Pangs of paribartan
Suo moto declarations are as valid as appraisals by external agents; by that reckoning, the eight-month-old government of chief minister Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal has delivered on each of the campaign promises as listed in the manifesto and the chief minister is confidently asserting “touch me if you can,” which is a paraphrase of a Bengali idiom that describes towering, spectacular achievement.
In her own estimation, Ms Banerjee has solved the “burning” problems that was the legacy of the CPI(M)-led Left Front government — the land acquired for the car factory in Singur has been returned to “unwilling” farmers in law; the Maoist insurgency in Jangalmahal has ended and the people are “laughing” instead of “crying”; the fissiparous Darjeeling movement has been tamed; industry is eagerly exploring the investment opportunities created by the change of regime and reforms in education have been successfully launched by gifting to the Presidency University a mentor group that is working overtime to convert a down-at-heel institution into a world-class one. There are other achievements too: minority students have been distributed scholarships and madrasas have been mainstreamed. Peace and harmony is back in West Bengal instead of the chaos and violence that prevailed earlier. The stage is set for the state to stride ahead and wipe out
Every initiative that the new government has taken is an exercise in reconstruction. This makes it more complicated to assess what has been initiated as an entirely new venture by a regime that promised paribartan on a scale that would morph Kolkata into London, a small sea-side town into Goa and Darjeeling into Switzerland. Having summarised the 34 years of the CPI(M)-led Left Front as dysfunctional and retrogressive, Ms Banerjee raised the expectations of the electorate to vertiginous heights making her task that much more difficult because she promised that every problem could be easily and quickly sorted out provided there was intention and capability.
The electorate therefore has been watching her intentions and her capability from day one, which means that there was virtually no grace period for the new government to ease into a job that usually requires experience and professionalism, two qualities significantly absent from the Cabinet, where only one minister had worked as such in any previous government. Even Ms Banerjee had no experience of working at the state level, having always functioned as a minister at the Centre. To top it all, as Ms Banerjee points out at every meeting, the legacy of the past does haunt the Trinamul Congress government; the deficit of the Left Front government, totalling approximately `2 lakh crore, has seriously limited the capacity of the new government to do things in its own way.
Handicapped by a financial crisis, Ms Banerjee was naive enough to believe that the Centre would bail her out and that it would, in the process, throw out the rule book, making exceptions for West Bengal merely because the hated Left had finally been thrown out. As it happens, Ms Banerjee was promised much; in return, she was asked to make changes to the manner in which West Bengal went about raising resources internally.
The impasse that has occurred will impact the capacity of Ms Banerjee to run the state, unless she overcomes her famous reluctance to raise prices and increase taxes. As former railway minister, Ms Banerjee did not permit upward revisions of passenger fares and was slow about raising revenue from cargo as well. She remains just as adamant on how more money is to be found for West Bengal’s transformation. As the relationship with the Congress has soured, her expectations of receiving out-of-turn handouts from the Centre have diminished. This could well become a weapon in her armoury for use against the Congress.
The promise of transformation — paribartan — had two parts to it. There were promises of better delivery of services and governance to the aam aadmi oppressed by the CPI(M)’s politically skewed distribution of benefits, and there were promises of protecting the interests of the poor. The second set of promises made Ms Banerjee more pukka Left than the conventional Left, a description that she gleefully broadcast at dozens of campaign meetings. The jury is still out on how effectively the Trinamul Congress has depoliticised administration and governance. The signs are not hopeful, since Ms Banerjee herself has warned her partymen that extortion, abuse of power and dalali would not be tolerated; in other words, she is fully aware of how local partymen of the Trinamul Congress have taken over from where the CPI(M) was stopped. Ms Banerjee is super sensitive to the mood of the electorate and she constantly reassures the voter that her ear is to the ground. Her promise to cleanse the party of such evil has not as yet materialised, suggesting that the limits of popular tolerance have not as yet been breached.
On protecting the poor or, rather, functioning as a government that protects and promotes their interests, Ms Banerjee’s effectiveness is remarkable. As the resource that has delivered windfall profits, the poor have been her priority. Famously averse to initiating any measure that would strain household budgets of the poor and the middle class, Ms Banerjee as chief minister of West Bengal has done exactly what she did as railway minister — remained impervious to all suggestions that she should allow raising revenue through new tax measures. To the consternation of the Opposition and pundits accustomed to governments presenting annual budgets, Ms Banerjee did not sanction a formal budget presentation exercise for FY 2011-2012. Under her direction, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation has resisted pressure for introducing water rates, ignoring the requirements of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. Increase of the price of power has been kept on hold.
Her response time to any distress call from sections deemed to be poor is extraordinary; she personally intervened to stop the eviction of street vendors crowding the pavement around Kolkata’s major government hospital; she personally promised government compensation to the families of the dead following the hooch tragedy; she is personally opposed to allowing bail for the directors of the AMRI hospital and has made it abundantly clear to industry that the law will take its own course.
The aam aadmi, therefore, has not as yet begun notching up the gains vis-a-vis the losses. Having given the Left 34 years to prove its mettle, the aam aadmi in West Bengal tends to take a very long view of how effectively promises made by the political establishment are delivered. The difference is that Ms Banerjee has upped her own stakes by declaring that she has delivered on the paribartan she promised. This is not a sensible claim given that governance in India is corrupt, inefficient and not noticeably pro-poor.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Kolkata