NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Mamata Banerjee has waged a three-decade long battle that has catapulted her to the upper echelons of India’s turbulent politics, and on Friday, she cemented her status as a powerbroker by trumping one of the world’s last democratically elected communist governments.
With the thumping election victory in West Bengal state, the stronghold of India’s communists since they took power there in 1977, Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has become the most important of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition allies, and also one of the most unpredictable.
By decimating the communists, Banerjee has removed one of the loudest dissenting voices to the Congress party-led government’s economic reform efforts.
But her track record of opposing unpopular, fiscally necessary measures such as raising fuel prices or cutting down subsidies also does not bode well for Congress.
“She is unique as a woman without support. But on the other hand she is reckless, populist, anarchic. She is not a leader to run a government, although she can organize anti-government campaign,” Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, a fellow in political science at Kolkata’s Centre for Studies in Social Sciences.
The diminutive, mercurial 56-year-old whose supporters call “Big Sister” styles herself as a woman of the people. She is unmarried, lives with her elderly mother and wears simple cotton saris and rubber flipflops.
But that matronly appearance fronts a core of steel which has pushed Banerjee into the ranks of India’s powerful women politicians who have resonated with an ancient tradition of revering virginal mother figures.
She is a worshipper of Kali, the foremost of those awe-inspiring figures, who is often depicted as dancing in a frenzy after a bloody victory over demons.
Banerjee once dragged a political opponent by the collar during a scuffle over women’s rights in parliament, forced the relocation of a plant to build the world’s cheapest car and had her skull cracked by communist thugs during the 1990s.
Her stature as the communists’ most formidable opponent was confirmed in 2007, when she took over the leadership of peasants enraged by the government’s acquisition of their land for a badly managed drive to industrialise the state.
One of the projects was Tata Motors’ plan to build a factory to roll out the Nano, billed as the world’s cheapest car. The communists said it would provide much needed jobs. The peasants did not agree, and staged several protests.
The communists’ violent repression of these demonstrations alienated their core supporters, who moved over to Banerjee and her slogan of “mother, land and the people.”
That campaign statement heightened fears her rule could be one of anarchy and policy drift, and her populism raised doubts about her ability to develop the moribund state economy.
At one point, her party has aligned with both the main Hindu opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress and has a record of opposing measures such as raising fuel prices or allowing foreign investment in insurance.
She has, however, been courted by India’s big business: aides include Hotmail co-founder Sabeer Bhatia; Amit Mitra, a veteran of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and Kanwar Deep Singh, the chief of the multi-billion dollar Alchemist Group.
When she exhibited her paintings to raise money for her campaign, the rich and famous lined up to pay tens of thousands of dollars for her works.
Even U.S. diplomats in India recommended Washington cultivate her, according a 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks.
“Consensus exists that she is conscientiously trying to transform her image from political maverick and firebrand to a woman ready, able and willing to lead India’s fourth most populous state,” they wrote in an assessment.
“Skepticism remains whether Banerjee’s makeover truly represents a new product - cooler, more level-headed, and willing to accept outside advice - or simply the season’s new political makeup.”
Born into a impoverished family to a father who was a teacher, Banerjee cut her teeth in politics in 1970s Kolkata, where shotgun-wielding communists and bomb-lobbing Maoists were fighting the ruling Congress government.
She rose swiftly through the ranks of the Congress’ youth brigade. In the 1984 general elections, she defeated a veteran communist leader in his local borough and in 1991 became a federal junior minister.
By the mid-1990s, she was popular enough to be a threat to the communists, whose thugs punched her to the ground before shattering her skull. She was hospitalised for three months.
Her anger at the communists prompted her to walk out of Congress in the 1990s when she suspected they were cosying up to communists to counter the rise of the Hindu majority BJP. She also set up her own party, delivering a blow to Congress in West Bengal it has yet to recover from.
Banerjee’s win is being hailed as a victory for the Congress coalition, but the populist maverick who holds the balance of power in the national parliament will prove a thorn in the side of government economic reforms plans.
Analysts say Banerjee’s victory will give her a louder voice when the government mulls measures that are key to keeping the fiscal deficit at the targeted 4.6 percent of GDP in 2011/12, when slowing economic growth may see a sluggish tax intake.
Reporting by C.J. Kuncheria; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Miral Fahmy