Didi of Bengal – Part 2
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

I had written about the rise of the mercurial Didi and 4 different phases of her political career in my first post on her. Here, in this post, I will write about the 5th phase of her political career and try to dispel many of the wrong notions about her.

Didi, the woman

Didi has been in the opposition most of her political life – whether in center or in the state. Even when she was in the ruling alliance, as MP or as minister, she had the habit of opposing what she felt was not suited to her constituency – mainly, the bottom of the pyramid. She didn’t always do this with a sense of appeasing her votebank, but sometimes because she genuinely cared and felt deeply. That she is genuinely humble and down to earth is evident from the fact that she stays in a small 2-room house with her mother, shorn of basic amenities like an AC (much needed in the Calcutta summers), whereas her relatives have ridden roughshod on her popularity and made moolah for themselves.

Now coming back to the point, having an opposing and contrarian view is her nature, which she can’t change because she is too emotional, honest and straight-forward. She would rather paint (her paintings sell for significant amounts or write a book than attending some dinner party and is not out of touch with the local culture, despite being a gadget freak (she carries a Blackberry, and an iPod containing Tagore songs)

Exhibit1: A Mamata Banerjee painting

But she has her weaknesses. The big weakness she has is being cynical of people around her. Having being dealt toughly with male politicians early in her career, she doesn’t trust too many people, even her senior party functionaries. That she was the lone cabinet minister in the center from 2009-2011 despite having 19 MPs and all others given MoS posts shows she is somewhat insecure. Even when she stepped down, she chose Mukul Roy, her close confidante, to succeed her (it’s a different matter that Manmohan Singh didn’t choose Mukul because of his comment that he won’t visit a railway accident site because he was only the MoS and chose Dinesh Trivedi instead). This insecurity is also evident in the fact that she prefers political lightweights like Derek O Brien and Tapas Paul over heavyweights like Sudip Bandopadhyaya (MP from North Calcutta, a long time TMC member) and Subrata Mukherjee (her bête noire during her Congress days)

The other weakness comes from her strength – that is, love for arts. She loves to surround herself with “intellectuals” from fields of literature, cinema, theater, arts, music etc. This explains many of her MPs and MLAs are ex film stars or singers (one of them has a dubious nationality record too). Often, the quality of discourse and getting work done suffers as a result, the people of that constituency begins to feel cheated. Often, these people have their own agenda – out of work or plain greed; they see this as an opportunity to make headlines, or that extra dough. The various Railway committees she set up with these “intellectuals”, thus suffers from a loss of credibility and exposes her to criticism

But here comes the big question, why did these people win in the first place? Here comes the issue of Mamata, the one-woman army. The West Bengal electorate does believe in giving people chances, loves to forgive people easily.  Perhaps this is their nature. And most of them believe strongly in secularism (no wonder, BJP, despite repeated tries, hasn’t made a mark in the state), socialism and believe capitalism is a curse. This is the main reason (plus land reforms in the late 70s and anti-Congress mood from the Naxal era) why Bengalis kept on voting for CPIM. And when CPIM lost, it was because Mamata had become ‘more Left’ than them, ironical, but true. As I said earlier, the land acquisition and Rizwanur episodes, plus Mamata’s aggressive pro-minority posturing led many to her brand of politics. Mamata was always a popular leader herself, even in the days when she was a lone MP or the chips were down for her party, she drew crowds of lakhs in her Brigade Rallies

Exhibit2: A Typical Mamata Banerjee rally (source: India Today) 

It’s indeed a fact that in 2009, the anti-incumbency factor had seeped in the average West Bengal voter’s psyche. Congress realized this fast and sided with her. The combines vote brought the alliance 26 out of 42 LS seats. But all said and done, Mamata was the face – she was the rebel, the wronged woman, the fighter who was fighting the tyrannical Left for several years. The 2 parties rode on this single image of Mamata and came to power. After she came to power in the center, she was the instant media darling (needless to say, mostly pro-Congress), because in her, they saw a strong alliance partner, a chance to overthrow the left in the state of West Bengal (and less because they saw her for her qualities)

As Rail Minister, she had but one mission in mind- West Bengal assembly election 2011. And the 2 rail budgets she presented were ample testimony to her ambitions. So far so good. Then were the 2010 Kolkata Municipal elections – another alliance, another demolition of the left. Then there was the big daddy of the elections – the state assembly elections 2011. Here the differences with the Congress started – she (to an extent rightfully), begun to demand more out of Congress and give them less and less in return, rubbing salt in their wounds by pointing out the fact that they may be the national party, but she was the regional leader. For sake of coming to power, Congress kept quiet mostly but for a few mentions of dignity by some national leaders (they perhaps forgot that even in the 80s, when Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi campaigned for them, they couldn’t dislodge Jyoti Basu)

