerjee and Kejriwal have also challenged conventional behaviour by politicians from humbler origins. Neither shows any significant desire to be accepted or feted by the elite.
Kejriwal, an Indian Institute of Technology alumnus and a retired bureaucrat, tries hard to be as common as possible, both in his political speeches and attire. His government in Delhi has, to the chagrin of the city’s middle classes, focused more on areas where the poor live than the tony colonies.
Banerjee remains the lower-middle-class Kolkata girl. She has stuck to her white taant saris and speaks, to the shock and horror of the Bengali bhadralok, the language of the street. Kejriwal insisted on being driven in his Maruti Alto until he became the Delhi CM, but Banerjee still prefers being driven around in her Hyundai Santro.
Unlike Kejriwal’s, Banerjee’s rise has been chequered and full of personal struggle. But for both rebels, their finest hour still awaits them in not-so-distant future. Kejriwal, just 47, has time on his hands, while Banerjee, 60, isn’t too old, either. The challenge, however, will be whether Banerjee and Kejriwal continue to be rebels and agents of change, instead of getting co-opted into the established order.