Ten months after her massive mandate, the West Bengal Chief Minister continues to be in election mode, obstructing difficult decisions by the Centre and rejecting unpopular advice from State officials.
On March 19, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee swept imperiously into Parliament House to “persuade” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to appoint Mukul Roy as railway minister, and roll back much of the increase in rail passenger fares, just hours after she had forced Dinesh Trivedi to put in his papers. That accomplished, she pressured the Congress to withdraw its candidate for a Rajya Sabha seat from West Bengal, enabling her to push four instead of three of her nominees into the Upper House, before flying back to Kolkata. What did the Congress receive in return? Yes, the Trinamool Congress didn't back the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s amendments to the President's Address on the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), but its MPs, ministers included, only embarrassed the UPA government by walking out of both houses of Parliament.
Embarrassing the UPA
It was all part of a familiar pattern. Last year, Ms Banerjee torpedoed the Teesta Waters Agreement with Bangladesh, embarrassing the Prime Minister; halted the government's efforts to introduce FDI in retail; and after backing the Lokpal Bill in the Lok Sabha, opposed it in the Rajya Sabha. This year, she joined opposition Chief Ministers to railroad the NCTC and, for good measure, got MP Ratna De to shred the general budget proposals in the Lok Sabha. “It's called compulsive populism,” an exasperated State official told The Hindu.
If the Trinamool out-opposes the real opposition in Delhi, Ms Banerjee plays Chief Minister and Leader of the Opposition, by turn, in Bengal.
On March 3, four days after Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee led a procession through Kolkata in an open jeep, she followed suit, bringing the city to a halt, accusing the Left of maligning her government.
In the State
Ten months after she won a massive mandate, ending 34 years of Left rule in the State, she remains in election mode, as determined to prevent the Centre from taking difficult decisions, as she is to reject unpopular, if pragmatic, advice from her officials. Instead, she has focused on the optics: after being anointed Chief Minister at Raj Bhavan last year, she walked to Writers' Building through a kilometre-long surging sea of humanity. Eight months later, Ms Banerjee, en route to attend Republic Day celebrations, alighted from her car at one end of Red Road — along which the parade passes — and walked to the Maidan, where she was to receive Governor M.K. Narayanan. She ambled down, waving to the cheering crowds: when she arrived, the Governor — in a reversal of traditional protocol — was waiting for her.
Today, Ms Banerjee still believes she only has to wave her wand, and Jangalmahal will be magically transformed into a rural paradise, Darjeeling into a land of smiling Gorkhas, Kolkata into London, and West Bengal into India's industrial giant. But the jackboots she wears beneath that fairy godmother costume peep out each time she cracks her whip to make civil servants and industrialists — like her Trinamool colleagues — jump through the hoops. In January, she forced a sheepish Chief Secretary and Director General of Police (DGP) to repeat her claims on developmental works in front of an audience in Maoist-affected Jhargram. A few days earlier, she reduced sharp-suited captains of industry and foreign diplomats to schoolboy status: naming them individually from her vantage point on stage at the “Bengal Leads 2012” business summit in Kolkata, she asked them “what their problem” was — why were they not investing in Bengal?
That script went awry on March 14: in full TV glare, Mr. Trivedi refused to reverse the hike in passenger fares, spotlighting not just disaffection in the Trinamool, but also Ms Banerjee's unwillingness — as demonstrated in this year's State budget proposals — to frontally address Bengal's economic crisis, the key challenge to her government. Currently, as she struggles to pay government salaries, a burden enhanced by 2,75,000 new jobs, State officials despair. “In her first few months,” said one official, “she should have increased resources through higher taxes and raised electricity tariffs. She was so popular she would have got away with it. The longer she waits, the tougher it will get.” This is, especially as Delhi has ruled out an economic bailout for Bengal.
Credibility at stake
She's also unwilling to admit that anyone in her party or government can err. Last year, she raised eyebrows when she marched into a police station to bail out Trinamool hoodlums; this year, her unsympathetic response to a young woman who was raped after leaving a nightclub on Kolkata's fashionable Park Street has become a watershed for the city's middle class, even as growing incidents of rape and political violence in rural Bengal in recent days have become grist for the Left mill.
As Ms Banerjee's personal credibility begins to take a beating, and there is little on the credit side as far as governance goes, her party colleagues are staining at the leash. Trinamool sources told The Hindu that Mr. Trivedi's demotion is fuelling discontent among its MPs, with Mr. Roy's elevation angering them further: they believe his unsavoury past will catch up with him and embarrass the party again. Of the party's 19 Lok Sabha MPs, Mr. Trivedi and poet Kabir Suman (who'd already gone public with his unhappiness), apart, Sudip Bandopadhyay, Kalyan Banerjee, Saugata Roy, Suvendu Adhikari, Sisir Kumar Adhikari, Sucharu Ranjan Haldar and Somen Mitra reportedly figure in the list of the disenchanted.
Ms Banerjee needs to stem the rot, keeping a sharp eye on the Muslim vote, before the panchayat polls next year when she will face her first electoral test after she came to power. In last year's Assembly elections, she broke the Left's hold over the 27 per cent strong Muslim population, pushing the latter's vote percentage in the State down to 41 per cent.
Not surprisingly, Rs.570 crore has been set aside for minority welfare in this year's State budget.
So, has the girl who clawed her way up from the slums of Kolkata to the seat of power done anything right? “Her inability to take no for an answer can work well occasionally,” a police officer admits. “Last year, when she wanted to recruit home guards from Jangalmahal, she was told the rules forbade recruitment from a specific region. When she remained adamant, a way out was found.” That's the flip side of her total disregard for rules, procedures, or indeed the law, if it comes in her way. But can she leverage her inclination to cut through red tape to remain a force in Bengal politics? For that will determine her ability to successfully scare Delhi about her imminent departure from the UPA — and extract what she wants.