Public anger can take unpredictable forms. In West Bengal, the resentment building up against the two-year-old government of the Trinamool Congress seems to have found expression in the protests against the death of Students Federation of India activist Sudipta Gupta after he was arrested by the police during a demonstration. Whether this is an ordinary accident as claimed by the police, or a custodial killing as alleged by supporters of the opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist), Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee appears to have underestimated the extent of public anger by talking of the tragedy as a “small, petty” matter. The more Ms Banerjee displays her intolerance and impatience with those protesting against her government, the more she will be seen as arrogant and insensitive to people’s concerns. If the Chief Minister is not careful, Sudipta Gupta, in death, could become a rallying point not only for those tired of police high-handedness under Trinamool rule, but also for those aggrieved about anything and everything the government did or did not do. Ms Banerjee is certainly entitled to her opinion that the protests are politically orchestrated by the SFI, an affiliate of the CPI(M). However, by debunking every protest against her as part of a Left Front conspiracy she would only have alienated large sections of her own support base. While in the opposition, the Trinamool leader displayed a great ability to feel the pulse of the people, and to provide leadership to mass movements. To now look upon all protests and agitations as mere attempts to discredit her government and disrupt law and order will only strengthen the impression that she plays by different rules when in power.
The issues propelling the current wave of protests go well beyond the circumstances of Sudipta’s death. Even if the SFI leader did not die on account of police violence, the fact that he died in police custody should have been enough for the government to recognise the potential for a build-up of public anger. But with the Chief Minister not hiding what she thought of the protests, and the death that served as the trigger, the government lost the opportunity to address the genuine concerns behind the protests. As the panchayat election approaches, and her government is locked in a legal battle with the State Election Commission on the modalities of conducting the polls, Ms Banerjee is beginning to look more like a battle-weary ruler bearing little resemblance to her earlier self of a battle-hardened street-fighter. For once, it appears Mamata-di is running away from a fight.