A documentary on Satyajit Ray, shown on his death anniversary on April 23, included a sequence from Nayak where Uttam Kumar says he wants to reach “the top”. He was a superstar by then, enjoying a level of success most actors can only dream of. Bollywood has its superstars, but is Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan or Amir Khan as popular today as Amitabh Bachchan in his heyday when the whole nation prayed for his recovery after he had an accident?
In pop music today, no one can match the success of the Beatles. Justin Bieber has more than 20 million followers on Twitter, but he hardly gets the same coverage as the Beatles, whose every word and song was parsed by the media. “We’re more popular than Jesus now,” said John Lennon in 1966, provoking angry reactions. What made the Beatles phenomenally popular was not just their wonderful music and avant-garde style, but the nature of culture and society. People read the same newspapers and magazines and watched the same shows. Now, we have hundreds of TV channels to choose from and the internet caters for every niche market. The media has fragmented, making Beatles-like superstardom impossible.
There has been fragmentation in other spheres, too, not least in Indian politics. Mamata Banerjee was named among the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine this month. Characteristically, however, she skipped the felicitations in New York, going to Jungle Mahal instead. A Bengali to her core, she dedicated the honour to the people of Bengal. Even when she was a union minister in New Delhi, she never took her eyes off Bengal.
She is a regional leader. Her All-India Trinamool Congress has made inroads in the northeast but failed to win a single seat in the UP assembly elections. The party has only 19 members – all elected from West Bengal – in the 542-member Lok Sabha.
But her influence on national policy is undeniable. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot ignore her on any issue, from water sharing with Bangladesh to foreign direct investment in the retail sector. The support of the 19 Trinamool MPs in the Lok Sabha is critical to the survival of his coalition government. Time says she is “poised to play an even greater role in the world’s largest democracy”.
That’s not what The New York Times thought. “Is Didi heading for a fall?” it asked on its India Ink blog after a Jadavpur University professor was arrested for circulating a cartoon against her. The Economist also saw a growing disillusion. “Buyer’s remorse is common enough in the dusty markets of Kolkata, a delightful if crumbling great city, once known as Calcutta,” it said. “Many” who voted for her, “sickened by 34 years of wretched communist rule”, now regretted their choice, it claimed.
Regret for what? How has she shortchanged the people? “The lady’s not for turning,” Margaret Thatcher famously said, and so could Didi. She wears the same plain saris, lives in the same house in the same narrow lane, loves the same Rabindrasangeet, invokes the same Ma, Mati, Manush, hurls the same defiance and challenge; how has she changed? People have known where she stood on land acquisition since Nandigram and Singur.
Even Buddhadeb Bhattacharya had to endure criticism from his party men that his land acquisition policy was to blame for their loss of power – and the logic seemed irrefutable. West Bengal is overwhelmingly rural, if you look at the 2011 census. Only about 32 per cent of the state’s 91.3 million population is urban. This is not Gujarat, one of India’s most heavily industrialised states, where more than 42 per cent of the population is urban. Villagers have their own priorities and are not likely to welcome industry if it means being uprooted from their land.
Yes, industry brings prosperity and development. Ahmedabad’s economic strength is second only to Bangalore’s among all the Indian cities and 19th in the world , according to The Economist’s Global Cities Competitiveness Index. By “economic strength”, it means the “size of the middle class”, defining the middle class as “households with average annual consumption above $14,000 (based on purchasing power parity)”. Kolkata is ranked 55th in economic strength, well behind Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Delhi, and 106th overall among the 120 cities surveyed by The Economist. No other Indian city ranks so low.
But development can’t be rammed home in a democracy. The people have the final say.
More than most other leaders, Mamata Banerjee can identify with the poor. She reported the lowest assets among all the Lok Sabha MPs elected in 2009, with just Rs 4.73 lakh to her name. You can check the data on the Association for Democratic Reforms website.
In the epilogue to her memoirs, My Unforgettable Memories, she writes, “I am a fighter, I have never walked away from a fight.” She gives a vivid account of her fight against the communists who came to power in West Bengal in 1977, a few years after she joined the Congress. Her hard line against the communists led to her expulsion from the Congress, whose leadership in Delhi, she writes, preferred a cosy relationship with the leftists.
The communists hated her guts. She recalls how communist goons beat her up near Hazra Road with iron rods in 1990, after which she needed extensive plastic surgery, and attacked her near Garden Reach in 1996, causing partial loss of vision in her right eye.
Leftists protested when it was reported that her government was planning to revise the school history syllabus and downplay Marx and Lenin.
But if everything comes down to class struggle, how do you explain this? Why did Jyoti Basu, with his affluent background, become a Marxist while Mamata Banerjee, who grew up in modest circumstances in Kalighat, become an ardent anti-communist?
Her memoirs recall her swimming in the river, accompanying her elder brother to the Kalighat Bridge from which he used to jump into the waters, and various other episodes in her life in a very modest, religious Bengali household.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was warmly praised by The Economist in 2007 in a profile headlined, “The capitalist communist”. It ended with him quoting the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: “Proletarians arrive at communism from below, but I from poetry’s sky plunge into communism, because without it, I feel no love.”
“I rose from the grassroots,” said Mamata Banerjee when she was named among the world’s most influential people by Time magazine. She has come a long way indeed, and if she can lead Bengal even some distance along the road to development and progress, it will be no mean achievement. If it mirrors her own rise, though, the progress will be anything but uneventful.