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India's giant killer Mamata is 'sister' to fans

13 may 2011, 13:09
To her followers, the Indian politician who is set to end the rule of the world's oldest democratically elected communist government is known simply to her followers as "didi" or elder sister.

The diminutive Mamata Banerjee, 56, has worked for years to turf out the communist-led Left Front government in the impoverished eastern state of West Bengal, which came to power in 1977.

Banerjee, who wears simple cotton saris and plastic sandals and lives in a small house with a tin roof a short distance from a mosquito-infested canal, had scented victory far ahead of results day on Friday.

"History is about to be made," she declared before the start of voting in April with polls already suggesting certain victory for her regional Trinamool Congress and its allies.

Early results on Friday gave her a crushing lead, with Banerjee and her allies set to win about two-thirds of the 294 seats in the state assembly.

Banerjee effectively exploited a wave of anger among farmers forced to sell fertile landholdings under a government job-creation drive to lure industry to West Bengal.

The government's land acquisition policy had "become its nemesis", said Sabyasachi Basu Roychowdhury, a political science professor.

Three years ago, Banerjee successfully exploited protests against plans by India's giant Tata group to build a factory to make the world's cheapest minicar, the Nano, which led the company to shift the plant to western Gujarat state.

The policy had "boomeranged on the government -- you cannot force a person to sell off his land", Aviroop Sarkar, professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, said.

The drive to industrialise in West Bengal marked a shift from the communists' early days in power when they gave land to some 2.5 million rural poor under India's largest distribution scheme, breaking the hold of West Bengal's land-owning elite.

But as land shortages grew with farms being divided among families and unemployment climbed, the government shifted gears and sought to bring back factories to the state, which was once the nation's economic hub.

Banerjee, whose mercurial nature and hot temper frequently land her in newspaper headlines, has promised to focus both on reviving industry and agriculture.

Still, while most observers believed a change in government was inevitable, they fret about Banerjee's ability to govern the state of 90 million people.

Since 2009, with her Trinamool Congress forming part of the national coalition government, she has served as minister of railways, but critics note its finances are in a mess.

"She's unpredictable in nature," said Purosattam Bhattacharya, who teaches international relations at Kolkata's Jadavpur University.

"We have to wait and see what she can do for the people of the state," he said.

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