Time magazine — yes, the very same one; the one that recently sang paeans (well, almost) to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi — has now listed Mamata Banerjee as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Now, let this be said in bold letters even before the debate starts and the knives are out on both sides, that this writer has no objection whatsoever with the list per se. Time, or any news agency or outlet or group or individual, has every right to make its own list, according to its own benchmark. So, Mamata Banerjee featuring in it is hardly an issue.
What this writer takes umbrage to is the way the magazine tries to justify Ms. Banerjee’s inclusion. It leaves the West Bengal Chief Minister, widely seen as serial killer of any speech, free or otherwise, that dares disapproves of her, just shy of Mother Teresa, so to speak.
According to the Oxford dictionary, the word “influential”, as an adjective, means, “having great influence on someone or something”. It does not, anywhere, bequeath any other adjective on the person: good, bad, evil, crooked, saintly, or any such requirement for anyone to be “influential”. “Banerjee, 57, spent years struggling on the margins,” the magazine writes. Very heroic, giving the picture-perfect rise-like-a-phoenix-from-the-ashes image. Typical Bollywood or Hollywood fare; and don’t we all love heroic rise by the underdog?
But is that true?
Mamata Banerjee was general-secretary of Mahila Congress’s West Bengal unit from 1970-80 (she would have been barely 15 or 16 in ’70, given 1955 as her year of birth), secretary of the party’s (then) Calcutta South district between ’78 and ’81, and became a Lok Sabha member in 1984, before turning 30. In 1987-88, she was a consultative committee member in two Union Ministries — Home Affairs and Human Resource Development — and became member of the party State unit’s executive committee (the highest panel in the State) in 1989.
Re-elected to the Lok Sabha in 1991, Banerjee became a Minister the same year. She became Union Cabinet Minister in October 1999, January 2004, and May 2009.
All this information is courtesy the West Bengal government’s official website
That is hardly “struggling on the margins”, right?
All this boring statistics was only to wonder whether a seasoned politician since her teens could be deemed an overnight sensation. Called a “mercurial oddball and a shrieking street fighter" by critics… Banerjee “ultimately proved to be the consummate politician. Through successive elections, Banerjee steadily expanded her power base while chipping away at those of her opponents," the magazine writes.
The word “ultimately” used by Time is curious. Do its editors mean the critics were wrong, and that she proved to be a “consummate” politician despite that? Or do they mean she was an “oddball” and “shrieking street fighter” before becoming a skillful politician? In effect, do the two qualifications still hold true?
Refuge in Oxford dictionary again:mercurial means “subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind” and oddball is “a strange or eccentric person”. Her resignations from the Union Cabinet more than once, her opposition to the Railway Budget despite being part of the government and subsequently forcing the Minister (from her own party) to step down, and her remarks, observations, statements, and the capacity at smelling a conspiracy on everything from crib deaths, hospital fire, gang rape, arson, and right down to a frivolous caricature circulated on the Web proves both the adjective (mercurial) and the noun (oddball) beyond doubt.
And wasn’t someone who was a seven-time MP, held pretty important Cabinet positions and posts in the State unit of India’s oldest and biggest party “consummate” enough for the liking of Time editorial? When exactly did Mamata Banerjee become a complete, or an astute, politician, according to the magazine? After she launched Trinamool Congress? After her party won a few seats in 2006 Assembly elections? After the party won a fairly large number of Parliamentary seats in 2009? Or after the Trinamool won many (most?) local body elections since? Or is it the victory in last year’s Assembly elections and becoming the Chief Minister?
The next line from the magazine’s heroic profiling: “Through successive elections, Banerjee steadily expanded her power base while chipping away at those of her opponents.”
Whoever wrote the hymn certainly does not know, care to know, Indian politics much beyond the “back rooms” of Delhi durbar and its politics of “dynasty”, to which we will come next. Formed on January 1, 1998, Trinamool, then dallying with the BJP, won 7 of 42 Lok Sabha seats; winning 8 in the parliamentary elections the very next year. In the next one, in 2004, the party won just one: Banerjee’s own. The steady “expansion” and “chipping away” at the opposition also does not hold true for Assembly: while Trinamool won 60 seats in 2001, the first time it contested, the party won 29 in 2006.
Time, again: “In New Delhi’s back rooms, where political horse trading is the name of the game, she excelled.” Hardly. A leader who chose the wrong horse, each time, between the Congress and the BJP in the State could hardly be called a political past master. And someone who quit Cabinet posts in a huff, and (barring Dinesh Trivedi under compulsion then and Mukul Roy under compulsion now) never worked to get MPs from her own party get full Cabinet berths can hardly be deemed to have “excelled” in back room politics.
Remember: Trinamool won so many seats in 2009 Lok Sabha polls and won last year’s Assembly elections largely on her own credit — on the Singur and Nandigram wave, and the wave against Left Front. Without taking away anything from her account, all I am implying is, Trinamool Congress got its best possible results between 2009 and 2011 on its own merit, and not due to any horse-trading shenanigan in “New Delhi’s back rooms” where Mamata Banerjee purportedly excelled, to believe Time.
And then comes the coup de grace from Time: Banerjee's lower-middle class background was “no obstacle in a country notorious for its dynasties”. In a single sweep, the “esteemed” magazine brushed under the carpet the JP movement, Charan Singh, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Vajpayee-Advani, VP Singh, Laloo-Mulayam-Nitish troika that rose from the JP movement, and, heck, even Narendra Modi, among many others. Studied opinion? Up to you, dear reader.
Without getting into the inanities of her recent remarks/actions, allow me to say this, dear Time editorial: elect, select, or appoint anyone in any list you conjure up; that’s your prerogative. But please stay off inane, and incorrect, eulogies masqueraded as rationale for the sake of journalism, and its credibility, which has hit its nadir in your country of origin (as this article points out) and which is becoming a factor in my country.