Mamata goes the Leftist way

A Bengal that elected Mamata in May last year was always a bit wary of her ability to make the transition from rebel to chief minister

There are few politicians who have made the journey from the sublime to the ridiculous in so short a time as West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee.

A year ago, as the well-entrenched Left Front-government floundered, the leader of the Trinamul Congress emerged as the Mother Goddess, hell bent on slaying the Marxist demons who had intimidated an entire people for three decades.
It is not that everyone regarded Ms Banerjee as the perfect avenger. Her temperamental ways, her inability to treat colleagues as equals and her determination to wage total war on her opponents regardless of the issues did arouse fears.
However, since taking on the CPI(M) unflinchingly and unwaveringly for a sustained period required exceptional determination, Bengalis were inclined to allow Ms Banerjee an exceptional degree of licence. After all, it was said, you had to be slightly crazy to take on the Left in
an apparently unequal war.
A Bengal that elected Ms Banerjee with a staggering majority in May last year was always a bit wary of her ability to make the transition from rebel to chief minister. However, the fact that she came to power on the crest of popular goodwill, the blessings of the middle class, the unequivocal support of the Muslim minority and even the endorsement of the over-unionised labour suggested that her paribartan (change) journey would involve a balanced approach. Above all, the real expectation from Ms Banerjee was that she would put an end to the petty tyranny of the CPI(M)’s fabled “cadre raj”. In short, having experimented with quasi-radicalism for 35 years, Ms Banerjee would strive to steer West Bengal in the direction of normal politics. West Bengal was tired of being the permanent contrarian.
It has taken less than a year for disappointment to overwhelm the state. Far from abandoning reckless populism and getting down to the serious business of governance, Didi appears to be frittering away her energies in trivial pursuits. Whether it is the curious decision to paint large parts of Kolkata blue, a silly prosecution of a middle-class professor who had forwarded a cartoon on email and her diktat to her supporters to shun all social contacts with CPI(M) supporters, Ms Banerjee has focused attention on her eccentric ways. Coupled with her peremptory treatment of party colleagues who dared to be a little different, she seems hell bent on making governance in West Bengal over the next four years a Mad Hatter’s Party.
The natural rebel in Ms Banerjee appears to have snuffed out her momentary inclination to emerge as a statesman, with one finger in national politics. It is true that the local media, particularly that section which endorsed her enthusiastically in her battle against the Left Front, has been merciless in the attacks on her. But far from viewing criticism as a wake-up call, a beleaguered Ms Banerjee has been quick to detect conspiracies. Why the rape of a girl in a posh area of Kolkata or the assault of a college principal in North Bengal should be evidence of a monumental gang-up to destabilise her government is a matter of mystery.
What is not bewildering is the fact that the chief minister has unwittingly borrowed the language and imagery of the very Left she claims to despise. The incessant talk of conspiracies is so reminiscent of a Left which had grown up on a diet of counter-revolutionary paranoia. Conspiracy or chakranta was a favourite term of Stalin lovers who spent the first two decades of Left Front rule declaiming against a diabolical Centre.
Likewise, the social boycott of the CPI(M) that Ms Banerjee has begun advocating is borrowed almost entirely from her Communist foes. The “cadre raj” that was unleashed in West Bengal by the CPI(M) did not always generate physical violence. The strategy of the comrades also consisted of enforcing social ostracism of a target, denying him/her labour, livelihood and community services till the point where the victim either left the locality or grovelled before the party local committee. For the Left, which believed in total control of society, social boycott was a lethal and effective weapon. It yielded results but it was also responsible for the anti-Left backlash that found expression after the Lok Sabha election of 2009.
It is this unthinking drift to copy-cat Leftist politics that is at the heart of Ms Banerjee’s woes. Sometime in the early 1990s, Ms Banerjee arrived at the conclusion that the old-style blend of bhadralok and jotedar (petty landlord) politics would not suffice to oust the Left. Like the Congress of Siddharth Shankar Ray that matched Left-wing extremism of the CPI(M) and Naxalites with Indira Gandhi’s radical rhetoric, Ms Banerjee chose to beat the Left at its own game. It paid rich dividends and her unrelenting opposition to muscular land acquisition in Nandigram and Singur secured for her the support of Left-inclined intellectuals who glorify poverty and loath development.
No doubt the CPI(M)’s loss of monopoly control over Leftist rhetoric played a role in the electoral transformation of West Bengal. But where Ms Banerjee seems to have miscalculated is in believing that the cussedness and obstructive ways of the Left is a source of inspiration to West Bengal. That may have been the case a decade ago but the paribartan people voted for in 2011 was meant to usher in liberation from economic stagnation and despondency. Ms Banerjee doesn’t seem to realise she is going the way of the Left.

The writer is a senior journalist

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