In Bengal or Bangla, as it may come to be known soon, the mother goddess is the most deeply revered deity. The festival around Durga may be the biggest but the most beloved to the Bengali Shakta (the worshippers of Shakti, which most Hindu Bengalis are) is a Bhadrakali or a Rakkhakali. Any woman known to have a bristling temper and no qualms about venting it, often with frightening assertiveness, is called a ‘Bhadrakali’. Never without a wink or snigger, but not without affection either. The Didi of Bengal—the diminutive Mamata Banerjee in her white dhonekhali cotton sari and rubber slippers (though the footwear has become a bit fancier of late)—fits the bill perfectly.
Many times during her political career, one often been marked by high-decibel street fights, she has been referred to as a Bhadrakali by her friends and opponents alike. Obviously behind her back. Her contemporaries in the Congress, like Jayanthi Natarajan (now retired hurt), used to fondly recount how Rajiv Gandhi would quickly put on cotton buds in his ears at the sight of Mamata striding towards him like a whirlwind, with some demand or the other, always on a Bengal issue!
People would be wary of her temper, the adamant positions she took, verging on unreasonableness, but could rarely be without a perplexed laugh in her company. The fact that she carries little ideological baggage is one of the reasons she can make friends and alliances across divides, with just about anybody, in her indefatigable drive to achieve what she wants, any which way.
That’s why Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut can wade through a roomful of hawk-eyed media personnel to meet Mamata when she comes to Delhi for a spot of political schmoozing and whisper that his leader Uddhav Thackeray would likely join her rally in Kolkata on January 19. That’s why Chandrababu Naidu sends his emissaries, three senior MPs, to touch base with her just minutes before Jagan Mohan Reddy’s man comes calling. Why both the AIADMK and DMK land up in succession to greet her. Or why, for a Jaya Bachchan, Didi is a personal contact as much as a political one for her Samajwadi Party.
Didi can be quite the charmer when she wants to be—going over to Sonia Gandhi, secure with the feedback that her son, Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, is not averse to supporting her as a consensus PM if need be. She’s canny enough to know she can do what a Rahul Gandhi may never be able to—reach out to just about any political party simply to embarrass the BJP or see it isolated. Or ratchet up emotions over the National Register of Citizens, without pausing for breath or reflecting whether she has an audience in Assam.
Even people with bonafide citizenship papers have been left out of the final NRC draft list—Bengali Hindus, Biharis, Muslims, all settled in Assam over generations, even ‘ethnic’ Assamese. Indeed, it’s a humanitarian issue. But for the Assamese, who say they have to perforce learn to speak in Sylheti Bengali to buy their fish in the wet market, thinking about ‘outsiders’ is not exactly an indulgence in fuzzy, abstract political ideas like statelessness. Mamata, from outside, can do that.
Just like the Congress cannot invite the Sena chief to its rally, even if it is to create a unified bulwark against Modi-Shah, it cannot ignore the ground realities of Assam, where it has much more at stake than in Bengal. That’s not even factoring in the legacy issue—after all, it was Rajiv Gandhi who signed the Assam Accord, paving the way for the Supreme Court-monitored NRC exercise.
Forget the ruckus it created in the Upper House along with other parties in the last two days. Back in Assam, its two-term former chief minister Tarun Gogoi has begged to differ with the anti-NRC narrative. Indeed, he has gone on to claim copyright over the exercise, which was started during his tenure. His only real complaint against successor Sarbananda Sonowal is the tardy, messy implementation!
Witness also Conrad Sangma’s revolt against ally BJP on the National Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which seeks to grant quick citizenship rights to persecuted Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or Parsi people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It shows that for the entire Northeast, the sentiment can be defined as an anti-Bangladesh immigrant one—no matter Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist.
Mamata drumming up Bengali sentiments, playing on the anxiety over statelessness, may give her a fillip among grassroots voters in her own state. It would also help her try position herself as India’s pre-eminent centrist, edging Rahul out of frame, prior to a grand opposition rally. But it may not give her a foothold in Assam politics.
But the Congress leaders, dismayed about being made sacrificial lambs at the altar of the aspirations of satraps, know the final battle will be in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, not Assam. Dalit votes are the swing factor. Maybe the BJP knows it too. It lost no time conceding to the demands of Ram Vilas Paswan et al. to resurrect the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, and thereby defang a Dalit storm.
Of course, the BJP was also happy to play counter to Mamata, citing security and indigenous citizens’ rights. The more Mamata ramps up her style, the more she may be helping Modi-Shah play on the majority’s insecurities. “This could be as big as the Mandir,” a BJP supporter claimed, secretly happy about all the brouhaha in the media. Its new fortress in Assam seems secure for now. Elsewhere? Well, not if Bhadrakali can help it.
Political Editor, The New Indian Express