Mon. Feb 26th, 2024
The Rise of Mamata: The Untold Story of Trinamool Congress' Founding

The Trinamool Congress (TMC) is a major political party in West Bengal, India that has dominated state politics since coming to power in 2011 under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee. The party was formed in 1997 as a breakaway faction of the Indian National Congress, which had long held political hegemony in West Bengal. The seeds of the Trinamool Congress were sown during a period of political turmoil and fragmentation in West Bengal.

The Roots of Discontent Against Congress Rule

Since 1977, West Bengal had been ruled almost continuously by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) led Left Front. While the Left made some progress in land reforms and decentralization of power, over time its rule had become increasingly associated with stagnation, lack of industrial development, and the rise of corruption and political violence. By the early 1990s there was growing discontent against Left rule. At the same time, the state unit of the Indian National Congress was weakened by continuous electoral defeats and factionalism within the party organization.

This created political space for other parties to emerge. One such party was the All India Trinamool Congress formed in 1997 by Mamata Banerjee, who broke away from the Congress along with several other leaders. The origins of this breakaway faction date back to Mamata Banerjee’s emergence as a young political leader in West Bengal during the Congress rule in the 1980s.

Mamata Banerjee’s Rise in Congress Politics

Mamata Banerjee first stepped into politics as a young Congress activist while she was still a student at Jogamaya Devi College in Kolkata, which was a center of student politics and anti-government protests. She quickly gained notice for her fiery oratory style and courage in confronting the Communist student activists who then dominated most educational institutions. Her political mentor was Subrata Mukherjee, a veteran Congress leader of South Kolkata, under whose tutelage Mamata cut her political teeth.

In 1984, Mamata contested and won the Lok Sabha election from the South Calcutta constituency as a Congress candidate at the young age of 29, making national headlines as the “giant killer” for defeating seasoned Communist leader Somnath Chatterjee. As an MP she joined Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi’s reformist brigade of young leaders in the party. Over the next decade, she consolidated her position within the West Bengal Congress organization with support from Subrata Mukherjee and rising through the ranks to become the state’s Youth Congress President in 1992 and Congress Secretary in West Bengal in 1993.

However, electoral setbacks for Congress across India in 1989 and 1991 pushed the party into an existential crisis. In West Bengal, Congress slid into disarray and factional feuds due to its continuous losses to the Left Front. Mamata Banerjee grew increasingly disillusioned. She publicly criticized the Congress leadership for not doing enough to revive party fortunes and for being insensitive to the grassroots situation. The last straw was the Congress Working Committee rejecting her proposal for an electoral alliance with the Left to defeat the bourgeois BJP party in 1996. This widening rift set the stage for Mamata’s exit from the Congress.

Formation of Trinamool Congress

On January 1, 1998 Mamata Banerjee formally announced the establishment of her own party called the All India Trinamool Congress. The name “Trinamool” means grassroots in Bengali and signified a party born out of the people. It was officially registered with the Election Commission of India on September 26, 1998. The Trinamool flag has distinctive grass green color symbolizing its grassroots identity.

In her inaugural speech Mamata declared that the Trinamool Congress will be “a people’s democratic movement against a decadent system that breeds corruption, criminality, nepotism and violence”. She positioned the party as a secular progressive alternative to the ossified Congress and authoritarian Communists in West Bengal. The party’s central agenda focused on establishing clean governance, inclusive development, and empowerment of marginalized sections.

Mamata Banerjee was elected the first Chairperson of the All India Trinamool Congress. Prominent founding members of the party included several Congress dissident leaders:

  • Ajit Panja: Former central minister and West Bengal Pradesh Congress Chief
  • Buddhadeb Bhattacharya: Former West Bengal Minister of Urban Development
  • Subrata Mukherjee: Former Mayor of Calcutta and Congress veteran
  • Sudip Bandopadhyay: Sitting MP from Calcutta North East constituency

This core group lent administrative experience, political networks and grassroots connections that proved invaluable for the fledgling Trinamool Congress.

TMC : Early Electoral Performances

Trinamool Congress received an enthusiastic response, especially among younger activists and minorities disgruntled with the Congress in West Bengal. Within a few months of its formation, the party had mobilized thousands of members and local offices across the state.

Buoyed by the groundswell, Mamata decided to make her political ambitions known by contesting the South Calcutta Lok Sabha bypoll in August 1998 just months after forming TMC. In a major upset she defeated the Congress candidate to reclaim the seat she once held. This energized Trinamool cadres and established Mamata as a formidable force.

This was followed by Trinamool’s first electoral test in the 1998 West Bengal Panchayat elections held in January 1999. The party won over 12% of the seats and finished third behind Left Front and Congress, secured control of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation and made advances into rural areas. The impressive debut outing of the 18 month old party reinforced perceptions that it was the new alternative in West Bengal politics.

1999 Lok Sabha Elections

The 1999 Parliamentary elections provided the first real opening for the Trinamool Congress to make its mark in West Bengal politics. After disastrous results for Congress in 1998 state elections, Mamata Banerjee saw an opportunity to become the main opposition force to the Left Front government. She entered into an electoral understanding with the state BJP in a controversial move.

