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Publication Date : 24-09-2012
Love her or hate her, but you cannot ignore Mamata Banerjee - until last week the biggest obstacle to economic liberalisation in India, even though she forged her political fortunes fighting communists.
Banerjee is the chief minister of West Bengal state, where she won power after battling against 34 years of communist rule.
On the national stage, her 19 lawmakers provided Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition with a crucial parliamentary majority.
It was a position that gave the 57-year-old populist leader immense influence, a lever she used time and again to frustrate Singh's efforts at reforms - from cutting fuel subsidies to opening up India's consumer markets. Time magazine listed her among the world's 100 most influential people in 2012.
Last week though, Singh's government pushed ahead with these reforms.
Banerjee responded by pulling out of the government, jolting Singh's Congress party-led coalition, which now must rely on unreliable support from smaller regional groups.
Banerjee's move was not wholly unexpected. Resolutely populist and hard-working, yet intolerant of dissent, she has never finished a full term as an ally in a national government.
Yet, she remains a rising force in Indian politics, her ascendancy recognised by the likes of United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who paid a special visit to Kolkata in May to meet her.
"If there is an election tomorrow, she may be needed again by whichever party tries to form the government," said political analyst Amulya Ganguli.
Entering Parliament for the Congress at age 29, she left in 1997 to form her own party, the Trinamool Congress.
Since then, her party has been part of coalitions led by both of India's main political rivals, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Unpredictability permeates her policymaking.
Last October, she forced Singh to back down on allowing foreign firms to enter India's supermarkets sector.
She blocked hikes in fuel and cooking gas prices and forced her own party member to resign as the railway minister when he increased passenger fares.
That populism has prompted many to question her judgment, with one Indian weekly magazine branding her the "Queen of Democrazy".
"There is always a trade-off between popular politics and painful policies, and Mamata understands that she has to back whatever protects her political base," Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, a political scientist at Rabindra Bharati University, told The Straits Times.
The daughter of a schoolteacher, Banerjee is perhaps the only Asian woman leader whose ascent in politics is not because of marriage or pedigree.
Home is still a single 2.4m x 2.4m tin box of a room in a Kolkata neighbourhood beside a fetid river.
Never married, her trademark bathroom flip-flops, cheap white sari and humble persona have endeared her to millions in her state.
But her intolerance of criticism has increasingly alienated her from the urban, educated masses.
She accused a rape victim of fabricating the attack to discredit her rule, and had a party supporter jailed for asking her uncomfortable questions at a rally.
"All this is part of the communist and Maoist coterie out to malign my government," she has repeatedly said, accusing opponents of plotting to kill her, in league with the Pakistani intelligence and financed by North Korea, Venezuela and Hungary.
But for all her pro-poor politics, critics say, Banerjee has no strategy to deliver her state from decades of economic mismanagement by the communists, who left it US$40 billion (S$48.9 billion) in debt.