Thirty-seven years ago, a 29-year-old youth Congress leader with no family or financial backing made her presence felt in the political map of West Bengal when she emerged a giant killer, defeating CPI(M) heavyweight Somnath Chatterjee. Since then, that woman in her plain sarees, slippers and a sling bag on left shoulder has substantially changed the political landscape of the highly politicised state, almost single-handedly.
First she rendered her own political launchpad, the Congress, into insignificance in Bengal, by forming her own party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), in December 1997, then toppled the mighty Left Front government in 2011, and finally resisted an all-out attempt by the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) between 2019-21 to clear her path for a third straight term in the state's governance.
Amidst this long, arduous and often-tumultuous journey, the year of 2021 must have been one of her sweetest ones, if not the sweetest, with the only other contender for this badge being 2011, when she realised her dream of unseating the Left Front government.
Going by influence, though, she wields much greater of it in 2021 compared to a decade ago.
Her party is at the peak of its 23 year existence and she, despite being only a chief minister of one of India's major states - and not the most influential one when it comes to forming government at the Centre - is receiving invitations for international events such an international peace conference in Rome to be attended by the likes of the Pope, the German chancellor, the Italian Prime Minister; Nepal’s ruling party’s political conference to be attended by the Nepal Prime Minister, and the Sharjah Book Fair. It's a different story that the Centre did not allow her to visit Rome and Kathmandu.
Her party's strength in the Bengal assembly is at its highest, with 217 of 294 seats, apart frm 5 more MLA who had switched over from the BJP to the TMC. The party has become Meghalaya's main opposition party overnight, has marked a significant presence in Tripura and Goa and is being seen as a major threat to the Congress beyond the borders of Bengal.
The year did not start on such a good note. The BJP was being perceived as a force standing very close to toppling her regime; TMC leaders of various rank and file, including some of her close confidantes, had joined her rival camp one after another; central government agencies were after multiple leaders of her party. She responded with a counter attack, taking the bull by its horns, as it expected out of her. And then, one masterstroke infused in her party and support base what it required - confidence and morale - when she decided to make herself a sacrificial pawn.
Political leaders usually choose a safe seat for themselves. If there is risk from anti incumbency in one's own seat, they even contest from a second one. There are so many such examples that the point does not require elaboration. But Banerjee chose to do the opposite - she picked for herself what was seen as a seat where the TMC had the least possibility to win. But her decision to take on heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari on his home turf of Nandigram, and not to contest from any other seat, boosted the morale of her party like nothing else, even as she risked marking her first Assembly election defeat.
Eventually, she lost from Nandigram but won Bengal with a massive mandate. Her decision to risk losing a personal battle helped her win a war.
Since then, her party has been on a mission to expand territory beyond Bengal, especially in the BJP-ruled states where the opposition is weak. The TMC had nothing in those states, except for her brand value as an aggressive and decisive politician and the professional support of political strategist Prashant Kishor's organisation, the I-PAC. But early signs suggest that her fast moves and the image of an undaunted streetfighter has some appeal beyond Bengal, too.
This, in turn, has prompted an apparently ‘slow’ and ‘indecisive’ Congress, at the national level, to wake up from its slumber and save from the TMC whatever of the party’s organisation survived the BJP’s onslaught. Leaving aside the implications of the TMC’s competition with other opposition parties, her moves have propelled other opposition leaders to be more proactive in taking on the BJP.
In Bengal, her party faces no threat whatsoever at present. The opposition, whatever of that exists, is divided and demoralised. The BJP, despite having 70 MLAs and 17 Lok Sabha MPs, is in a state of disarray. Most of the TMC leaders who betrayed the party for the BJP ahead of the assembly elections have apologised and pleaded with the party to be taken back. The Left, which has no presence in the assembly at present, are trying to, and to some extent succeeding in, recovering some of the votes they lost to the BJP. This would further divide opposition votes, leaving no trace of threat to the TMC.
In the assembly bye-election to seven seats held in September and October, her party bagged more than two-thirds vote share everywhere, with all candidates against TMC losing their deposits in three seats. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation has never witnessed the dominance of one party that the TMC has now with 134 of 144 seats. In nearly two-thirds of Kolkata’s municipal wards, all candidates against the TMC lost their deposits.
Elections in Bengal have one foregone conclusion at present - the TMC is unlikely to lose any. The only battle is for the space of the main opposition.
A sweet, sweet year could not have ended on a sweeter note.