Mamata Banerjee among world’s most influential people

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is the only Indian leader on Time magazine’s 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, joining the likes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  (Here’s the full Time magazine list.) Ironically, the news came on a day when teachers in her state capital, Kolkata, staged a protest rally because a university professor was arrested by the police for emailing a cartoon about her. 

Honest, plain-living, courageous but intolerant of criticism, she has already alienated some people after coming to power last May after 34 years of communist rule in the state.  Five days ago, Kolkata’s leading newspaper published a fiery article demanding her resignation.  The newspaper didn’t even carry the news of her making the Time magazine list, as Derek O’Brien, a Trinamool Congress member of parliament, pointed out.

Mamata Banerjee’s influence doesn’t really extend beyond West Bengal.  Her party, Trinamool Congress, holds only 19 seats in the 542-member Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the Indian parliament. All  the 19 Trinamool Congress members of parliament in the Lok Sabha were elected from West Bengal. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition government needs their support to remain in power.

Her party is part of Manmohan Singh’s coalition government and has ministers in his cabinet. She does not always see eye to eye with him and has held up economic reforms such as direct foreign investment in multi-brand retail, preventing the likes of Walmart from setting up shop in India.

Unabashedly populist, she is against reforms that might affect villagers and small businesses because West Bengal is overwhelmingly rural. Only 29.1 million or 31.8 per cent of its 91.3 million population is urban. As long as she has rural support, Mamata can retain power.

Her priorities are different from Manmohan Singh’s.

But Manmohan has to humour her because he needs her support.  Maybe that’s why Time said she is “poised to play an even greater role in the world’s largest democracy”. Here’s what Time said:

Though much of Indian society remains hidebound in patriarchy and tradition, strong women still prevail in the nation’s political life. Mamata Banerjee rose to the fore last year when she and a movement she built from the grassroots wrested control of her home state of West Bengal, ending 3 ½ decades of sclerotic communist rule. Banerjee, 57, spent years struggling on the margins, her Trinamool Congress Party a feisty rabble compared with the leviathan of West Bengal’s communists. Referred to by her supporters as Didi, or “elder sister,” she was labeled by critics as a mercurial oddball and a shrieking street fighter. But ultimately she proved to be the consummate politician. Through successive elections, Banerjee steadily expanded her power base while chipping away at those of her opponents. Her lower-middle-class background was no obstacle in a country notorious for its dynasties. In New Delhi’s back rooms, where political horse trading is the name of the game, she excelled. On the streets, she out-Marxed the Marxists. And as chief minister of her home state, she has emerged as a populist woman of action — strident and divisive but poised to play an even greater role in the world’s largest democracy.