After a headline-making week by the Trinamool chief, here’s a look at the rise and fall of hope in a Bengal divided between two Mamatas: ‘Derektion Didi’ and ‘Didi Amin Dada’.
On the day of the election results in Kolkata last year, watching the jubilant crowds dancing through towering explosions of green powder, one understood that a subaltern section had finally, truly come to power in West Bengal. The varna cabinet of the Left Front had been shown the door and the lumpen forces the caste-comrades had kept in harness across three decades had now broken loose and taken over.
In the early afternoon, once the landslide was established beyond all doubt, Mamata Banerjee came out of her small house and addressed the huge heave of people. She spoke briefly, in uncharacteristically measured words, and ended by saying “All of you now go home and have a bath.” It was a touching moment; a loving instruction from an older sister who instinctively understood what the gritty, sweaty crowds now needed. None of the pruney old CPM patricians would ever have thought to say it.
The celebrations continued in the days that followed. None of the Left’s dire predictions about what would happen should the Trinamool win — the wild chaos, the bloodbaths of revenge — came true. However, the big questions that had hung during the elections came right back and re-occupied people’s minds after the new government was installed. The Trinamool leadership was a motley collection of promoted neighbourhood enforcers, small millionaires, loudly mediocre characters; there was a scattering of ageing Tollywood stars and a couple of artists and theatre people; and then there were two or three members who could present the case in high-end English, including Amit Mitra, who seemed to be the only one who had some previous expertise in the area he would handle, namely finance and business.
Many of us writing in the papers had justifiably reached for the phrase ‘quasi-fascist’ while describing this crew. How would Banerjee deliver with this ‘team’? How long would it take for Banerjee herself to change from being the quintessential, stormy petrel opposition leader to an effective chief minister? How long would it take for her to deliver some relief to some part of this deeply damaged state?
For me, the most important question was: how long before the story moved away from this one, albeit fascinating, person to become, in some way, a positive story of the people of Bengal?
Sixteen months later, negative answers have cemented themselves to many of these questions; some of them the worst possible answers, while the last two big questions still remain essentially unanswered.
In May 2011, given the huge, toxic mess the CPM left behind, everyone understood that quick or radical change was always going to be a tall order. No one expected miracles. In the face of the massive knot of ongoing emergencies that was West Bengal at the end of CPI (M)’s rule, no one expected Banerjee and Co. to have immediate clarity. Most people understood and expected that some of these first-time ‘leaders’ would be ineffective or occasionally disastrous; it was even accepted that a few of the marginal ones would fatten their pockets, (no miracles, no saints), but what people hoped against hope was that Mamata Banerjee and her core colleagues would learn quickly from blunders. What was desperately needed from the new government was energy, clean intentions, some sense of purpose, and, most crucially, a steep learning curve attached to deep humility. The humility was essential for the learning and the learning was the only way to the eventual clarity. Therefore it was widely hoped that the first thing to shift — the one thing Banerjee could immediately, demonstrably change — would be the rule of arrogant disconnect under which Bengal had reeled for so long.
One-woman walking circus
After a year and a half, the list above looks like some hopeless fantasy. There is a rice-paper thin truce vis-à-vis the Maoists in Lalgarh; some little time has been bought by a shower of promises in the hill areas; nothing much has changed in the vast rural areas in between, where a status quo is being maintained at a time that is inarguably terrible for farmers all over the country; and, as for Kolkata and its environs, for the roughly 12 per cent of the state’s population, the city has become an even deeper disaster zone than when the Left Front was in power.
At the heart of all this is the fact that the ‘story’ has not moved away from Mamata Banerjee by even a millimetre.
Banerjee ejected the CPM by building up a persona of the fearsome, combative big sister. Now that she’s in power, the stories of her temper in more private arenas are legion. Bureaucrats are apparently terrified of her mood swings, with her signature on files promised in minutes but held up for weeks; aides live in perpetual fear of receiving bursts of the choicest street language; madam flouncing off from meetings when visiting delegations pay too much attention to one of her other ministers, and so on and so forth. Whatever the truth of these, what can't be denied is that in the line-up of Chief Ministers radiating the most toxic megalomanias, the Modis, Jayalalithas and Mayavatis, Mamata Banerjee can hold her own. Most of us would be hard put to name a second minister in most states but it’s still startling to look back over the last sixteen months and see how all narratives about the fourth most populous state in the country have been subsumed into the sole figure of its Chief Minister.
The media are partly responsible for this because, undeniably, the one-woman walking circus that she is, Banerjee makes for great footage. But from well before her victory, the Trinamool script, too, has had room for only one star. Today, as you open the home page of the TMC website you see three pictures of Madam Didi: one on the header, a changing one in the photo-box just below and then a big one to the right, “Our Chairperson Speaks”. It’s as if the “Leadaarr” is talking to herself or, nightmarishly, a virtual cabal of three Mamatas are talking only to each other.
