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Business Blues In Bengal
Payback By TMC
Two years ago, on the bright, sunny morning of May 13, a beaming Mamata Banerjee sat in a room of her one-storey house in the shanties of Kalighat surrounded by ecstatic party colleagues and animated journalists from across the country. The air was alive with excitement and anticipation. After all, it was a moment of historical significance. The results of the Bengal assembly polls had just been announced. Mamata had blown the Left Front’s defences apart with an overwhelming majority; the world’s longest-running democratically elected Communist government had come to an end. In keeping with her consciously subaltern image as the leader of the masses—symbolised by the inspired motto of Ma, Mati, Manush—the celebrations were modest, yet charged with joy. Endless cups of tea and coffee appeared in small clay cups. Basketfuls of puffed rice (muri) and fried snacks (teley bhaja) went around. Songs were sung. Hundreds had gathered for a glimpse of their leader. Didi stepped out often to acknowledge their thunderous cheers.
Two years later, on another sunny May morning, it looks as if the crowds had never left Mamata’s residence. But instead of lusty cheering, there are cries of despair and anguish. Cheated out of their life’s savings, the angry, stricken groups demand justice.
The Bengal chit fund scam couldn’t have broken at a worse juncture for Mamata and her Trinamool Congress government—just in time for a performance appraisal due after completion of two years in office. The most common words used to describe Mamata’s performance in a random Outlook survey of a cross-section of Bengal’s population have ranged from ‘disappointing’ to ‘dismal’. After the Saradha scandal, reinforced with the complicity of Trinamool henchmen, “dishonest” is a word that has been added to Bengal’s repertoire of disillusionment.
“She advertised herself as a ‘paragon of virtue’,” sniggers a sardonic Left Front chairman Biman Bose to the amusement of supporters. “All that honesty has gone bust in just two years?”
“She advertised herself as a veritable paragon of virtue. All that self-proclaimed honesty has gone bust in just two years?”
Other than parading her honesty, Mamata rode to power brandishing her ‘grassroots’ background. She does come from a lower-middle-class household, and continues to live and work out of her small house in Kalighat overlooking a sewer and just across from south Calcutta’s red light district. However, observers never tire of pointing out Mamata’s Brahmin surname, or the uncomfortable fact that almost all her ministers come from the upper castes—as they have always done in West Bengal, including the 34 years the Left Front ruled the state. “She still seems to put her trust mostly in the upper castes—Brahmins and Kayasthas hold key positions in her ministry (Partha Chatterjee, Mukul Roy, Amit Mitra) except a few,” says Bengal political commentator Tarun Ganguly.
Insofar as the burning political issue is concerned, Bengal politics has played up the ‘class’—as opposed to the ‘caste’—divide for decades. Thus, like the Left in the past, though the TMC bagged almost the entire ‘nomoshudro’ (lower castes or Dalit) vote comprising 65 per cent of Bengal’s electorate, there has been no major shake-up in terms of socio-political mobility. In states like Bihar and UP, the emergence of obcs and Dalits has shaped politics in recent decades. But in Mamata’s Bengal, they remain largely invisible.
If the lack of social mobility for the lower castes doesn’t count as a problem in Bengal, analysts argue that the one main focus for the Bengali politician has been to appease the nearly 30 per cent Muslim votebank. Here too, Mamata’s tell-tale sops indicate a policy cut from the old cloth. Unless she adapts to the changing times, it may backfire on her. As Ganguly observes, “Like the rest of the Left agenda, Mamata has also usurped the Left practice of appeasing Muslims because of votebank politics. But try as she may, the fact remains that she had no qualms about aligning herself with the NDA and in the future she could do it again if needed.” Mamata’s brazen ‘butterpolishing’ of Muslim religious leaders—she announced Rs 2,500 a month honorariums to each imam—angered even a section of the Muslim community who find it ‘insulting’ and offensive. “What does she think? She can buy my vote just because she is paying my religious leader some money every month?” says Najma Begum, a beautician, who comes from a deeply religious family which opposes the move.