While Mamata drew criticism for allying with the Hindu-nationalist BJP, she justified it as an attempt to consolidate anti-Left votes which was the need of the hour if Congress continued to toward oblivion. This ushered the first phase of what became a recurring and ultimately successful TMC strategy – aggressive expansion by absorbing smaller parties to defeat the Left.

The gamble paid off brilliantly. Trinamool won 7 seats, while BJP also picked up 2 seats. Between them, the alliance had cut Congress down to just 1 seat from 8 seats. Mamata was catapulted to Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. From political wilderness, Congress was pushed to third in West Bengal as Trinamool emerged the principal opposition to the once invincible Left.

Violent Struggles with the Left

Trinamool’s meteoric rise as a formidable challenger to the entrenched Left Front did not come easy. What followed over the next decade were turbulent struggles between TMC and Left cadres across West Bengal, with outbreaks of extreme political violence becoming endemic during this period.

The 1993 Writers’ Building March:

On July 21, 1993 as the then West Bengal Youth Congress President, Mamata mobilized a march to the state administrative headquarters Writers’ Building demanding that photo voter IDs be made mandatory. She led a 10,000 strong rally seeking electoral reforms and protesting against making voter cards easily available for immigrants. Mamata and the protesters were lathicharged. She sustained severe injuries including frontal skull bone fracture from the police brutality under the Congress Chief Minister’s watch. This further estranged her from the Congress leadership.”

Mamata Banerjee to Police Officers

The Triguna Sen-Salkia elections in 1998 marked the first instance of violence against Trinamool workers by Communist goons. As Trinamool started making serious inroads rapidly, the CPI(M) resorted more systematically to intimidation and assaults on Mamata’s party colleagues campaigning in rural areas and small towns to contain her growth.

The brutal climax came on August 16, 2000 when young TMC activist Farzana Alam was raped and murdered in Barasat constituency for daring to organize villagers against the Communists. The tragic incident sparked outrage and only strengthened Mamata’s fierce resolve to uproot political oppression in West Bengal. It also consolidated public sentiment that there was no option but Trinamool to counter violence with courage.

Through these turbulent years, Mamata’s own grit and willingness to personally confront violent attacks from the Left cadres made her a fearless mascot of grassroots activism. She fondly came to be called “Didi” meaning elder sister, endearing her further with women and rural masses as someone willing to physically stand up to the oppressive Communists unlike aloof Congress leaders of the past.

The Congress Further Marginalized

As the tussle between the Left Front and Trinamool Congress intensified through violent confrontation, the Congress party was pushed into irrelevance in the bipolar struggle for power in West Bengal.

Between the 2000-2006 period, Trinamool continued impressive political expansion mainly at the expense of the demoralized Congress organization. Through her mass appeal, Mamata managed to attract many Congress functionaries to shift political loyalty.

Key Congress defectors who provided a huge boost to Trinamool included sitting MLAs like Partha Chatterjee, Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay and Madan Mitra among others. By 2006 about 24 Congress MLAs and 4 MPs had switched to Trinamool, eroding the Congress further. With the Congress space shrinking rapidly, most anti-Left votes gravitated towards Mamata’s party as the alternative regional force.

2006 Elections – Coming Closer to Power

By the time of the 2006 Assembly elections, Trinamool was poised for a major breakthrough and push the Left Front to the brink. It allied with the Naxalite ultra-left party called the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and informal understanding with the BJP and Congress.

The pre-poll bonhomie turned into integrated anti-Left solidarity unseen till then. When the Left Front won with a reduced majority, Mamata cried foul and alleged widespread rigging. This marked the beginnings of her strategy to delegitimize all Left Front election victories.

For 18 days Mamata sat on hunger strike in Kolkata demanding repoll across 400 booths. This was a turning point as the state had not witnessed such fiery protests on this scale over electoral malpractices after the Congress rule. Her party workers mobilized popular outrage with rallies, marches, strikes that brought normal life to a standstill during the agitation. Though the Left government refused to budge ultimately, the strident protests marked Mamata’s coming of age as a serious challenger.

On July 21, 1993 as the then West Bengal Youth Congress President, Mamata mobilized a march to the state administrative headquarters Writers’ Building demanding that photo voter IDs be made mandatory. She led a 10,000 strong rally seeking electoral reforms and protesting against making voter cards easily available for immigrants. Mamata and the protesters were lathicharged. She sustained severe injuries including frontal skull bone fracture from the police brutality under the Congress Chief Minister’s watch. This further estranged her from the Congress leadership."

In the space of just 9 years since its inception, Trinamool Congress under Mamata’s leadership had risen from nowhere to stunningly reduce the Left Front’s strength to just 6 seats more than the majority mark. The reduction of the Left legislative bloc from 188 to 176 seats set the stage for the final push when the next elections came five years later.

Anti-Tata Agitation Victory

Riding on her mass appeal after the 2006 surge, Mamata seized the opportunity to launch major farmer agitations against the acquisition of agrarian land by corporates enabled by the Left Front government. Her party led mass protests against the forceful acquisition of land for luxury housing and commercial projects.

