West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee has strongly protested the recent fuel price hike. Banerjee, an ally of the Congress at the UPA at the Centre, said she did not entertain the fuel hike and more because the government 'did not consult' other UPA allies before taking such a crucial decision.
Rightly said, Banerjee, as has been known throughout, is a politician who is always ready to take up popular issues. She was once the only and the most fierce opposition to the Left Front regime, which had ruled West Bengal for 34 long years. She had withstood all sorts of state atrocities but yet never gave up her will to fight the regime all by herself. Her fierceness earned her the title of 'Agnikanya' (The Woman of Fire) and bouquets from all sections of the society, particularly the anti-Left one.
The leader from Kalighat in south Kolkata came into the thick of things in 1984 when she defeated CPI(M) heavyweight and former Speaker Somnath Chatterjee in the elections and earned a ticket to the Lok Sabha for the first time. Banerjee always regarded the late Rajiv Gandhi as her mentor and served as ministers under various central governments later, including the NDA led by the BJP. She formed a separate party in 1998, the Trinamool Congress, after pulling out from the Congress, which she thought was not sincere as an opposition and started her battle with a renewed vigour.
It was always expected, hence, that such a leader, if ever comes to power, would deliver from the word go. The intellectuals and civil society supported her and from a miraculous turnaround from what it was in 2001 and 2006, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress drubbed the powerful Left and took control of Mahakaran, the state secretariat. Banerjee capitalised on the Singur and Nandigram debacles of the Left and former CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who till recently was hailed as 'brand Buddha', was thrown into the dustbin of history.
Banerjee's platform was thus set. Many thought she would just walk in and deliver. The walkathon she undertook to the state secretariat after taking oath as the CM on May 20, 2011, was symbolic. 'That the saviour was here. It was the beginning of a dream, a change for the better', people thought.
But politics might not be as simple. Banerjee, who till now was a girl-next-door for the common men, soon felt the pressure of the burden of expectation and challenges of administration, one which was left in a state of decay by the previous regime.
One of the Mamata government's primary drawbacks was that she had no core team to overhaul the administration and keep it delivering. The 2011 polls were determined by abomination for anything Left and, closely following that, appreciation for anything associated with Mamata. Riding a massive anti-Left sentiment, the non-Left candidates emerged victorious even if they were not much tested.
Besides, the chief minister herself looked to be falling short of adequate administrative skills. For the first few weeks, Banerjee adopted 'a politics of mobility' and started storming into various state hospitals and departments to witness the prevalent situation. She even started visiting vegetable markets to know the reason for the shooting prices. A good effort to start with, but such moves have limited consequences. In one of the hospitals, she even suspended a medical officer for not abiding by her order. Many saw the glimpse of a megalomaniac administrator in the incident.
Mamata Benerjee has also made a series of populist announcements, one of her favourite ploys. Rice for the poor at Rs 2 a kilo, super-specialty hospitals and a St Xavier's College in the backward Jangalmahal, developing Kolkata on the lines of London, helping farmers to sell produce at rates fixed by the government, were some of the innumerable promises made. The chief minister fails to understand that only promises and setting up buildings would not lead to any development.
The government has also been accused of failing to rein in unruly elements. Party squabbles have spread throughout the state and rowdy party supporters are not reluctant to attack each other even in front of TMC ministers. Mediapersons are being attacked and yet nothing is being done. The increasing number of cases of crime against women in the state also shows the brittleness of the administration.
Appointing a high-profile mentor group for the uplift of the elitist Presidency College in Kolkata has been in stark contrast to the reign of terror visible in the government education institutes on the outskirts. Goons openly invade colleges and beat up principals, schoolteacher is heckled in the open. Such lopsided action will never bring back, what Banerjee said 'the lost glory of Bengal.' The government clearly lacks a viable education policy. In fact, the same can be said for sectors like health, sports, industry and agriculture.
Banerjee has not scored much as a visionary also. She hastily went for a tripartite hill agreement, which has complicated a serious issue and would be responsible if the fall-outs are serious.
But what has been the most glaring failure of Banerjee is that she has failed to act with restraint. Imposing a ban on 'critical' newspapers in state libraries, arresting a professor for forwarding an innocuous cartoon on email, terming a rape issue 'a fabricated one' even when it was being probed and getting the investigating officer transferred, howling at an audience for asking her 'uncomfortable' questions and even calling a student 'Maoist', accusing the Left of joining hands with the ISI and other international forces to eliminate her, are some of the examples which are bound to harm her public image. the drama that unfolded during this year's railway budget also was a blow. She must understand that 'public perception' is significant in politics and she can not afford to send across wrong signals at such an early part of her tenure, and that too on trivial issues. Mamata Banerjee is letting go a grand opportunity. She must check her moves.
