Mamata Banerjee and I go back a long way. “Will you make a good wife?” I had asked Mamata when I first interviewed her in 1986. Educated at St Xavier’s College, Calcutta (Father Huart), and Sunday (M.J. Akbar), I was 27 and on a roll. Mamata was 31. “I can cook, sing and dance like any other Bengali girl. I know typing. I also believe in washing and ironing my clothes. But I don’t intend to get married,” the petite politician told the naive reporter who now realises, much to his embarrassment, that you don’t ask ladies such personal questions.
Whether it was crass or classy journalism, the exchange is recorded for posterity on page 22-23 of The Illustrated Weekly of India dated March 16, 1986, in my story titled Spitfire.
I saw Mamata from hand-shaking distance in the Raj Bhavan just before she was sworn in as CM. Mahasweta Devi, human rights icon and Magsaysay award-winning author, sat in the front row with P. Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee at the coronation. Before climbing the dais where the governor waited to administer her the oath of office, Mamata walked briskly to Mahasweta, bent down and hugged her. From my vantage point in the second row—sandwiched between Nayana Bandopadhyay (Union minister Sudip Bandopadhyay’s wife) and actress Rachna Banerjee—I scanned Mamata’s chubby face, glowing with happiness as she embraced her idol.
One year on—and 26 years after that candid interview—I’m trying to ascertain if Mamata’s been a good or bad CM so far.
Mamata is a good girl; her personal integrity is unsullied. But times are bad. Her government and party are mired in scandals. No one’s more aware than Didi of the beating her own image has taken in just 12 months. A big chunk of civil society, which she once called her conscience, has lost confidence in her. Mahasweta has already branded her fascist: the unkindest cut of all. Newspapers and TV channels which lustily cheered her march to power are now scathingly critical.
I have a few suggestions. Mamata should go to the National Library (or ABP Library where Shakti Roy, ex-Library of Congress, will gladly make her comfortable) and read up on the Left Front’s first and second term in power. The decade of 1977-1987 was the golden period of Communist rule and certainly worth recreating for the greater good of Bengal.
Marxists were courteous and nice to everyone, ensuring peace and progress in that phase. Bengal heaved a sigh of relief after the traumatic experience of United Front regimes, Congress rule and Emergency. Marxism became a byword for good governance. However, post-’87, the Communists lost the plot. But they were still re-elected; voters gave them the benefit of doubt because of their good deeds for 10 years. Ultimately, when Communists degenerated into blood-sucking agents of capitalism, they were voted out.
Mamata should quietly take a leaf out of Jyoti Basu’s book. She should adopt the great helmsman’s guiding principles and state policies from 1977 to 1987. Luckily, there are no copyright issues involved. Those long-discarded Communist mantras will help Mamata recoup.
Secondly, Mamata must give her vocal chords a break. Her problems stem from talking too much and too often in public. She should shun the media, especially electronic, for a few months. Let the chief secretary, home secretary, DGP and police commissioner speak on the government’s behalf. Their mess can be papered over. A CM’s goof-up is impossible to live down.
Thirdly, Mamata should rightaway disband her culture clan. Good painters, singers, directors or actors have little or no time to waste on politicians anyway. So patronising the likes of Dwijen Mukhopadhyay, Shuvaprasanna or Saonli Mitra is not worth it. Indira Gandhi once requested Satyajit Ray to make a documentary on Nehru. The maestro excused himself saying it was too early to assess Nehru’s role in history. He did not latch on to Indira’s invitation and try to exploit her. Mamata should shoo away directors wanting to film her life!
Fourthly, Mamata must revoke her decision to pay stipends to imams from state coffers. The monthly allowance of Rs 2,500 to 30,000 imams amounts to bribing clerics and incites non-Muslims to hate Muslims. It denigrates Muslims, comprising 26 per cent of the electorate. Imams—or Urdu newspapers—hardly have any influence on Muslim voters. Paid imams can probably garner 60,000 votes—theirs and their wives’. And many more Muslims read Bengali or English newspapers than Urdu dailies. So why pander to imams or Urdu newspaper owners strutting as editors?
Mamata must religiously refrain from PDA—public display of arrogance—never mind the provocation. The common man adores polite rulers. And she must somehow woo back Mahasweta. So that, like Shashi Kapoor in Deewar, Mamata can boast—Mere paas Ma(hasweta) hai!
(Abdi won a UN media award for his Bhagalpur blindings story.)
Timely and well-meaning advice from S.N.M. Abdi to Mamata (Recoup D’etat), but she is unlikely to take it.
G. Niranjan Rao, Hyderabad
Mamata, the Trinamool and the people of Bengal need to learn a few lessons from the last one year. One, that it’s easy to ride to power on an anti-incumbency wave, but the sentiment is short-lived and can’t bail you out of social or economic issues. Two, populist policies are okay for a while but they eventually burn a hole in state finances. And three, without a disciplined, impartial approach to issues, no state machinery can hope to move forward.
Narendra M. Apte, Pune
Mamata has been a miserable failure in the first year of governance in West Bengal. And all because she is impetuous, impulsive and intolerant of criticism.
