Mamata Banerjee wants to shake up Indian politics and beat Modi at his own game Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal state, is one of Narendra Modi's fiercest critics. She's especially beloved by women and the impoverished. But gaining national traction may be tough.

Meet the feisty, 5-foot-tall thorn in the side of India's prime minister

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In India, a regional leader who rose from poverty has emerged as one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's biggest critics. Here's NPR's Lauren Frayer.


KING: These are the winding, narrow streets of the oldest part of the city. There are rickshaw pullers on foot. And overhead, back and forth, zigzagging across the street are strings of so many photos of one person's

face. It's the face of Mamata Banerjee. There's even graffiti depicting her as a Hindu goddess. She's the chief minister of West Bengal, an Indian state that's bigger than all but a handful of countries. She governs about 100 million people. Mamata won office 10 years ago by kicking out the Communists.


MAMATA BANERJEE: History has been made here in West Bengal.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: ...Who ruled the state for 34 years. She did stints in almost every major political party before starting her own center-left secular party. Mamata is famous for her welfare programs and for what she wears - a simple, white cotton sari, the same material as Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi. That is intentional, says Shutapa Paul, Mamata's biographer.

SHUTAPA PAUL: It's a conscious decision to project a simple, grassroots, common person. And we call her Didi, which means elder sister.

FRAYER: Mamata came from poverty. She rose through student politics in the 1970s, Paul explains. There's a famous old photo of her dancing on the hood of a politician's car.

PAUL: Her speeches were fiery. She was quite aggressive, even at that time. And she can be brash, sometimes overconfident.

FRAYER: Nowadays, she holds regular news conferences taunting Prime Minister Narendra Modi.


MAMATA: Mr. Busy Prime Minister, what do you want? What do you want - to finish me? Can you do it? Never.

FRAYER: And that's how she gets this reputation as a feisty, 5-foot-tall thorn in Modi's side. And there are signs that Modi sees her as a threat. Last spring, his party circulated a clip of Mamata reciting Muslim prayers...


MAMATA: (Speaking Arabic).

FRAYER: ...To question her loyalty to her fellow Hindus, who are India's majority. But it backfired, and Mamata's party trounced Modi's in state elections. But Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, has worked for Modi nationally. And Mamata has taken note. Political scientist Proma Ray Chaudhury recalls hearing Mamata drop a mention of her Hindu caste in a recent speech, something she didn't used to do

PROMA RAY CHAUDHURY: Alongside these welfare mechanisms that Mamata projects, she also, in a way, appeals to soft Hindutva, a softer version of the muscular, aggressive Hindutva that Modi and his party projects.

FRAYER: She's trying to beat Modi at his own game, Chaudhury says, because Modi, too, is unmarried, from humble roots, said to be a workaholic, devoted to the cause. Mamata has her work cut out for her, though, says political reporter Shoaib Daniyal.

SHOAIB DANIYAL: She's going up against the behemoth that is Modi. It's very David versus Goliath.

FRAYER: Modi is India's most popular leader in decades. The national opposition to him is in shambles. Mamata has been dogged by corruption allegations. She's also not a native Hindi speaker. And she heads a regional party, not a national one.

DANIYAL: A regional outfit expanding from a non-Hindi-speaking state and trying to become a national player is something that has actually never happened before in Indian politics.

FRAYER: But Mamata is a woman, and that may actually help her, says Chaudhury, the political scientist.

CHAUDHURY: Because for the first time in Indian politics, women are forming a very salient and distinctive electoral constituency. So their votes have become very decisive factors.

FRAYER: In recent elections, Indian women have voted more and not just for who their fathers or husbands want them to. Mamata appeals to women not just because she is one but because her welfare programs prioritize women in a way that Modi has emulated on national scale. In Mamata's own Kolkata neighborhood, a housewife gushes about her.

REETA THAKUR: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "We love her. She gives us jobs and builds roads," says Reeta Thakur as she spreads grain across her dusty yard to dry in the sun.

Thakur moved here years ago from a northern, Hindi-speaking state. She says she definitely wants Mamata to be India's next prime minister. She's just not sure if her relatives in other states do, too. Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Kolkata, India.


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