In the realm of industry, Mamata has effectively abandoned the late, brief reawakening of Left support for investment under Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. “We are doomed,” laments Sheikh Mohammed, a resident of Singur, who not only voted TMC in the 2011 polls, but was also among the “unwilling” farmers who joined Mamata’s campaign that hounded the Tata Nano plant out of Bengal. He believed Didi’s campaign promise of getting back land given for the Nano project, and her boasts that she’d “turn Calcutta into London”. “But in two years we see that Didi has turned Singur into a wasteland and our dreams into a nightmare,” he says. After a negative high court order on the issue of the state’s handing back land at Singur from the Tatas, it has become a symbol of the TMC’s failings. Mamata’s ardent supporters in the region have turned into her worst critics, actuated by a strong sense of betrayal. “If we had the Tata Nano, we could have been the best state in the country in terms of industry. Now we are the worst,” Sheikh says dejectedly.
“The trend of top leaders in the government condoning violence if the perpetrators are connected to the ruling party is unheard of.”
Industrial policy experts agree. In an interview to Outlook, former commerce and industry minister Nirupam Sen says, “Bengal wouldn’t have been just best in the country, but it would have been one of the best car manufacturers in the world if Tata Motors was allowed to operate in the state.” He explains further: “Since the Nano was to be the cheapest car in the world, at the time when our government was in negotiations with Tata Motors, I had automobile manufacturers even from Germany and Austria—unquestionably pre-eminent in the world auto industry—express their curiosity about the project. The loss of the Tata Nano was a devastating loss of opportunity of economic development of the state.” In retrospect, the Nano’s pullout before the 2011 assembly polls appears to have set the current flat tone for the future industry policy in Bengal.
In fact, industrialists were dismayed by the Mamata regime’s hands-off policy regarding land acquisition—going against the grain of accepted practice across the world, it said it would not help investors find land in Bengal. Since then, several other industries have fled or stalled operations in a state already denuded of big manufacturing industry. These include the ABG Group and Jindal. As against the present 2.8 per cent growth rate of industrial production in the country, West Bengal has a rate as low as 1.8 per cent.
The last two years have also seen Bengal erupt in political violence of such ferocity that it prompted governor M.K. Narayanan to remark that a “kind of goondaism” was plaguing Bengal politics. The immediate trigger for his comments was the audacious physical assault on senior Left leader Abdul Rezzak Mollah by alleged Trinamool goons in January, followed by days of arson and CPI(M)-TMC fighting. Even more disconcerting were the veiled barbs aimed at the governor himself by TMC leaders in response to his remarks. Panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee darkly said that the governor had better watch his words or else there’d be dire consequences.
Activist and thespian Kaushik Sen explains, “Political violence is not new to Bengal. There were many instances even during the Left regime. But the difference is that top Left leaders rarely came out in defence of goons who allegedly worked for them. The current trend of top leaders commenting on or seemingly condoning acts of violence if the perpetrator is in some way connected to the ruling party was unheard of.” Indeed, public alarm over political violence is not only based on the actual incidence, or whether it’s on an upward curve, but reflects deep concerns about how leading political figures have tended to respond to it all. For example, when SFI leader Sudipto Gupta died in police custody last month, Mamata called it a “small, petty matter”.
“Bengal would have been the best in India and one of the best auto manufacturers in the world if the Nano plant had come up.”