A.K. Saxena, Delhi
Mamata is a megalomaniac surrounded by sycophants and idiots. She reminds me of the Queen of Hearts in Alice's Adventures, screaming "Off with their heads", on the slightest pretext.
T.R. Harikumar, Coventry
In just a year, Mamata has managed to make Jyoti Basu seem such a visionary.
S. Bengani, on e-mail
S.N.M Abdi's story appears more like a set of advices following which the 'good girl' with 'unsullied' 'personal integrity' can retrieve lost position in the Kolkata civil society. The story is neither an analysis of Mamata as head of the government nor has any holistic perspective. It is more an image-building exercise for Mamata. Abdi ignores the singular failure of Mamata in democratic governance. First and foremost, as an autocrat to the core, she has made the ministry a one-woman affair. All the ministers have been cleraly given to understand that they are her puppets. Funnier is that she seems to enjoy that people know only she matters, and all others are wrothless fellows. This is harmful for any government in the long run. Domisticated creatures do not make efficicient ministers. Second, an increasing number of people now tend to believe that Mamata means gimmick. What she says may not be taken too seriously, especially with regard to her generous, and often exotic development promises and proposals. Third, democratic governance stands on some sort of continuous accountability. Being an autocrat she is accountable to none, and to legitimise her inactions/inefficiencies to the people she takes to conspiracy and denial theses. Fourth, she is disrespectful to parliamentary democratic tradition. In opposition, she literally provided leaership in destroying assembly's heritage furniture. In government, she is wrecking the assembly from within. This is amply evident in her infrequent presence in the assembly, casual or non-participation in budget debates even on her own departments, non-response to letters written by the leader of the opposition, who has in a short time earned appreciation as a responsible and graceful opposition leader, and non-reply to opposition-raised questions. Fifth, democratic governance is not just democratic government. It has to keep connecting to people through different civils socity organisations. Mamata was fortunate to have had close relations with the civil society thanks largely to Singur-Nandigram episode. Maddened with power she has chosen to destroy the autonomy that civil society would always demand. Instead she is handpicking journalists, newspapers, tv channels, film artists, poets and painters often with financial allurements. The latter's willingness to sacrifice autonomy means their loss of credibility among the people, and to that extent they cannot render the service that a critical and autonomous civil society can. The ulterior design of breaking the civil society is also destroying the buffer between Mamata (government) and the people on the street. Last but not the least, Mamata started her political career with a blantant falsehood regarding her academic record ('good girl', 'unsullied personal integrity'!!). The record of the last one year shows her unalloyed preference for falsehood. She promised, among one million other things, two central points: doing away with politics in educational institutions and establishing peace. Just take an account of the people who have been sent as head of the educational boards and councils at differnt levels, the newly sent govenment representatives of the college governing bodies (some of her appointees being goons and school-dropouts). In addition to being TMC-men, they are inefficient too. As a result, this year we had problems in a number of public examinations, the laterst in the row being the school teachers' recruitment examination. As far as peace is concerned, TMC-men are killing not only left cadres; they are killing their own partymen too. Finally, potential and actual rapists, hooligans with expertise in beating college teachers and principals, and decaying jotedars have found a new lease of life taking the state as a safe sanctuary for all their misdeeds with the police eternally waiting for signals from her which either do not reach them or reach the in the Damayanti way.
Good advice - specific and tangible too. Some of it apropro too. Question - is she a good learner. Or, is this is expected physcological responses of a person who has come up to the top post thru the school of hard knocks without a powerful father/mother, uncle/aunt, in-laws, husband, boyfriend, brother/sister to latch onto.
For the sake of WB, one hopes she is a good learner or else WB would find itself sandwiched between the devil and deep sea. Time and the winds are against WB, so it is a tough ask to put it economically on track. When capital has many choices why would it take undue risk and the biggest risk in WB is one of perception - work ethics and culture.
Will she be tough with the people of WB with a clear and stern message that the "enemy in within" and they have to change their habits OR will she just play the spoiler at the centre to collect more than her fair share of the pound of flesh from the center (essentially play kingmaker and become as basket case).
A timely and well-meaning advice from S.N.M.Abdi to Mamata. But she is unlikely to take it.
Mamata's intolerance to face uncomfortable questioning is beyond repair, for it is inherently ingrained in her maverick personality. A gutsy & brave lady and a street fighter no doubt. But she lacks the democratic spirit of give and take and the much needed political magnanimity. People like Didi are dogmatic, rigid ,self righteous and suspicious of others' motives. Therefore, they can easily slip into Fascism.
For a change let the sophisticated English media also think a little of how they should approach a mass leader like Mamata who has fought long and hard against odds. There has of late appeared in India a great "cultural and psychological divide" (Bill Clinton's words about the US scene in the late 60's) and this divide was quite palpable during the recent interview with Mamata. The English speaking elite are themselves to blame for their overexpectation and now they have hit the dirt with a thud. And they are so angry with Mamata for being the same old Mamata. Let the elite learn to interact better and show patience if at all they want to influence grassroots politicians like Mamata whose integrity no one has questioned.
Good advice for Didi! But she won't listen!
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