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Friday, May 14, 2021

Battle-scarred and prescient, Mamata Banerjee played to win

Mamata Banerjee recognised that in the land of the Mother Goddess, BJP’s fabled 56-inch male energy is irrational.

Written by Mrinal Pande |
Updated: May 4, 2021 9:10:08 am
Mamata Banerjee

Narratives are the natural form of women’s knowledge of wars and losses. But in these times, one must narrate the astounding win of the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal’s assembly elections, with an apt image. To my mind, and doubtless to millions of Bengalis, the image that arose effortlessly was that of Mahishasur Mardini, the warrior goddess who managed to vanquish the demon whom the male gods had tried but failed to defeat. Durga as Mahishasur Mardini is a metaphor — a symbol and a sign.

In the elections, the dream of a Hindu-dominant Aryavarta that the BJP spelt out to the electorate in Bengal was dominated by the newly militarised images of Ram and Hanuman. The message was carried from Delhi, Bihar, UP, Madhya Pradesh and, of course Gujarat, by hundreds and thousands of RSS pracharaks who fanned out with the militant cry of “Jai Shri Ram”.

That was where Banerjee, a prescient and battle-scarred female warrior, recognised that the BJP’s fabled 56-inch male energy was completely irrational in the land of the mother goddess. As soon as she located an opening, she went on a counter attack by invoking Durga with Chandipath in her rallies. Like a wise general, she made sure from day one that the battle is fought in her backyard, and even at great risk, she must leave a safe seat and pit herself against the man she deemed a turncoat.

She knew that a powerful male warrior’s reflex action to a challenge to his masculine and militant image would be to begin erecting an isolationist wall upon enemy territory. She could then use that threat to keep her flock together. She was right. Wall building soon began with divisive Hindu-Muslim, Bengali-non Bengali rhetoric used as brick and mortar. Banerjee used historic images of divisive invaders ruining Bengal. She realised, as Delhi did not, that not just women but men too would prefer to stay close to their own regional leader who spoke to them directly. Once the Hindi-speaking leaders took to lambasting her, using poorly spoken Bengali, and recited Tagore poems in foreign accents, her folks began to smirk and then laugh. The Kolkata walls were plastered with memes and songs mocking the “outsiders”.

Meanwhile, a pandemic raged, but the Delhi leadership came visiting and held huge rallies against all medical advice. Banerjee followed with her own mega rallies. Buzzards began circling above.

The TMC was repeatedly ambushed and several members left to join the BJP in widely publicised rallies. Confrontations between TMC workers and the Centre took place, and not in the electoral realm alone. Senior officials close to Didi were suddenly transferred and repeatedly faced the wrath of the state. Stories about Didi’s nepotism and her nephew’s involvement in questionable deals began to fly like moths. There were raids and posters and full-page ads in the media declaring her a weak, mercurial, despotic female leader who had had her time and must now hang up her gloves and retreat. Then came the incident — or the accident — that broke Didi’s leg and confined her to a wheelchair. This added the biggest magical weapon to her arsenal.

In the Markandeya Purana, the goddess, when she agreed to take on the buffalo demon on behalf of the male gods, did not enter the battlefield as a peacenik. She asked fellow gods for their weaponry. Soon she was armed to the teeth with Khetak, Tomar, Parshu, Pash, Trishul and Chakra. Mahishasur stepped into the trap she set. He appeared and disappeared around her, displaying his powerful muscles, asking, will you, a mere woman play with me?

Khela hobe?

At this point the Purana notes, from the shaking body of the warrior goddess, a whole army of female warriors emerged. The goddess loved battles. She savoured the prospect of a good fight. She had astutely sized up her opponent. Her female retinue stood by her side, ready to join the khela, handing her a nourishing drink now and then as she rode her tiger. After some time, says the Markandeya Purana, the goddess laughed and wiping her dry mouth with her palm, called out in endearing tones. The demon misunderstood her softer tone as an invitation. But as he loped near, the goddess threw a sudden choking lasso-Pash around Mahishasur’s neck. Celebrations began among her female followers, soon joined by the male gods who now came out of the wings.

As the BJP sought to appropriate a number of Bengal’s cultural icons, from Bose to Tagore, even paid homage to the gurus of an erstwhile Bangladeshi community of the Matuas, Banerjee showed no signs of fear. She was deserted by some of her crusty old male mates, berated day and night by the “godi” media and serious questions were raised about her personal probity.

But Didi rode on firmly in her wheelchair, her injured foot thrust out prominently, both a reproof and reminder of the torment she has faced. To her admirers, it was the final sign of her unvanquished spirit. The results are before the nation and they reveal Banerjee as an archetypal female warrior: Grounded, pragmatic and unsparing in her wrath at being belittled as a “mere woman”.

The khela has ended. Sadly, the pandemic rages on, mostly because valuable time and money was lost in erecting walls and playing divisive mind games when it was time to prepare for healing and making united efforts to douse the fires.

Banerjee has stopped the seemingly unstoppable BJP from gaining control of Bengal. This and the ravages the pandemic shall no doubt leave behind, shall have long lasting ripple effects on India’s politics. The secret handwringing of the sceptics is as useless as the bombastic speeches by those who have crawled out of holes and are crowing about “Janata ki Shakti”.

It brings to mind the wise words of a Persian soldier recorded by Herodotus: “My friend, an event decreed by god cannot be averted by man, for no one is willing to believe even those who tell the truth. A great many Persians are aware of what I have just said, but we follow our leaders because we have no choice. There is no more terrible pain a man can endure than to see clearly but be able to do or say nothing…”

This article first appeared in the print edition on May 4, 2021 under the title ‘She played to win’. The writer is former chairperson, Prasar Bharati

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