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On The Road

Marching Mamata

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STEP UP: Leading a march in Kolkata to protest the recent hike in petrol prices

Guess what would top Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee's list of favourite activities? Besides emceeing at victory rallies and alienating supporters, of course. Didi loves walking. Such is her passion for it that she advises all and sundry to walk to keep fit, and often makes them do so as well. Mamata walks briskly on the treadmill, installed in a room adjacent to her bedroom in her sparse and modest house in Kalighat, for an hour everyday and never misses an opportunity to walk on the streets of Kolkata, be it in protest or celebration.

Before she stormed to power a year ago, Mamata had led many road shows all across the state, walking kilometres through scorching heat, rain and hail to campaign for votes or protest various policies of the then Left Front government. She continues to do so even after becoming the chief minister, having walked four times through the streets of Kolkata in the past one year. And had time permitted, she would have walked with Shah Rukh Khan and the victorious KKR team on Tuesday as well.

Her penchant for walking often leaves her colleagues out of breath or in acute discomfort. "She likes to walk whenever she gets the time. About a month ago, Didi and I were returning to Kolkata from New Delhi and on reaching the airport, we were told the flight had been delayed by 90 minutes. "Let's walk, " she suggested, and for nearly 40 minutes we were walking up and down the departure lounge at a very fast pace. I was wearing kolhapuris and at the end of it, I had very sore feet, " Trinamool's Rajya Sabha MP Derek O'Brien told TOI-Crest. Mamata misses no opportunity to tell Kolkata mayor Sovan Chatterjee, a rotund man, to walk for an hour everyday to get into shape. "She often makes fun of the mayor's potbelly and asks him to walk. He has started claiming that he walks every morning, but Didi, who knows better, dismisses his claims, " said a senior minister, who has often been given the same advice. Many of her ministers and senior party colleagues have installed treadmills in their residences and tell the chief minister that they use them every day.

Walking, for Mamata Banerjee, is not only the preferred way to remaining fit, but also of connecting with the masses. Thus, she walked 13 kilometres in Kolkata on a hot and muggy afternoon on May 13 to celebrate the first anniversary of her party's spectacular win in the 2011 Assembly polls. And 13 sultry days later, on May 26, she walked 5 km to protest the Union government's "unilateral and unjust decision" to hike petrol prices. On March 3, she walked 4 km to counter a CPM procession led by her predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who was protesting an attack on scribes and his party activists by Trinamool supporters during a CPMsponsored bandh. After taking oath at the Raj Bhavan on May 20 last year, she walked through thousands of people to reach her office at Writer's Building. She would have loved SRK and the KKR team to take a short walk with her from Writer's Building, where she felicitated them, to the Eden Gardens (about 1. 2 km) where she had organised a grand celebration on Tuesday (May 29), but many players had a flight to catch and her proposed walk didn't materialise. But she did lead SRK and the players on a nearly half kilometre 'victory lap' around the stadium that afternoon.

"Walking the streets is the best way of connecting with the masses. And 'Didi' loves crowds. Her mere presence is enough to draw huge crowds. She feels at home among the common people. That's why she takes to the streets whenever she feels an issue needs to be highlighted and the common people ought to be made aware of it, " Bengal transport minister Madan Mitra said. During such walks, Mitra pointed out, Mamata Banerjee doesn't need to make any speeches. "She just walks and the people become aware of the issue she's walking for, " said municipal affairs minister Firhad Hakim.

The fitness bug bit Mamata Banerjee about seven years ago. "She had been fit since her youth, but put on a bit of weight during a bad phase of her political career between 2001 and 2006, the lowest point during this time being the 2004 Lok Sabha polls when she was the lone person among our party candidates to be elected to the Lok Sabha, " said a close aide who did not want to be named. It was only after she started regaining popular support, thanks to the string of mistakes made by the Left front government since 2006 that Mamata started perking up. It was around this time that she started walking, both on the treadmill and on the streets, realising perhaps that she would need to stay fit and trim to take on the onerous responsibility of governing Bengal some day.

In fact, she ardently believes that an obese person cannot work to full capacity. That's why she keeps driving everyone around her to walk. Now, if only Didi walking translated to Bengal running.

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