Of an Inept Chief Minister, A Canny Shrewd Lady politician with a heart and a bumbling, not-so-dynamic industrial tycoon


Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

The outcome of Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s imaginative initiative, setting a new benchmark for gubernatorial involvement in crisis management, may not matter much to Mamata Banerjee since Singur, like Nandigram, is only another stop on her relentless march to the Writers’ Buildings. That is a legitimate enough destination for a politician whose stamina evokes admiration and who brings to her mission a gift for histrionics that her adversary, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, cannot hope to match.

He would baulk, for instance, at draping himself in a burqa to be photographed offering namaz at the start of the Ramazan fasting. Seeing the picture in Wednesday’s newspaper, I wondered what prayers she muttered in that unlikely garb. What prayers, for that matter, did Jaswant Singh intone (and in what language?) as he stood in a yarmulke, the Jewish skull cap, with closed eyes and cupped hands at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall? Such gestures are less acts of faith than intended to inspire faith — in Ms Banerjee’s case, in the 25 per cent of West Bengal’s population that is Muslim. This is the CPI(M)’s natural constituency, not only because 70 per cent of Bengali Muslims are said to live below the poverty-line and Marxists champion the deprived, but also because Left Front West Bengal is still a haven of secular stability without the witch-hunting that disfigures Gujarat and Orissa.

But with Didi on the rampage, Bhattacharjee must look to his laurels both as saviour of the poor and upholder of secularism. Determined to snatch both, the plump 53-year-old Trinamul Congress leader has also given notice of other causes tucked away in the folds of her sari in case Singur fails. Her only purpose being to dislodge the Left Front, collecting the gratitude and votes of people on the way, it makes little difference if already enriched cultivators, speculators and brokers benefit more than actual cultivators from the sale of “surplus” land she is demanding. They will be indebted to the fragile hotchpotch of dissidents, malcontents, rebels, ideologues, opportunists and careerists who have flocked to her standard and to which she seeks to lend gravitas by inducting a sprinkling of bureaucrats, entertainment folk and academics.

Mamata Banerjee knows how to keep this motley crew titillated. Who can forget the drama when she knotted a black shawl round her neck like a noose at a huge rally and threatened to strangle herself because the Congress had allegedly sealed a secret electoral pact with the CPI(M)? But instead of strangling herself, she flung the shawl (or one very like it) at Ram Vilas Paswan, then Union railways minister, in the Lok Sabha for supposedly ignoring West Bengal’s needs. Her indefinite fasts begin in a blaze of publicity and peter out in obscurity. Since she knows that cars are made in Bavaria, she was probably also aware that the red band round her head to signify a close encounter with death recalled the red ribbon that Napoleon’s not-tonight-Josephine wore round her neck to proclaim that the guillotine had nearly severed it.

Durga Prasad Saroj, a Samajwadi Party MP who dared to question the women’s representation bill, is probably even more of a dyed-in-the-wool MCP for the experience of Didi dragging him by his shirt collar from the well of the House. The well is where she alone is entitled to squat, scream and pelt the Speaker (or was it the Deputy Speaker, Charanjit Singh?) with scraps of paper. The media play up these antics and the public laps them up. It’s another matter though whether they add to her credibility as a potential chief minister.

Perhaps that is why she grasped the political lifeline that Gandhi threw her. A readiness to talk indicates an anxiety to project a more responsible image. It also betrays an anxiety to avoid blame for thwarting efforts to end West Bengal’s stagnation. Though still refusing to call off her blockade, she reiterates she has no objection to the Tatas and welcomes industrialization. Her suggestions of an alternative site for ancillary industries and a willingness to reduce the magic figure of 400 acres also sound conciliatory. She had probably begun to realize even before the tragedy of a cultivator’s suicide that voters see her as a major obstacle to the state’s regeneration.

In previous incarnations, Ms Banerjee has been a minister of state at the Centre in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Congress government and a cabinet minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance coalition. Now girding for battle for her home territory under her own colours, she has a third card — apart from poverty and secularism — to play. Without overtly invoking provincial passions like the Shiv Sena or invisible Amra Bangali idealists, the peasants’ cause projects her as the voice of long-suffering rural Bengal. Though no Left Front constituent will admit this, the ethnic element was a powerful factor in facilitating their sweep to power in the late Seventies when the communists were seen as a 100 per cent indigenous force pitted against a Congress that was at Sanjay Gandhi’s beck and call and the tool of a Centre that Bengalis equated with the Hindi-Hindu cow belt.

As the Congress virtually faded out of West Bengal politics, the CPI(M), combining unspoken parochial loyalty with ideological fervour, looked like an unstoppable force with only Trinamul opposing its advance. But the Trinamul’s sun seemed to be setting lately: having lost the Calcutta municipality in 2005, it lost more than half its MLAs to the CPI(M) in the following year’s assembly election. Quietly mortgaged to traders from outside the state though it might be, the Hammer and Sickle seemed destined to fly forever over the state’s political landscape.

But not with a rumbustious Didi seizing on Nandigram and now Singur to stomp the comeback trail. The hamhandedness displayed by Bhattacharjee and Nirupam Sen has given her the chance. The duo’s sudden — if commendable — lurch towards capitalist reconstruction was never properly explained to either party cadre or communist supporters and sympathizers. Nor were the substantial gains that have already accrued from the Nano plant, with expectations of more. The government cannot even categorically repudiate Ms Banerjee’s 400-acre figure and provide a convincing alternative: it dithers between 47, 167, 254 and 334 acres. People still want to know why the House of Tata, high priest of the free market, could not buy its own land at market prices instead of relying on the government to invoke an archaic law. Why did Bhattacharjee absurdly promise to acquire only one-crop land when there aren’t even land records with such clear specifications?