The two MBs
Even for the still shattered CPI (M) there is only one indicator of how their day will go: how ‘she’ behaves today. For the Communists, there are two Mamatas. One is MB (Opposition) who shouts and screams and is still, perpetually, trying to grab power. This is motor-mouth Mamata who compulsively comments on everything, whether it concerns her directly or not. This is the woman who spectacularly puts her foot in it; sometimes at state level, sometimes nationally and even internationally. This is the woman who dismisses rapes as conspiracies against her rule, who allows people to be beaten up for distributing web-cartoons of herself, who bangs peasants into jail for asking her why fertilizer prices have gone up. This Mamata the CPM love because she provides them their only hope of coming back to power in the next 10 years. This is the Mamata, they reckon, will implode under her own furious stupidity. Then there is MB (Derek), labelled after Derek O’Brien, her English-speaking right hand man and PR coach. This Mamata is learning to keep quiet when she’s not required to speak. This Mamata makes a good pretence of collegiality and cooperation. This Mamata is reasonable, she smiles, she even occasionally apologises for mistakes her ministers have made. This Derektion Didi the CPM don’t like at all because she almost acts like a Chief Minister. On odd days this prototype looks like she could settle down at Writer’s Building for a very long innings indeed.
No one — not the media nor the Trinamool nor the opposition — addresses what is happening to the people of Bengal. It’s as if everything in the state will stand or fall around the actions of this one woman.
In this regard, the CPM can still keep their hopes switched on. The general consensus is that the woman Kolkata wags refer to as Didi Amin Dada (after the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada) is still in ascendancy over Derektion Didi. The traits seem to disappear for a few weeks but then the Mamata who can swing either way re-emerges. At a press conference about dengue, suddenly she’ll snap, “Go ask that question to Fat Sovan!” referring to the Trinamool Mayor Sovan Chatterjee. At a Tollywood dance event she will sit star-struck for a full five hours. (There is an only half-jokey assessment that Shah Rukh Khan could, should he choose, improve the fate of 90 million West Bengalians with a few words whispered into his Didi’s ear.) She will put herself and her hapless central ministers into humiliating positions vis-à-vis supporting the central government. She will never honestly address her team’s failures as first-time administrators, always retaliating with an insulting counter-question or bizarre accusation.
Neverthless, perhaps it’s only with the educated, Calcutta middle class that La Didi’s honeymoon is properly over. The energy of that first orgiastic victory celebration still continues through various channels, with leaders of religious cults being pushed up, mullahs being given bonuses, with shiny Tollywood gyrating where and how it pleases, from the Netaji Indoor Stadium to Singapore to the benches of the Lok Sabha.
But if, as the T-moolites keep arguing, the disgust and despair of the English-speaking Kolkatan is not shared by the mass of peasantry outside the city, neither does this tacky glitter translate into joy for ordinary villagers. There, around the paddy fields and small ponds, things are pretty much as they were during the old regime. Small things shift, the bonuses for the imams are noted, the free sari or lungi for each poor Muslim at Eid is noted, old women now receive the widows’ pensions of which local officials previously used to deprive them. But the prices of everything related to farming are still rising steeply and the middle-men controlling the vegetable supply chain are still untouched, the TMC being dependent on them. Farming in this primarily agricultural state is still a bone-breaking, barely break-even living with no route visible to any long-term relief. “We don’t get too involved with any one party,” a farmer tells me, somehow channelling Mark Twain in his Nadia accent. “If the people in power say ‘water flows uphill’, we say ‘yes sir, water goes uphill’, we never argue.”
A new phase?
Over the last few days, Banerjee has once again effortlessly brought the story back to herself by removing the TMC stool from under the UPA government’s shrinking posterior. The day after the announcement we were told something unusual had happened during the three-hour-long meeting of the top layer of the TMC: Mamata Banerjee had apparently listened quietly to everybody’s views before imparting her own. While this may or may not be the beginning of a new phase of collective decision-making within the Trinamool, there was only one unsurprising protagonist during the press conference that followed, and that was Banerjee.
One of her sharpest barbs during the press conference was that the Congress was bringing in unacceptable ‘reforms’ to create a distraction from ‘Coalgate’. While this might be completely accurate, the equal and attendant accusation also holds water: that Banerjee has played her ‘masterstroke’ to deflect attention from a year and a half’s worth of failure, that her gamble has been made just before the last remnants of the TMC’s honeymoon period disappear down the chute of ineptitude. The counter suggestion to this is that La Didi has just made her first move towards a future prime ministership. While this may also be not far from the truth, Banerjee’s record suggests she should exercise some uncharacteristic caution.
On the TMC website last week, there was a ‘quote of the day’ from Tagore: “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water. Don’t let yourself indulge in vain wishes.” Looking at Banerjee and her ministers one can’t help but think of them all standing on a sea jetty, all the ministers looking at her nervously as she stares, paralysed by the frightening expanse before her.