The flashpoint was the resistance to Tata Motors Plant land acquisition for manufacturing the Nano car in Singur. Mamata built a mass campaign that tapped into peasant anger against forcible acquisitions by painting it as a familiar Left betrayal of poor farmers for the benefit of capitalists. After months long impasse, the Tatas ultimately exited Singur handing Mamata an emphatic moral and political victory that greatly dented the Left’s rural base. This proved to be a tipping point for the TMC to make decisive breaches against the Left in rural Bengal.

Final Push in 2009 Parliament and 2011 State Polls

By 2009, TMC was ready to capture power in West Bengal. It aligned with Congress to enhance its appeal among urban and middle class voters. When Parliament elections were held in April-May, the TMC-Congress alliance delivered a severe blow. The combine bagged 25 seats reducing the Left Front tally to a historic low of just 15 seats out of 42. Mamata proclaimed the verdict as West Bengal’s “vote for parivartan (change)”.

When Assembly elections came 2 years later, there was an air of palpable desire for real parivartan on the ground. Ten years of bitter struggles and grassroots activism finally paid off for Mamata Banerjee in spectacular fashion. The electorate handed Trinamool Congress an overwhelming victory with 184 seats and allowed Mamata to form the government with a massive majority. After 34 years of Left rule, its collapse was swift and near total – from 176 seats down to just 62.

The supercharged campaign trail saw Mamata roll out catchy slogans promising “maa, mati, manush (motherland, mother tongue and people)”. This struck an emotional cultural chord contrasting her Bengali subnationalism with the deracinated Communists. After decades of arduous grassroots mobilizations often involving violent attrition, Mamata Banerjee had powered Trinamool past the post first in alliance and then independently as the dominant party in West Bengal – within 15 years of its birth.

Consolidation of Power Over a Decade:

Given the breathless pace at which Mamata Banerjee powered Trinamool Congress to capture power by 2011, what followed was a decade of energetic governance and further consolidation of TMC dominance across all tiers of elected office in West Bengal:

Energizing Governance and High Visibility:

Mamata brought her trademark day-and-night activist orientation to governance overhauling languid Communists bureaucrats through rigorous monitoring and by leveraging her mass contact. She took major steps to accelerate industrial growth, attract investments to develop local manufacturing hubs, revamped health infrastructure and improve social schemes for the poor. Populist measures like Kanyashree boosted welfare and unlocked human capital in rural Bengal.

Mamata ensured high visibility in office through an uber-centralized administration where she had hands-on approach over every aspect of governance maintaining 20 hour work days. This allowed showcasing a completely new model of nimble decision making contrasting the distant Left. Combined with charismatic communication, this strategy helped reinforce perceptions of her government as more responsive to people’s aspirations.

However, journalists and critics allege creeping authoritarian tendencies, lack of delegation and hostility to scrutiny under her watch. But supporters point out that firm centralization was necessary early on for more direct accountability and for getting swift results after decades of Left stasis.

Ruthless Electoral Expansion:

After coming to power, Mamata continued her aggressive electoral expansion strategy across West Bengal, utilizing the organizational machinery both as ruling party and main opposition at the Center when Modi came to power in 2014.

TMC absorbed dozens of weakened Congress leaders strengthening its position. Trinamool made advances across rural Bengal by accommodating disgruntled Communists seeking political rehabilitation. Through this relentless electoral aggression, within a decade of gaining power TMC has established almost complete dominance across West Bengal.

In the 2018 Panchayat polls, TMC won a staggering 34% of seats uncontested with allegations of intimidation and violence. But the efficacy of Mamata’s expansion strategy was complete when TMC swept the 2021 Assembly elections despite facing a high voltage campaign by Modi’s BJP – winning 213 seats and nearly halving the BJP tally. Today there is hardly any organized opposition left in West Bengal to challenge Mamata’s party.

National Ambitions:

With TMC consolidating power across West Bengal as the 4th largest party in Parliament today, Mamata Banerjee has set her sights on projecting herself as a potential leader of national opposition space against Modi’s BJP for the 2024 elections. She has reached out to diverse regional parties who feel politically squeezed by the aggressive rise of BJP under Modi’s leadership.

Early attempts have had mixed results. She failed to bring non-BJP parties together for a joint opposition Presidential candidate in 2022. But TMC managed to score surprise victories in Goa and Meghalaya expanding beyond West Bengal. With Congress flailing organizationally, Mamata seeks to project the Trinamool Congress as the new viable national alternative.

TMC completed 25 years of tumultuous but successful grassroots journey catapulting Mamata Banerjee from rebel Congress MP to one of India’s most powerful regional satraps reigning supreme in West Bengal and now aspiring for national power. For a party born just two and a half decades ago, TMC has enjoyed a remarkable run. But the next 25 years as it pushes nationally under Didi’s stewardship could prove even more interesting. If the party’s early track record is any indicator, few would bet against Mamata Banerjee’s indomitable grit to deliver ambitious results for the TMC against the odds again.

Talktails | Truth is our currency

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