So, is Didi’s victory finally a ray of hope, a typhoon of fresh air? In that other ‘great’ modern democracy, the United States, a posse of younger, articulate and often easy-on-the-eye women are also making Goliath totter: Is a woman-led transnational realpolitik in the air? The mills of politics grind exceedingly small but excruciatingly slow. But in Didi we just might have a builder and marathoner, even with all the Bimala Pal warts and machinations.
It is not possible for a thoughtful and informed reader to like Bimala Pal, the Orwellian female politician in Megha Majumdar’s stunning debut novel A Burning (2020). It is also not possible to like Bimala Pal — clearly based on Mamata Banerjee, aka ‘Didi,’ West Bengal’s incumbent Chief Minister and leader of the governing Trinamool Congress (TMC) — if you believe in ethics as a categorical imperative in politics.
It is necessary, though, after West Bengal’s 2021 elections — in which Didi’s Trinamool Congress won 48% of votes to attain victory, losing only in the Nandigram area by a small margin — to ask if, as Indians and Bengalis, one should approve of Didi, iconic and sometimes histrionic, aka Bimala Pal to some, who’s kept Narendra Modi’s misogynistic, ethnocidal Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of West Bengal this time.
In the serried and notched political history of West Bengal one thing stands constant: Bengal’s ironic and iconic standing role as ‘resister’ to national majoritarian politics. This time too, Bengal’s Didi accomplished such a victory, as symbolic as material. Drawing upon India’s primordial superwoman archives, she preserved the ‘role’ of ‘resister-in-chief’ for the state and for herself. As The Hindu reported, ‘Jai Shri Ram’ fled before ‘Bangla Nijer Meyekei Chai’ or ‘Bengal wants its own daughter only’. Not only did Didi remobilize the primordial female Shakti principle, she did it by calling upon a political assemblage of Bengali geo-piety, cultural sentiment, and a promised ‘makeover’ package of a new cosmopolitan and eclectic ‘Joy Bangla’ (‘I will turn Kolkata into London;’ recruiting trenchant yet pretty junior ‘resisters’ such as MP Mahua Moitra who’s a lovely face but also a stentorian yet polished orator). Post-election, Didi’s lieutenant Mahua Moitra soundly thrashed Modi and Amit Shah’s BJP’ misogyny and toxic masculinity in The New York Times: “On April 1, while at a public rally . . . Mr. Modi referred to Ms. Banerjee, the leader of my party and the chief minister of West Bengal . . . as “Didi Ooo Didi!” — to stupendous applause from crowds of men”.
Big mistake, Narendra.
So, is Didi’s victory finally a ray of hope, a typhoon of fresh air? In that other ‘great’ modern democracy, the United States, a posse of younger, articulate and often easy-on-the-eye women is also making Goliath totter: Kamala Harris, AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Elizabeth Warren, Keisha Lance Bottoms, and more. Is a woman-led transnational realpolitik in the air? We will have to wait and see. The mills of politics grind exceedingly small but excruciatingly slow. But in Didi we just might have a builder and marathoner, even with all the Bimala Pal warts and machinations. West Bengal is a state renowned as a ‘party-society’ (as Dwaipayan Bhattacharya wrote), a politicized Leviathan where the average person eats, drinks and breathes politics. Proof that Didi is maintaining that ardent and arduous tradition? Cash transfers and votes from women (and Muslims) helped Didi rout the BJP, writes Shoaib Daniyal in the Scroll.
The Banglar Meye (Bengal’s daughter) resisted BJP’s aggression in West Bengal in the 2021 Assembly Election. Illustration by AMIRUL MOMANIN CHOWDHURY
Professor, Fine Arts, Rajshahi University, Bangladesh. Studied Printmaking from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, holds PhD in Art History. Held exhibitions around the world. Memorable for him is the appreciation of his art by Lady Ranu Mukherjee. Can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s something from memory’s archives: when ten years ago mega-posters of Didi in her trademark white sari with dark border, towering and mid-stride, showed up in Kolkata, they seemed to compel an unpropitious reference to another once-towering Indian woman who claimed she was India, and India was hers — all India, all of it! — before she met with a bad end. I worried and wondered if Didi was dreaming of a similar political trajectory, crown and beheading.
But Didi has carefully crafted a refusal of the ‘Mother India’ Kool-Aid. Sonorous and beloved as the address ‘Didi’ (older sister) already is in Bengal, it also obviates the potential psychosis of future matricide. ‘Didi’ is not ‘Ma,’ though she is Mamata: compassionate yet judicious older sister with an entourage of ‘bons’ (younger sisters) like Mahua Moitra, Nusrat Jahan, and Mimi Chakraborty.
But lose in Nandigram in 2021? Wasn’t that where, in 2007, Didi’s rallying cry “Ma, Mati, Manush” (‘Mother, Earth, Human’) emerged like Athena from the temple of Jove? That year, didn’t Bengal’s then governing Communist Party abandon plans to set up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Nandigram with Indonesian noodle-making titans because Didi showed up for the about-to-be-displaced residents. Yet, in 2021, in the priceless words of Debjani Bhattacharya reporting in Newsbred, “Irony died a thousand deaths when West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee dialed Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar from Nandigram . . . claiming . . . complete breakdown of law and order in Nandigram . . . constituency . . . on the day of Phase 2 elections.” Complete breakdown, because Didi was losing in Nandigram. Dhankar, the BJP-affiliated and TMC-reviled governor of West Bengal, was supplicated against voter fraud, against his political adversary, by his political adversary.
But irony dies hard. It was then condemned to another death by a thousand cuts when Didi’s voter fraud charge was attested to by a certain ‘Salim Khan, TMC supporter’, who then couldn’t be found on the voter list. But politics is a cosmic tragi-comedy of immortal word games: ‘Salim’ is the family name of the Indonesian noodle kings invited to industrialize Bengal in the ill-fated SEZ of 2007! Ah, politics shall remain politics, ironic or not, as Megha Majumdar makes a point of never forgetting or forgiving in A Burning.
But who is ‘Salim Khan’? Yes, yes, what’s in a name and all that, but really . . . who? The Return of the Repressed? The power of suggestion? The bleeding headless specter of foreign investment? Narendra Modi’s imaginary bete noire: the Indian Muslim? The ever-fecund cultural imagination and humour of Bengal?
Doesn’t matter. In the last resort called politics, last names of arch-enemies can supply last-minute arsenals for last-ditch efforts to crush toxic, misogynistic and ethnocidal Goliaths with basilisk stares. You’ve got to see the wordplay in politics as empyrean Quidditch, Megha Majumdar, bruises, concussions, bumps and all.
Writer, public intellectual and professor. Her first novel Love’s Garden appeared in October 2020. She can be reached at email@example.com
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