Mamata Banerjee needs to carve out a niche for herself, the Congress in West Bengal is desperate to come in from the cold. Between the two compulsions, Trinamool’s alliance with the UPA at the Centre is threatening to run aground. But it would be a mistake to ascribe any grand or sinister motive to West Bengal’s rumbustious new chief minister.
Those who imagine her laying the foundations of a new federal equation overrate her philosophical vision and political perception. Those who accuse her of blackmailing New Delhi on the eve of the Uttar Pradesh elections to gain benefits for her state malign her unnecessarily.
Didi, elder sister, as she is popularly called, is a street fighter in constant need of causes and contestants. After 34 years of dictatorial rule, the Marxist-led Left Front has been banished to the sidelines. If the state branch of the Congress party can at last be seen and heard, it’s only because Trinamool’s triumph has emboldened it to sneak out into the open and speak. So, who does the woman who is used to yelling raucously from the back of a jeep and to brawling in the well of the Lok Sabha engage with? The Union government is the only adversary worthy of her might.
Not that this is empty posturing. She needs to restore her credentials. Six months in office have done little to sustain and develop Mamata Banerjee’s image as the champion of the people. The mysterious deaths in government hospitals of 37 newborn babies and the tragedy of the AMRI hospital fire in which 92 people perished could not be laid at her door. But with discontent creeping in, any stick happens to be good enough to beat the chief minister with.
If she gets little effective support from her own people, that is largely her fault. She runs a tight ship, so tight that people call the Trinamool government a one-man show. By all accounts, her ministers enjoy the liberty only of agreeing with her. She has upset the civil service with her whimsical inductions and transfers that disregard the bureaucracy’s sacrosanct protocols. After 34 years of a tacit alliance with the Marxists, the business community feels all at sea. It had worked out a way of dealing with Jyoti Basu that survived under his successors. Didi is not sufficiently interested in personal gain to give them a chance of broaching a similar modus vivendi.
What shows through it all is utter inexperience. Mamta has shed two of the nine portfolios she assumed to start with; but even seven are too many for a woman who is temperamentally far more interested in public drama than in painstaking work on files. The Rs 500 note she bestowed on a clutch of little beggar children through the window of her car was typical of her style. She meant well, but had no idea how to help those children in a practical way.
She is now faced with the same dilemma on a much bigger scale. How does she acquire land to attract industry without alienating the peasants she championed at Nandigram and Singur? How does she give orders to civil servants she sees as her enemies because they loyally served the Left Front for 34 years? How does she make the most of businessmen suspected of bankrolling her Marxist enemies?
She is not wily enough to work these out. But her instinct tells her, rightly, that the people are with her. Middle class Bengal’s honeymoon with Didi’s turbulence may be wearing thin but Trinamool’s unprecedentedly large victory in the by-election for her vacated parliamentary seat showed her magic has lost none of its shine with the masses.
Shades of Indira Gandhi, she is therefore reaching out to the people who know nothing as yet of frustrated bureaucrats, disgruntled political colleagues and empty exchequers. They know only that the woman of their choice is at the helm.
The issues she has picked on to battle the Centre are carefully chosen to appeal to this, her only constituency. She can tell the Bengal peasant that the Teesta water agreement with Bangladesh will starve his paddy fields of water. She can convince small shopkeepers—the only Bengali entrepreneurs left in Bengal—that FDI in retail sales will profit only foreign superchains and the big Indian business houses, the Goenkas and Birlas, who represent them in India. She does not have to tell the Bengali professional classes that the Lokayukta clause is the thin end of the wedge of Hindi domination. Her stand on coal pricing or pensions is similarly designed to appeal to her constituency at home much more than to defy Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi.
If, as a consequence, she and the UPA part company, it is as well: it was never anything more than a token marriage to begin with, like her earlier association with the NDA. Trinamool may have launched a Goa branch, but Mamata Banerjee is not, and never has been, a national politician. She loses nothing by being cut down to regional size.