Abhimaan must be a peculiarly Indian concept for it’s hard to find a word in English for it. In Bengali, abhimaan is not just about ego or pride. It is thin-skinned and easily offended. It comes with a pout and pique, suffused with the emotional blackmail of self-sacrifice and eternal victimhood.
It is, in short, Mamata Banerjee.
Mamata’s abrupt U-turn on Pranab Mukherjee has left political pundits scratching their heads. A columnist in the Bengali newspaper Bartaman calls it a “final hour masterstroke.” She nipped the growing bonhomie between Prakash Karat’s CPM and the Congress in the bud. “CPM leaders are practically in tears,” says another article in the same newspaper. “Mamata has piled ashes onto the CPM’s plate of rice.” But The Telegraph ranked Didi at the top of its list of Losers – “lost face but made the best of out of the worst situation. After the initial presidential poll phase when she emerged as the most active player, her calculations went awry at every step.” (The top winner, incidentally, was Manmohan Singh, not Pranab-da. The PM, writes The Telegraph, “with one stone got Mukherjee out of the way and tamed Mamata – at least for the time being.”)
Winner or loser? That’s just more grist for armchair political analysts to ruminate over in endless talk shows.
What Mamata clearly showed in that press conference about her “painful decision” was the politics of abhimaan. Even Shubha Dutta who praised her move as a “master stroke” in Bartaman called it a display of “bookbhara abhimaan” (heart brimming with abhimaan).
Mamata made a virtue of her empty hands, trying to turn her abhimaan into a moral force in a sea of dirty politics. “I have told the Prime Minister that we do not want anything in return. Only the Trinamool Congress can act in this selfless manner.” However The Statesman reported that it was not quite that selfless. Mamata finally got spooked when she learned that the PM might take away railway portfolio from the TMC.
She brought up old favours, even as she said “forget the old past.” She was the one who had brought Pranab back to the Congress after he had left it to float his own party. She looked after him while he stayed at Nizam Palace in Calcutta. That same Pranab-da, she complained, had not talked to her in the last eight months. “I am in touch with the Prime Minister and Soniaji but not with him. I don’t know why…”
He had not even come for a cup of tea with her at Writers’ after she became the chief minister, she said sadly.
Then in a Bengali serial-worthy performance she stuck the knife in. With love. “Perhaps he could not find the time. Maybe after becoming President he will."
Now that was a masterstroke. Not every politician can stab another with a teacup and a wan smile.
It’s been a criticism of Mamata that even in power, she functions as if she is in the opposition, that she is too addicted to her street fighting ways to actually govern. But what the Pranab-affair showed was that what she is really addicted to is her finely-honed and omnipresent sense of victimhood. Jayalalithaa splashes her silks and Mayawati builds her statues, but Mamata plays the politics of the renunciate even as she sits in the CM’s chair. A political observer once said she costumes herself as a widow but who is she widowed from?
But Mamata understands the power of that image in a state where so many homes still have a framed picture of the original lady in white - Ma Sarada, Ramakrishna’s spiritual counterpart and the epitome of self-sacrifice. Our movies and serials have gotten us used to the mother, usually widowed, who controls the household through the nobility of her victimhood and her sacrifice. That mother wants nothing for herself, only the good of her usually selfish and ungrateful children. Her ultimate weapon is the silent treatment. She is the embodiment of suffering, who nevertheless puts the family first.
Mamata made it clear that though it pained her, that though Pranab-da had snubbed her, she was putting the duties of democracy, the responsibilities of a coalition partner and the aspirations of Bengali pride, ahead of her personal feelings. Jilted by Mulayam, snubbed by Pranab, humiliated by Karat, she appeared before her people as the dutiful Didi.
But politics is not a Bengali soap opera where ultimately the warring sons unite around the mother and the fantasy of the happy joint family is restored. Mamata has reduced herself to “irrelevance in national politics, at least in the context of the two polls ” writes Ashis Chakrabarti because like many other vainglorious Bengali politicians, “adored and lionized on home turf” she did not understand the limits of brinkmanship and the realities of national politics where a Mulayam could bring so much more to the bargaining table, in terms of hard numbers, than she ever could.
As a woman in politics, she is even more vulnerable to double standards. Her volte face is dismissed as a sign of weakness and naivete while Mulayam’s overnight about-turn is regarded as proof of his political wiliness. On the plus side for her, her U-turns have guaranteed her front page coverage in the media across the nation. If she had been just a good ally from the beginning and thrown in her support for Pranab-da, she would never have made this much news.
It is tempting for Manmohan Singh to think that he’s finally shown his troublesome ally the limits of her tantrums. But Mamata is not one to eat humble pie for very long. Abhimaan has a long fuse and can smoulder for any length of time.Others might think she has become the laughing stock of the nation but her press conference made it clear that even though she brought much of this entire drama upon herself she is painting herself as the victim.
Mamata hopes that she will win by losing.