Here are some ways which can help Mamata to amend her ways.
First, Banerjee can always opt for professional and sophisticated public communications means if she feels that she and her ministers do not have good verbal skills. There are several online means of communication which can help image building in a grand way. There are instances where even her ministers make unnecessary and arrogant comments, adding to people's distaste. The example of the food minister is a pertinent one. The minister, Jyotipriya Mullick, recently launched a meaningless attack on the Left, advising people to sever all ties with it. He even asked his party supporters not to establish any matrimonial relation with any CPI(M) loyalist! Continuation of such polarisation on political lines could augur well for Banerjee as a ruthless opposition leader but not as a responsible chief minister. There has to be a point where the reckless use of words must stop.
Secondly, Banerjee should stop blowing her own trumpet by claiming often what all she has done in a year. “We did 10 years' work in 10 months,” or “What the CPI(M) could not do in 34 years, we will do in 5 years,” are comments which will do no good to the government's credibility. Mature administrators and leaders let the action do all the talking. Mamata must learn that fast. She has got problems in terms of financial crunch, a debt-ridden state, a baggage of greenhorn ministers, a police force yet to be freed of the 'biased' tag, Maoist disturbance, development, farmer suicides, the list goes on, and dealing with all these is by no means easy. There have been a few stories of success as well. Like, political violence has decreased in the Maoist-affected areas of the Jangalmahal since she took power and that Banerjee succeeded in persuading the Planning Commission for a bigger grant. Banerjee should build on these patiently for a brighter future.
Thirdly, Banerjee must desist from excessive patronization of the intellectual class, particularly those who are on 'her side and against the left'. It is amazing how the so-called intellectual class of the Bengali society gets sharply polarised on amra ora (us and them) lines. There are people from various fields, who in a shameless display of switching loyalty, clung on to Mamata ever after she became the chief minister. This, in a way, is doing Banerjee no good. Moreover, actors, directors, painters, singers, drama artistes have no business to always move in circles around the CM. They are seen often on the TV giving expert opinions on the state of affairs even if they are absolutely unnecessary and irrelevant. These people should be kept at a distance unless any advice is sought on subjects of their expertise.
Fourthly, it is high time Mamata Banerjee comes up with definite government policies, be it in agriculture, industry, health, education, and the entire economy as a whole. As of now, the state government is yet to chalk out policies that will benefit the state in the long term. In case of industry, Banerjee has done nothing substantial till now, apart from holding leisurely talks with industrialists in various enclaves. A little talk here and there will never solve the state's problems. There must be an inclusive approach if a stagnant West Bengal has to make any progress. Banerjee has said industrialist have to acquire land themselves, something which is totally impractical. Her party's opposition to the concept of SEZ can prove detrimental by forcing several big firms pulling out. The same applies to all crucial sectors. Populist measures like not imposing water tax and thoughtless steps like installing more and more fancy streetlights on already lit-up roads will keep the state exchequers crippled. In this regard, Banerjee can take a cue from the Left Front government of 1977-87, the period when it had done some good work and which helped it to survive till 2011.
Finally, but not least importantly, Banerjee must stop wooing the minorities and that too, in a dull way. She has decided to pay stipends to the imams from the exchequer. This is an utterly unpopular measure. She has also backed Urdu newspapers and started displaying a bit too much admiration for Kazi Nazrul Islam, the famous rebel poet of Bengal. She even wanted to turn Indira Bhavan, the residence of former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, in Kolkata into a research centre on Nazrul (the decision was revoked later in the face of strong protest from the Congress for the Bhavan was attached with Indira Gandhi's name). These measures would never earn her any benefit for imams or Urdu newspapers do not impact the majority Muslim population.
These measures must be tried and tested if Banerjee has to increase her government's durability. She is an honest leader, no doubt, but only that is not sufficient. Politics is a far more complex game and particularly when one is at the helm, more responsible move is what needed. Chief ministership is something new to her but evolution is the hallmark of a good politician. It is high time that Banerjee realises that she must evolve from a firebrand opposition leader into a mature administrator. For fates of several souls will be determined by what she does, or does not, to make West Bengal proceed.