The mystifying award of huge projects to a little-known Indonesian group inevitably prompted talk of kickbacks. The suspicion that people linked to the government or ruling party expect to make a killing from what Didi calls the “500 acres of lowland available on the other side of the road” further tarnishes the CPI(M)’s reputation. Nandigram famously moved the governor to “cold horror”. Like Ratan Tata, Gopalkrishna Gandhi is also “caught in the middle” between two political contestants.

Capitalizing on bungling to score thumping victories in both Nandigram and Singur in the May panchayat polls, Ms Banerjee warns she will now take up the cause of small retail (Bengali) shopkeepers who feel their livelihood is threatened by supermarkets and shopping malls owned by outsiders like the Ambanis and Goenkas. This is mobilizing the ethnic vote; it’s also moving from country to town. After two frustrating stints in New Delhi, Mamata Banerjee knows there can be no real power without a base: she must capture and control the state. For West Bengal, too, it is time for a change after 30 years of communist domination. But one cannot help but wish the prospect did not suggest jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.


My two bits about this – Raja Mitra

I have consistently maintained & blogged earlier about the sheer incompetence & ineptitude of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the present C.M. of West Bengal. Add to that the hubris born out of being at the helm for several years, being a protege of that misguided anti-national party leader, Prakash Karat and having to contend with old-style ideologues and out-of-touch bumbling politicians like Biman Bose and what you get is a recipe for leading the state down the road to disaster.

Having belatedly realized that agriculture and handouts to party cadres alone can’t quite pull the state out of the morass it has sunk into over the past several decades, Bhattacharjee, given his inexperience and ineptitude in such matters, has been hurtling into more disastrous territory for the last few years. First came his tango with an infamous, notorious Indonesian group which, is desperately looking for newer pastures after having looted their home base, Indonesia. The Salims thrived beyond their wildest dreams under the patronage of that unscrupulous and greedy erstwhile dictator of Indonesia, Suharto.  Since their kind of ‘industrialization’ involves filling their own pockets as quickly as they can, without any regard or concern for the fall-outs of such unmitigated greed and profiteering, anyone with any business maturity & experience of what’s good for his home state would have given the Salim group a wide berth. However, not being equipped in the least to negotiate & deal with such carpetbaggers, Bhattacharjee blundered into a disastrous, contentious deal with them. No wonder a canny, shrewd politician like Mamata Banerjee jumped into the cauldron created as a result.

When the Tatas came calling, Bhattacharjee did not even want to know whether he should jump. The only issue was how high and he was perfectly willing to be told that by Ratan Tata & his minions. One wonders whether it ever crossed his mind why in the first place he should get involved in a ‘land-grab’ operation for the Tatas, who pride themselves on being free-market champions. As long as he provided the basic infrastructural facilities, why couldn’t the Tatas acquire the land they needed through fair means at reasonable prices?

One wonders whether he had competent people check up & give him an informed status report about the Tatas. With a number of failed and stalled projects all over the place from Orissa to Madhya Pradesh to Maharashtra, including his much-touted but spectacularly aborted efforts to first start a national airline with Singapore Airlines and later to build airports with Singapore’s CAAS, Ratan Tata who has forayed into everything from automotive to high-tech based on the solid foundations left him by his uncle J.R.D. Tata, has not exactly had a sterling track record in getting projects up & running successfully and has come up short on quite a few occasions during the last several decades.

One wonders also about his tall claims about rolling out his latest small-car, Nano from the production line at Singur by October 2008. Even if Mamata Banerjee had not started her latest agitation in August 2008, all indications are that while the plant at Singur may have rolled out a few pilot cars by October, it was well short of going into full-scale production by that month. The present agitation has thus come in mighty handy for the Tatas to explain away yet another delayed project.

While locating ancillary industries in the immediate vicinity of the main plant is an ideal solution to keep costs, including inventory carrying costs down, it must be borne in mind that the Tatas have not been able to achieve this even to a large extent for any of their other manufacturing projects anywhere else in the country. Hence Ratan Tata’s frequent threats to scuttle the project and move elsewhere should also be taken with a pinch of salt. A project of this size and the total land mass involved for setting up the main plant, ancillaries, housing and other infrastructure for people working in the main or ancillary plants would involve dealing with politicians, state & federal laws and making some compromises anywhere else in the world. Ratan Tata would know this very well indeed. Yet encouraged by the ineptitude and foaming-at-the-mouth approach of Bhattacharjee’s government, he has chosen to take a high & mighty pedestal instead of getting down to brass-tacks and hammering out a solution. He is counting on the inept and weak-kneed State Government and the utterly incompetent Bhattacharjee to do that job for him. An intriguing management decision that, to say the least.

Mamata Banerjee, under the circumstances, is doing what any canny & shrewd politician would jump into, given the prevailing set of parameters. She is still not adroit enough to manage the entire scenario and some of the resultant negative fall-outs from l’affaire Singur. Still if these and other similar efforts succeed in forcing Bhattacharjee and his dhoti-clad incompetent & misguided cohorts into slinking away into the wilderness after the next elections, she would have achieved net gains for the long-suffering State of W. Bengal and its people.

No one is arguing that an administration led by her will be wholly good, rational or efficient. However compared to failed politicians like Bhattacharjee and his cohorts and failed, irrelevant parties like the CPM, an administration led by her will at least be a breath of fresh air for at least one term.

It is finally up to the people of W. Bengal to decide what’s good for them and act accordingly. One hopes they will be wise enough to do that during the next elections.

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