Is ‘Didi’ Headed For a Fall? by Anuradha Sharma
Aamra ekhon-o boli ni kon kagoj porte hobe, kintu agami dine kintu setao bole debo. (Till now, we haven’t told which newspapers must be read, but in the future, we will do that as well.) – West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, speaking on March 29 in defense of her government’s decision to bar all but 13 newspapers from more than 2,400 government-approved libraries across the state.
“Kunal Ghosh, associate editor of Sambad Protidin, a Bengali newspaper, Nadimul Haque, owner of the Urdu newspaper Akbar-e-Mashrique and Vivek Gupta, director of Sanmarg, a Hindi daily, have been nominated to the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Parliament, on Trinamool Congress tickets.”- Indian Express, March 18
Ms. Banerjee seems to have adopted a divide-and-rule strategy when it comes to managing her public image, using hostility on one hand and appeasement on the other to counter a recent flood of bad press. The combination of banning some of the state’s most widely-read newspapers from libraries, while naming journalists from favored papers to cushy political spots seems designed to improve her public image.
On Thursday, in perhaps her most iron-fisted attempt to date to take control of her public image, she even had a Jadavpur University professor of chemistry, Ambikesh Mahapatra, and his neighbor, Subrata Sengupta, arrested for making and circulating a mild-mannered cartoon of the spat between Ms. Banerjee and the former railway minister, Dinesh Trivedi.
Ms. Banerjee’s public relations strategy has turned the urban, intellectual, well-educated voters who once supported her, against her. But the minister’s problems may go far beyond the reaches of a public relations exercise, according to interviews with analysts, commentators, bureaucrats and legislators within her own Trinamool Congress Party.
They paint a picture of a chief minister for whom very qualities that won her the hard-fought state election, including a single-minded sense of purpose and indomitable fighting spirit, are becoming liabilities as she tries to govern. If the chief minister continues on this path, they say, her party could crumble, making it easier for the Communist Party of India, Marxist — which held West Bengal for decades — to make a return.
“She does not listen to anyone,” a Trinamool Congress legislator who joined the party more than three years ago, won over by her movement against land acquisition in Singur for Tata’s Nano factory, told India Ink on the condition of anonymity. “She just does what she feels like,” he continued. “Delegation of power is a no-no. She wants to do everything herself,’’ he said. “She does not trust anyone.”
“She is in a hurry, in a tearing hurry,” said a senior bureaucrat who has worked for the state government for more than 20 years. “And so, suffers from what you can term as ‘what-nextism.’ Every time she has to make a new promise, announce a new project, without even realizing the ground realities or the preparedness of the government.” In January she announced that the tenders for building the Subarnarekha Bridge had already been floated, when it wasn’t until Feb. 22 that the Planning Commission approved the project.
The senior leader of the Trinamool party, Subrata Mukherjee and the chief spokesman, Derek O’Brien, both of whom were regularly interviewed in the days before and after her victory, did not respond to numerous phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Armed with the mantra of “Ma, Mati, Manush” (mother, motherland and people) and the promise of “poriborton” (change), Ms. Banerjee came into power in style, with a historic electoral victory, putting an end to the 34-year-old Left rule in the state. “Saviour Didi” was soon credited for bringing in a new work culture, her poriborton mantra working a Midas touch even on the city’s film festival and book fair. Energetic and very hardworking, Ms. Banerjee said she dreams of turning Kolkata into London, complete with a Kolkata Eye just like the London Eye, and is painting the city blue to make it a Blue City, just as Jaipur is a Pink City, in order to build a global brand for the city.
Ms. Banerjee also made it clear early on that she hadn’t come to the top spot only to listen to others. Just 13 days after assuming office, she had the director of Bangur Institute of Neurosciences suspended for “insubordination and noncooperation” because he had dared to tell her that her entourage – which included five television crews and a host of print journalists – was causing problems for patients inside the hospital. The neurosurgeon, Dr. Shyamapada Ghorai, had six critical surgeries lined up for the next day, including a brain tumour removal, but he was suspended later in the night upon Ms. Banerjee’s orders.
Most recently, Ms. Banerjee stripped Dinesh Trivedi of his rail ministry for proposing what he said was a much-needed rise in fares in his Union Railway budget last month. Between Dr. Ghorai and Mr. Trivedi, she has randomly reshuffled portfolios of ministers, sometimes even without their knowledge, earning the wrath not just of the Congress party, an ally, but also sections within her own party. She even involved the state government in restructuring of portfolios at Kolkata Municipal Corporation, an independent body.
The seemingly random upheaval, combined with her perceived inability to listen to others or give them responsibility has turned supporters into critics in a remarkably short time.
The Trinamool Congress Party’s rule has become “anarchic” and “chaotic,” said social activist Anuradha Talwar, once a Banerjee sympathizer. “It is difficult to get her appointment. And without her we are unable to take up any issues with the government because she has not authorised anyone else for the job.”
A joke often heard in the corridors of power is : “If Ms. Banerjee is sick for a day or two, the state would take ill, too.” A phrase often repeated in the corridors of Writers Buildings, where the state’s bureaucrats work, is “Didi should not talk and let others do their work.”