In 2011, West Bengal delivered a historic mandate. Out of 294 seats, TMC alone won 186. The left bastion had been swept off by that one woman, as a result, a lot of unworthy candidates and sycophants came into power. Since then, 3 things have happened. From the lows of 35 MLAs in 2006 (when Bengal voted for Budhhadev Bhattacharya’s clean image and progress of the state), she reached a new high – the lady in the white crumpled saree had thrown off the longest elected Communist Government almost single handedly

1. All the erstwhile goondas (read real estate promoters, businessmen and strongmen) shifted loyalties from CPIM to TMC. This meant TMC became an exact replica of the CPIM – the common man continued to suffer. Even nepotism began to rear its ugly head, with her brother and nephew in the news for wrong reasons

2. Mamata herself began to suffer from delusions of greater power (though I must say, quite unlike her – she, in fact, wants mid-term elections sensing a chance to win more MPs and thus have a greater say in how the things are run at the center). Her ambition at the center has also grown, and she knows the vulnerability of the UPA Government after the 2G scam indicted the DMK top leaders. Thus, in the name of protecting her own voters’ interests (ma mati manush – ma (West Bengal – the motherland), mati – land (from her anti-land acquisition days) and manush – the common man), she began to take decisions which made her popularity among urban voters’ dip – opposing FDI for instance. A sense has crept in that Mamata isn’t as straightforward as she earlier was. Also, unfortunate statements like calling a rape incident as a made-up news and banning certain newspapers from the state libraries has made her vulnerable to criticism

3. Mamata’s constant opposing the Congress, taking on the dynasty has caused a lot of heartburn in the English language media. Now, what I always feel, the English Language media is a powerful tool in the hands of the establishment to slander anyone who they want out of the way. How? In the age of social media, create a negative impression in the minds of impressionable young men and women without much knowledge of politics, and let them do the rest on facebook and twitter. Mamata hasn’t really lost much ground support, especially in the rural constituencies, but, yes, definitely in cities where there is a higher proportion of people who follow news, she has become some sort of a regressive villain who opposes development, supports rape and speaks horrible English (as if that is a crime).

Now the last point I wanted to make about Mamata’s current phase of politics – her insecurity and being surrounded by unscrupulous power hungry people has seen her take wrong decisions. For example, a competitive rally to counter CPIM, throwing traffic out of gear. That was completely unnecessary and earned her negative reviews. She is in power, she should show that by development to an extent that the opposition (who, being, high level hypocrites, will continue their way) sounds silly.

But, is the Mamata regime all bad as media suddenly proclaims is? Not at all, on the contrary, there have been quite a few positives.

1. Traffic and road safety has increased – working streetlights, effective police (yes, sounds ironical, but that is what has happened) and strict fines has ensured road safety

2. People with strong backgrounds in the cabinet – Amit Mitra, the former FICCI Chairman as Finance Minster looks like the right person to try and tackle Bengal’s huge debt burden (nearly 95% of the state revenues go towards repaying debt –a relic of the Left Raj). Manish Gupta, the former chief secretary of the state, who defeated his own former boss Buddhadev-babu from his bastion, Jadavpur is another competent person, as is Bratya Basu, a professor and currently education minister of West Bengal.

What Mamata should do to ensure she delivers a good term?

1. Allow the good people mentioned above to go about their own work without much interference, and keep the goondas and self-serving “intellectuals” on a tight leash.

2.  Micro-manage her party affairs (infighting, political murders have become a norm) and punish the guilty to set an example.

3. Learn to trust the people around her more, especially those who have a genuine concern about the future of West Bengal.

4. Give up strong opposition to industry and allow SEZs. This makes the principal business communities in Bengal – the Marwaris and the Gujaratis, nervous too.

5. Stop involving herself in trivial matters like commenting on every issue, even not related to her.

6. View fire safety and other such measures strongly – there has been at least 7 instances of major fires in and around Kolkata in the last year – including the horrific fire at AMRI -cancel or review the licenses of buildings which don’t meet the norm (media should also remember here most of the licenses were given or renewed in the Left era).

7. Stop making unpopular decisions like painting the city Blue and white, which is a drain on the exchequer (actually, the painting decision was not bad per se – the structures had begun to rust and needed a coat of paint – only that they could have retained their original color).

8. Review healthcare and education – 2 sectors systematically destroyed by the Left (she started off well in this, but lost steam somewhere and finally,

9. Stop playing by the rules set by the media and stop being complacent.

I hope she won’t disappoint us

(This is a humble attempt to bring out various facets of Mamata Banerjee, a much-maligned politician. I may have missed out on some points. If you notice, please feel free to point it out. I tweet @kaushiksaha1982)