In the summer of 2001, it was evident as I travelled through West Bengal that fatigue had set in with the Left Front government. Earlier, in end-2000, anticipating the public mood, Communist Party of India (Marxist) veteran Jyoti Basu had stepped down as Chief Minister, paving the way for Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. This ensured the Left victories in 2001 and 2006.
The Left extended its life by a decade not merely because Mr. Bhattacharya gave it a new look but also because the only option before the people was Mamata Banerjee. Ms Banerjee leading her three-year-old Trinamool Congress, didn't seem capable of serious governance. I recall many conversations in Kolkata: yes, Bengal needs a change, but Didi simply can't be trusted to govern the State. If her trajectory as an opposition leader is clearly the stuff legends are made of, her forays into government — as Minister of State for Youth and Sports in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government (1991-93) and as Union Minister for Railways in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government (1999-2001) — had been less than inspiring.
That scepticism turned into burning impatience with the Left government a year after it returned to power in 2006. If the anti-land acquisition agitations in Nandigram and Singur saw a rural uprising against the Left Front, the latter's inability to contain the situation and the human rights violations ensured that Kolkata's vocal middle class, from club-going boxwallas to jhola-carrying intellectuals, all signed up for poriborton.
But today, a month short of celebrating a year in power, Ms Banerjee's honeymoon with the opinion-making middle class is over, the shroud of censorship she has flung across the State proving to be the last straw. The watershed moment was the arrest of a Jadavpur University chemistry professor Ambikesh Mahapatra on charges of violating the modesty of a woman, spreading social ill will and disrupting social harmony, merely for sharing a cartoon online. Later, it transpired that Dr. Mahapatra, as assistant secretary of the New Garia Development Cooperative Housing Society — where he lives — had blocked the Trinamool-backed syndicate's contracts to supply building materials, earning the wrath of the party's goon squads.
This episode has galvanised the middle class, especially the intellectuals who had jumped the Left Front ship for the Trinamool. Result: a Twitter campaign, “Arrest me if you dare, Mamata Bannerjee,” and an online petition on Facebook mobilising support against the government's actions. R.K. Laxman's “The Common Man,” mouth sealed with two strips of bandage, and a graphic of a male face, hands covering the eyes and mouth, adorn these accounts. Unfazed, the State CID has asked Facebook to delete morphed images of Ms Banerjee, after a Trinamool supporter complained that “objectionable comments” were flooding social networking sites. Since then, a group of intellectuals has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condemning the Mahapatra episode that came on the heels of another arrest — that of molecular biologist Partha Sarathi Ray who had in April joined a protest against the eviction of slum dwellers in east Kolkata. The signatories include Noam Chomsky, Mriganka Sur and Abha Sur of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, top scientists from the IITs and institutions in Denmark, Singapore and Sweden, as well as activists like Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey.
But Ms Banerjee remains unperturbed: for her, in an odd reversal of the State's politics, these are her “class enemies” — the elitist English speaking middle class, whom she referred to in an interview she gave last month to NDTV; those who, she said, have contempt for her humble origins.
As Chief Minister, she has made it clear she will not tolerate a differing view, much less dissent, within her party or government — or, indeed, far more troubling, in the State. If Mr. Dinesh Trivedi was unceremoniously sacked as Union Railway Minister for not toeing her line on the Union Railway budget, Damayanti Sen, the feisty, young Joint Commissioner of Police, Kolkata, who cracked the Park Street rape case, was shunted out to an obscure job for proving Ms Banerjee wrong: her first response to the rape charge and, indeed, news of infant cradle deaths, was that they had been “manufactured to malign her government.”
Now that intolerance has spread to the wider world: last month, government libraries were told to purchase only eight newspapers — those taken off the list were those critical of her actions and policies, as they prevented “freethinking” among readers. In future, she said, she might even ask people to stop buying certain newspapers “because a conspiracy is going on against us.” The newspapers that offended her included the top-selling Ananda Bazaar Patrika, The Telegraph and Bartaman: interestingly, Bartaman, whose strident anti-Left stance played a leading role in bringing the Trinamool to power, is now running stories highly critical of Ms Banerjee. Later, under pressure, five newspapers — a Nepali daily, two Bengali dailies, and The Times of India — were restored to the “government” list. An embarrassed Library Services Minister Abdul Karim Chowdhary said the government had not imposed censorship or banned the big papers, it only wished to promote small newspapers.
But to the “freethinking” reading public, it is more than apparent that those that made the cut in the first list were all pro-government: one such Bengali newspaper is owned by a Trinamool Rajya Sabha MP, whose associate editor, Kunal Ghosh, is among the three journalists recently elected to the upper house of Parliament on the party ticket. For Ms Banerjee, the switch from goddess-status to a daily scrutiny of her actions has been a rude shock, as all through her opposition years, she depended heavily on media support. Today, it's well-known in Kolkata's political circles that she looks to a chosen group of journalists, including the new Rajya Sabha MPs, rather than her political colleagues, for advice on all issues.
Unfortunately, for her, some of these “advisers” are now coming under the scanner as one of them works for a chain of media outfits backed by a chit fund, the subject of an ongoing controversy. Last September, Trinamool MP Somen Mitra wrote to Dr. Singh, urging action against chit funds channelling money into real estate, film production, the hotel business — and the media. He also alleged that these chit funds were prospering, thanks to political patronage, with some owners even in Parliament. Last month, Congress MP A.H. Khan Chowdhury wrote a similar letter to Dr. Singh, asking for an investigation into the activities of these chit funds. Indeed, the link between hot money and media organisations backing Ms Banerjee's government is now an open secret in Kolkata.
In the dying days of the Left Front government in West Bengal, the CPI (M)'s harmad sena, or goon squads rampaging through its villages, came to symbolise its 34 years. Today, those goon squads have switched political allegiance to her Trinamool. If the violence continues unabated — with the Left now at the receiving end — intolerance of any criticism of the new government has added a fresh dimension to the State's politics. “Harmad theke unmad (from unmitigated violence to untempered madness”) is the despairing phrase most used on Kolkata's streets to describe the prevailing situation in Bengal.
The middle class that turned the tide of public opinion in the Trinamool's favour is angry.
Writer Mahasweta Devi, among those who had backed Ms Banerjee, recently said: “Dictatorship has never worked. It has neither worked in Hitler's Germany nor did it work in Mussolini's Italy.” Ms Banerjee needs to heed those words: for even if her popularity is still intact in rural Bengal, recent events represent the thin end of the wedge.