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Playing to the gallery

Playing to the gallery

Dear Mamata-di,

Let me at the very outset express a sneaking admiration for the manner in which you have proved your critics wrong yet again: you don’t just bark, but can bite too. Underestimating Mamata has always been risky business. In 1984, as a 29-year-old political debutante, you triumphed over the redoubtable Somnath Chatterjee when few gave you any chance of  a victory. Since then, through all the high and lows, you have shown that there is a rough method to the seeming madness. There is no other way that a single woman with no male support or political lineage (no godfather, husband or family legacy) could have built her own party and breached the Red Fortress of Bengal. And done so, quite remarkably, without the stain of  corruption or self-aggrandisement.

Even now, as the elite ridicule your opposition to the fuel hike and to foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail, you have clearly struck a chord with a constituency beyond the chattering classes. By raising the pro-poor, anti-globalisation pitch, you have positioned yourself  as the New Left at a time when the traditional Left is facing a crisis of identity. Your real enemy is not the UPA government at the Centre but lies within Bengal. By stealing the rhetoric of  the Left, you have effectively neutralised your main opposition in Bengal. Why, even the feisty comrade Gurudas Dasgupta has chosen to heap praise on you.

How many chief ministers will lead street protests against their own government on the price hike? To most observers this may seem incongruous; for you, it is almost a natural extension of your self-image as a 24×7 streetfighter politician who likes nothing better than a ‘lorai’, be it with Marxists, Tatas, Manmohan Singh and, oh yes, with ubiquitous ‘Maoists’ too. For almost 40 years now, you have thrived in the role of  the mass politician who prefers a high-profile, noisy joust to the more prosaic rigours of  administration. It is a persona which has become your trademark: in an era of drawing room politicians who get ‘elected’ through the Rajya Sabha route, you remain one of the last of the people-politicians who hates to be imprisoned within the walls of VIP privileges.

Which is why you still prefer to stay in your family house in a Kalighat basti than in the chief minister’s bungalow in Kolkata. Which is why you still drive into office in an aam aadmi Santro rather than in a gleaming white lal-batti Ambassador. Which is perhaps also why you declared your assets in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as just R4.92 lakh. In the era of the crorepati netas, you do offer a reassuring connect with an older generation of politicians who did not see public life as a ‘business’ opportunity but as a moral crusade. Which is also why your ‘Ma, Mati, Manush’ war cry has resonated, bringing back memories of Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi hatao’ populist rhetoric of the 1970s.

So far, so good. But the fact is that we are now in 2012, not in 1971. From an India of scarcity, we are steadily moving towards an aspirational society. Yes, there is still grinding poverty, most notably in several parts of Bengal, but there is also a growing upwardly mobile middle class that is determinedly pushing for a higher growth trajectory. Your finance minister Amit Mitra who as Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) secretary general was a strident votary of market economics, has now done a spectacular U-turn when he cautions against FDI in retail. In an interview, he told me that his shift was occasioned by the poverty he saw in his constituency. But how exactly would the setting up of retail chains affect the poor, or is there a vested interest in keeping the poor in a state of permanent deprivation?

This is where the politics of the Trinamool conflicts with the economics of Ficci boardrooms. Our chambers of commerce unapologetically lobby for FDI because it serves their self-interest. You champion the anti-FDI cause because you believe that the idea of foreign capital overwhelming the countryside will strike fear in the minds and hearts of your voters. You prey on the insecurities of your constituency, they appeal to the interests of their corporate citizens. 

Unfortunately, instead of looking to manage and resolve the conflicts of a reformist agenda, you seem to relish the idea of  a permanent confrontation. Maybe, the antagonisms serve to mask the serious crisis of governance confronting you in Bengal. As an opposition politician, you could make the bandh a symbol of protest. In the government, you are expected to offer solutions: be it to Bengal’s crumbling health and education infrastructure, law and order problems and the poor investment climate. The solution does not lie in accusing a college student of  being a Maoist and walking out of a TV programme simply because a question is asked on the Park Street rape. Nor does it lie in gheraoing a police station or arresting a professor for allegedly spreading anti-Mamata cartoons.

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‘Poriborton’ in 2011 was ultimately not just about ridding Bengal of the Marxists but also offering an alternative vision of governance. Maybe, you misread the massive mandate or maybe it was too much to expect an overnight transition from a combative politician to a diligent administrator. Maybe like Lalu Prasad in neighbouring Bihar, you were never meant to govern, but to primarily symbolise a regime change. In your success then, sadly, might lie the roots of Bengal’s possible failure too.

Post-script: Given the disorientation of the Left, there is no reason why you should not increase your tally in the next general elections. With 19 MPs, you are already a formidable force; with 25 to 30 MPs, you could well decide the next prime minister. What did I say about a method in madness?

The views expressed by the author are personal

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