Why Kolkata's dissent will not be enough to topple Mamata Banerjee

Mamata Banerjee and Kolkata have always been in a troubled relationship. It took Banerjee, who started out as a Youth Congress activist in the '70s, decades to sink her teeth into the political subconscious of Kolkata. Given the turbulence her political career is characterised with, one would have expected Kolkata's voters to have swung in favour of Banerjee a long time back. After all, in the nineties, she stood out as a burning voice of dissent - one which took on the lethargic, complacent and violent Left government single-handedly. She ended up with a broken skull, spent days fasting, got wounds from police charges and yet, Kolkata was not ready to embrace Mamata's political ideology completely.

Understandably her party's influence never surged beyond the city and Trinamool had to be content with winning a couple of seats in both the Lok Sabha and the local assembly from Kolkata. Her fortunes, however, turned around a little while prior to the general elections of 2009. And this time, the epicentre of Mamata's political campaign was not the city - it was rural Bengal. Though her party was formed in 1997, it was around this time that they adopted an official tagline - Maa, Maati, Manush meaning  Mother, Land and Humans - one that spoke about and to rural Bengal.

Mamata Banerjee. Agencies.

Mamata Banerjee. Agencies.

In 2007, Mamata had led the anti-land acquisition drive against the CPM government and successfully drove the Tatas out of Singur and trounced the idea of a chemical hub in Nandigram. The Nandigram war turned bloody and 14 villagers died in police firing, reportedly, ordered by the CPM government. The tone for Mamata's campaign was set right then. Her biggest rallies were those organised in Singur or Nandigram in Midnapore district - and her biggest fans, now, were rural Bengal. Thus, she successfully routed CPM from  its strongest vote-base - rural Bengal. In an editorial written in 2011, Abheek Burman points out in The Economic Times, why it was impossible to defeat the CPM for 34 years despite severe brain drain, crumbling civic amenities and health systems, and allegations of corruptions.

This is the Bengal CPM's second poll-winning mantra: goodies for loyalists, the stick for everyone else. This also explains why the poor, largely agricultural areas of Burdwan, Bankura, Purulia and Medinipur were Red fortresses for so long: poor people need the help of government much more than well-heeled folks; so the CPM's carrot-and-stick policy worked here like magic. Till recently, many people used to get misty eyed while recalling the CPM's early land and tenancy reforms during Operation Barga.

The recently-concluded by-poll in Howrah, in the suburbs of Kolkata, which the Trinamool swept, indicates that for similar reasons, Mamata might not have to worry too much about the dissent steadily accumulating  against her in Kolkata. Her miserable mishandling of the Kolkata intelligentsia and educated middle class, therefore, might not yet cost her the government.

A break-down of the figures of the bypoll, which TMC won by more than 20,ooo votes shows that while the percentage of votes for the party has dipped marginally in the urban areas, the votes from the rural areas remain more or less the same. Former professor from Calcutta University, Subhendu Dasgupta, points out that the demands and expectations of rural Bengal and completely different from the city.

"We in the city take flash decisions. We're impatient, some of us even make up our minds based on opinions put down in newspaper editorials. Ideas like freedom of speech are big issues with the urban population, not the vast rural electorate. What do they care about? Not a professor thrown into the jail. They care about the man-days of work, the price of kerosene, the PDS cereals," he said.

And if rural Bengal took three decades to throw CPM out, obviously, they won't give up on Mamata this soon.

Trinamool's several goof-ups notwithstanding, Bengal, at the moment doesn't have too many choices. The memories of CPM's nightmarish rule is still fresh in the minds of people and the Congress doesn't stand much of a chance thanks to the UPA's failures at the Centre.

"The thing is, if we, even the city people have to vote for someone else, who will that be? We've not forgotten CPM's misrule yet," asks Dasgupta.

Mamata, on her part, never gave up the Maa, Maati, Manush philosophy. She dutifully opposed FDI in retail, opposed the hike in diesel and petrol prices and staged a raucous walk-out from the UPA government over the cap of subsidised LPG cylinders. She didn't miss one step that would harm her please-rural-Bengal actions till now. In fact, with all that noise over the LPG cap, she even probably managed to pacify a section of the urban middle class. While she has been trying, without much success to woo investors and industrialists, much to her ministers' shock, she has also repeatedly declared that no industry shall come up on agricultural land, thereby trying to make up for failing to give Singur farmers their land back.

While Mamata might have reasonably miffed Kolkata with her comments on rape or wrath unleashed on unsuspecting e-mail sharers, that is not going to be her undoing anytime soon.