In an example of brazen misgovernance, as recently as February, TMC councillor Mohammed Iqbal (Munna) was allegedly shielded by a top state minister (one of Mamata’s favourites) after someone in a rampaging mob he led at a college election shot and killed a police constable. As Munna, pursued by the police, went on the run, a furious Mamata cracked the whip on police commissioner Ranjit Pachnanda for doing his job and going hard after a suspect who happened to be a Trinamool man, ultimately replacing him. Pachnanda met the same fate as former joint commissioner Damayanti Sen, who solved the Park Street rape case in April 2012, and dared to refute the CM’s statement that the rape was ‘staged’ and was aimed as a slur againt her government. That a woman CM, that too who led the charge against Left ‘oppression’ in Nandigram, could say something so insensitive was noted with disbelief. The following castigation in the press and statewide protests against the government’s inability to curb crimes against women must have hurt. When the Delhi gangrape rocked India in December 2012, Mamata commented, “It happens everywhere—not just in Bengal.”
Last month, after suspected TMC goons raided the prestigious Presidency University campus, beating students and vandalising laboratories, party leaders didn’t react by condemning the act or promising an investigation, but said the violence was self-inflicted by the CPI(M) (the SFI controls the college union; the TMC barely has a presence) just to malign Trinamool. For many students who were witness to the unprecedented political assault on an educational institution, the response felt callous. “We were so scared we would be molested that we had a friend lock us in a room from outside so that the goons wouldn’t find us; we turned out the lights and hid under benches,” said a Presidency student.
“The problem is that the TMC has still not been able to shake off the Opposition mentality. It needs to get out of partisan politics, and like most progressive states, embrace a pluralistic approach. Even Narendra Modi himself is trying to shake off his sectarian image in his readiness to brace himself for a larger role. Mamata needs to learn to do that,” says analyst Ganguly.
Ravenous for public recognition as Bengal’s saviour, all Mamata has accomplished till now is a dissipation of her benevolent, sisterly image and considerable goodwill by being on a constant defensive, in denial of her government’s shortcomings and having paranoiac perceptions of loss of face and defeat. Add to that an inability to face reality.
Last month, for example, when Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi visited Calcutta, Mamata had an opportunity to demonstrate that she could rise above perceived competition, and not be bothered by the loud, persistent whispers that Modi was the better CM and had capitalised on her failed industrial policy (the Nano factory was weaned away to Gujarat). Instead, she chose absence, taking a morning flight to Delhi the day Modi was scheduled to arrive in Calcutta. In spite of Modi’s image as a communal rabble-rouser forever tarnished by the Gujarat riots, he commands some grudging respect, even in liberal-secular Calcutta, for the way he has successfully solicited industrial development for Gujarat. In contrast, Mamata is seen as no better than the Left by a city bereft of the glossy markers of well-being that industry delivers. Her move to avoid a probable juxtaposition with Modi only served to bolster that image gap.
“TMC is yet to abandon opposition tactics in the last two years. It has to get out of partisan politics and embrace a pluralistic approach.”
Mamata’s almost pathological hypersensitivity to criticism seems to dog every step of hers—preventing her from showing moderation at various points, as well as goading her towards a style of governance marked by haughtiness and impetuosity.
Any assessment of the Trinamool finally has to touch the lowest point in a generally poor performance—the TMC supremo’s record of suppressing political dissent. The litany of retaliatory wounds by the Trinamool run deep. Jadavpur University professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was arrested and roughed up for circulating an e-mail that caricatured the chief minister. College student Tanya Bhardwaj was labelled a “Maoist” for simply asking the CM a critical question. Shiladitya Chowdhury, a Jangalmahal farmer, was also tarred with the same brush and arrested at a rally for asking the CM why fertiliser prices were going up. All of these events attracted the ire of civil society. Mamata’s style has often been termed ‘fascist’ even by erstwhile supporters like author Mahasweta Devi.
The compound effect of her many faults has gradually eroded Mamata’s support base, especially throughout urban Bengal. Yet she blunders on, now with a heightened sensitivity about the impending panchayat polls. A majority of the victims of the Saradha scam are from the Bengal countryside—a TMC bastion since Nandigram. A loss of face before 2014 is hardly desirable. The near future could tell if its inner defences are breached.