The Trinamool Congress Party is now a head with no other vital organs, claims the author, filmmaker and columnist Ruchir Joshi, who chronicled her meteoric rise just a year ago. “It seems every decision, even at a panchayat or village level needs to be run past her,’’ said Mr. Joshi, who authored “Poriborton: An Election Diary.” He told India Ink from London, “MamBan,” as he refers to her, is “childishly megalomaniac and fascist of a different type.”
“The joke is there is now a new law in Bengal, ‘Didi bolechhey,’”Mr. Joshi said. The last part translates as, “Didi has said.”
“Defection from the T.M.C. ranks to the Congress could be a high possibility,” predicted Om Prakash Mishra, general secretary and spokesperson of the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee, which is affiliated with the Congress Party. “Intolerance and antagonism is a characteristic of her governance and shall spell disaster for her party and government,” he added.
Mr. Joshi agreed. “I see interesting new alliances forming in the near future, perhaps in one year or so,” he said. “Unless Mamata Banerjee’s learning curve shows a steep rise, which is unlikely, the political landscape of Bengal is in for more upheaval.”
While Ms. Banerjee’s critics are vociferous, some of her supporters are still big enthusiasts.
The state’s tourism minister, Rachpal Singh, whose car was attacked in a clash between two Trinamool factions last month, dismissed the criticism. “T.M.C. is a strong party and enjoys a huge mass support,” he said. “Ms. Banerjee has been a very successful chief minister.”
In the tourism department, for example, she “took the onus on herself to get the cooperation of other agencies and departments for an inter-disciplinary action to develop and promote tourism in the state.” The group plans to announce new tourism services soon, Mr. Singh said. “This is something that others had not been able to do earlier,” he said.
“She is very thorough in her work and that makes it tough to handle her because you got to do your homework really well,” Mr. Singh said. “She has tremendous energy and expects the same from others.”
Ms. Banerjee’s demanding, sometimes school-marmish demeanor has sparked laughter, as shown at an investors meet in January where she took a roll call of investors and foreign delegates, asking, “Are you interested in investing money in Bengal, or no. Yes? My China friends? Mr. Jindal, when will the industry be set up? We have done everything, now you hurry up too.”
But, ministers and bureaucrats who are at the receiving end of her often-public rebukes and reprimands, say her demanding, unpredictable nature is no joking matter. “She scolds us, and very badly,” said a senior bureaucrat. “It is difficult to predict her. She can be extremely mercurial, throwing files one moment and chattily cheerful the next.”
Ms. Banerjee’s gaffes and conspiracy theories in recent past have been a major source of embarrassment to the party and government officials alike, say party insiders and bureaucrats.
Whether it has been a case of rape, infant deaths in hospitals or farmers’ suicides, her response has been quick and nearly always the same: The issue is related to a conspiracy to malign the government. In the Park Street rape case, while her transport minister, Madan Mitra, raised questions on the victim’s character, Ms. Banerjee said the case was “concocted” to “malign” her government.
On the Katwa rape case, she went on to suggest that victim had staged the “drama” backed by the opposing Communist party because her husband belonged to the party. The woman’s husband had passed away 11 years ago.
In both cases, she was proven wrong by the police, who investigated and made arrests. But neither she nor anyone from her party apologized.
Trying to understand what makes Ms. Banerjee act the way she does has become something of an armchair sport. Many people cite her hard-won fight to the minister’s seat, which occupied the better part of 30 years and left her literally battered, with a fractured skull included among her injuries.
“Mamata Banerjee has always been someone in ‘opposition’, someone used to picking fights with the rest of the world as an underdog,” Mr. Joshi said. “She has no governing experience, nor, it seems, any serious vision. She’s still searching for enemies, for people who are against her, who she can fight. Having got into power now her fight is merely about how to stay in power,” he added.
“Street politics backed by populism seems to be her key. She’s a fighter without ideology and a very insecure person,” Ms. Talwar said.
This “fighting spirit” has trickled down the rank and file. On the rise are not only campus violence and attacks on teachers, but also clashes between the Trinamool party’s various factions. “The gunda politics, the thug culture of Bengal has only shifted loyalties” from the Communist party to Trinamool, Mr. Joshi said.
Whether the unrest Ms. Banarjee is stirring in her own party and among the educated middle-class and intellectuals will actually translate into a comeback for the Communist party is unclear.
“Didi has her math right where it matters, that is her vote bank in the rural areas of Bengal,” the Trinamool party legistlator said. “Her extreme populist measures, such as no price-hike policy, has kept them happy and will continue to do so.”
During last year’s election campaign, the legislator said, he met people who had never cast a vote in their life, thanks to the Communist Party of India, Marxist’s oppressive rule. “For these villagers Didi is goddess,” he said.
Industrial development, while a focus of her election campaign, is on a slow track — though she has taken some baby steps on land reforms — for it’s time now to focus on the villages. Perhaps with the upcoming panchayat elections in mind, the party is doling out sops to farmers and minorities, and announcing honorariums to imams.
At the same time, she seems to be quietly trying to appeal to the culture clan and intellectuals who once rallied behind.
In this year’s state budget the allocation of funds for information and culture was raised by 125 percent, the steepest in any section, to 110 crores, or 1.1 billion rupees, or $21.5 million. One of the main ways the money is to be spent is on awards for drama and music.