On a whim & a dare

Earlier this month, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee convened a meeting of industrialists in New Delhi. The purpose was obvious and unexceptionable: to talk up West Bengal and invite investment to a state that, for all practical purposes, had dropped off the economic map of India.

Unfortunately for her, the exercise proved self-defeating. It is not that those who responded to her invitation came with a closed mind. Most industrial houses, especially the older ones, had a substantial presence in West Bengal, at least until the early-1970s when new investment plans were shelved. For corporate India, West Bengal is a state whose turn-around was overdue and would be enthusiastically welcomed. So far, and despite being more than a year in power, Mamata has been able to achieve little forward movement.
Yet, it was not merely the absence of concrete action on the ground that deterred those who came to hear the chief minister in Delhi. What struck many of those present was the leader’s complete lack of seriousness. In many ways, with her impulsiveness on full display, Mamata gave the impression that she didn’t understand the first thing about business. Her utterances were all over the place and there was no focus. At a time when there is furious competition among states to attract capital and create additional employment, West Bengal’s was an amateur act.
The irony of the situation is that Mamata is blissfully unaware that she is not doing something right. That she means well is undeniable. She works hard, often late into the night in her offices at Writer’s Building. She travels extensively throughout the state and is not averse to interacting with ordinary people. And she takes a keen, often overbearing, interest in every aspect of government and political functioning.
Perhaps it is this penchant for micro-management that warps her priorities. No problem is too small to not warrant her direct intervention. Whether it is the shortcomings of a police officer in a local thana or a factional feud in a block committee of the Trinamul Congress, the chief minister is always at hand to lead the charge. If Jyoti Basu was the archetypal aloof chief minister who was too imperious to bother about niggling local details, no problem is too small or inconsequential for Mamata. She is always willing to dive headlong into every cesspool.
Take two cases that earned her enormous disfavour with the very same middle class that has backed her resolutely since she stormed into the political world by defeating the redoubtable Somnath Chatterjee in 1984. The gangrape of a woman in the vicinity of Park Street was a heinous crime that should have been investigated thoroughly and professionally by the Kolkata police. As chief minister, Mamata’s role lay in instructing the police to get on with their job and improve the efficacy of late-night policing in the city. Instead, she decided to get enmeshed in the nitty-gritty of the case, smelling a monumental political conspiracy to defame her government where none existed. She ended up making outrageous statements, punishing a senior police officer for doing her job professionally and conveying a picture of insensitivity.
It is this penchant for paying disproportionate heed to local tittle-tattle and smelling conspiracies that explain her bizarre over-reaction to the circulation of an innocuous cartoon over email by a teacher of Jadavpur University. Regardless of whether the said gentleman was a CPI(M) supporter or not, the point is that Mamata had absolutely no business to get herself directly embroiled in such a controversy. Nor did she do herself any favour by flying off the handle and denouncing a young student who asked her an insolent question on TV as a Maoist.
A chief minister is expected to conduct herself with a measure of even-handedness and detachment. Throughout her political career Mamata has preferred a grassroots approach — which also explains the fierce loyalty she commands among the Trinamul Congress cadre. The problem is that in becoming a chief minister of the grassroots, she has set the tone for governance by flights of whimsy. Mamata has clearly lost sight of the big picture.
However, to conclude that her temperamental behaviour and her utter failure to make West Bengal a source of “positive” news has also jeopardised her politically, is to over-read her vulnerability. As of today, Didi has certainly become an object of ridicule to a section of the middle-class bhadralok who were hoping that the end of the Left Front’s cadre raj would be replaced by a meaningful, economic revival of the state. What it sees instead is a process of drift which, if unchecked, will steer West Bengal towards social anarchy.
The gloom and doom of the “respectable” classes is not universally shared. Mamata still retains the goodwill of a vast section of society, the most important of which is the Muslim community which is witnessing a silent assertiveness. In addition, the defeat of the CPI(M)-inspired petty tyranny in the countryside is still too fresh in the minds of rural folk for any immediate backlash to set in.
Yet, as 2012 turns to 2013 and a general election looms closer, Mamata would be foolish to disregard the stray writings on the wall. To endure politically, a government needs to show a few tangible achievements or fall victim to unfulfilled expectations. Mamata just has to forget the mohulla squabbles and start addressing the big picture.

The writer is a senior journalist

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