Just a few moments before 1.01 pm on the sunny, humid afternoon of 20 May in Kolkata, Chief Minister-designate Mamata Banerjee did something quite extraordinary. Before taking the oath of office at this designated auspicious time, she walked up to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, whom she was about to replace as chief minister, as well as the other top leaders of the Left Front that had ruled West Bengal for 34 long years, and greeted them with a formal namaste. This was a remarkable gesture in a political landscape that has long been marred by personal innuendo and lack of political courtesy.
West Bengal voted for paribartan, or change, and the new chief minister believes that she is the agent of that change – in all respects. As such, she had sent her personal emissary to invite the outgoing chief minister for her swearing-in ceremony. ‘There are many things to change,’ Mamata told this reporter in Kolkata. ‘Showing courtesy to my political opponents is definitely one of them. They have insulted me every day, but I cannot make that mistake. Kolkata was once the seat of culture in India, but we have lost all that – you know the culture that the Left Front propagated. But make no mistake: we will regain Kolkata’s earlier status.’
Despite appearing to have a widespread popular mandate, however, as an agent of change, ‘Didi’, as she is popularly known, faces many challenges. From a crippled state economy to a tottering education and health system, and an overall lack of discipline and work ethic. West Bengal has been on the verge of administrative collapse for many years. ‘It’s a miracle that this state still runs,’ says Soumitra Ray, lead singer of the popular Bengali band Bhoomi. He too is focused on restoring a tarnished image. ‘With Didi, the expectations are sky-high’ he continues. ‘We all know that she has an unenviable job on hand, but she has the single-minded determination to bring back Bengal’s glory.’
Mamata’s magnanimity notwithstanding, it took Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee just a week after the swearing-in to note, ‘I pity her. We will keep a close watch on her performance.’ But there is no gainsaying the fact that Mamata’s performance in the first few weeks on the job was remarkable. She held two rounds of bipartite talks and managed a quick-fix of the long-festering problems in the Darjeeling Hills (see accompanying story by Udhyan Chamling Rai). Even Roshan Giri, secretary-general of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, standing by her side, nodded his approval for the ‘magic formula’.
And then came Singur. About 40 km away from Kolkata, this was where the Tatas had planned to set up a factory to manufacture the Nano. Singur marked the rebirth of Mamata Banerjee after she and her party, the Trinamool Congress, were decimated politically in the state assembly elections five years ago. In 2008, Mamata had opposed taking away fertile agricultural land from farmers to give to the Tatas, and had promised that some of the land forcibly handed over to the Tatas would be returned to farmers if she came to power. On 14 June, the West Bengal Assembly passed the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Bill, 2011. The Kolkata government stated that the ‘non-commissioning and abandoning’ of the small-car project in Singur by Tata Motors was the reason for taking back the land. The Tata group, one of India’s largest business conglomerates, reacted sharply, claiming that it had to ‘reluctantly close operation [in Singur] due to lack of congenial environment’, and said that the bill did not state ‘the reasons for stoppage of operations and shifting of the plant by the company’.
The issue is far from settled, as the matter is now likely to move to the courts. But Mamata has scored a political victory, especially in rural Bengal. When the Trinamool won its recent landslide victory, political analysts suggested that land and land rights would dominate state politics for years to come; but the new chief minister’s swift action took the opposition by surprise. From there, she moved to change the entire policy of land acquisition long pursued by the Left Front. On 18 June, as top industrialists from across the country gathered in Kolkata on her invitation (barring Ratan Tata, who sent four top executives of his company), Mamata made it clear that her government would not try to acquire land for industry, and that industry would have to directly purchase land from the market . Allowing the state government to forcefully acquire land, she said, would ‘again lead to a disaster’.
Mamata also announced the formation of a 23-member ‘core committee’, mainly comprising representatives of chambers of commerce and other industry bodies, to sort out all labour and other disputes – this in a state known as a bastion of trade unionism. Despite drawing flak from top industrialists for her new land-policy guidelines, in this meeting Mamata charmed industry leaders by announcing, ‘The core committee will be like your own cabinet – you run it. I will be out of this committee, but of course I will be with you. You meet regularly and make your industry minister run and be always on his toes. The whole idea is I don’t want the investors to run around from one place to another and get harassed.’ Despite such sweet talk, the chief minister was also blunt, making it clear that she would not encourage fly-by-night operators: ‘If you want to invest and do something, do it within a timeframe or else you let us know that you cannot do it.’
Thus far, industry leaders have said they found this new approach refreshing. ‘The climate is changing in Bengal. She can take the state back to its days of industrial glory,’ said Adi Godrej, chairman of the Godrej group and president-designate of the Confederation of Indian Industries. Mamata’s charm initiative had already received a bump from an unlikely visitor the previous day, when Robert Blake, a top US State Department official, invited her to join a business conference later this year to ‘attract quality investment’ into West Bengal. With a new government taking charge, the international community seems to be looking at investment possibilities all over again.
Maoists and babus
First and foremost, for all this to happen Mamata will need to assure the investors, and her own voters, that she can also tackle the Maoist problem. The Maoists have long been demanding the unconditional release of all political prisoners in West Bengal, as well as the withdrawal of security forces from Maoist-affected areas. Soon after becoming chief minister, Mamata announced her decision to constitute a committee to review the status of detainees and those jailed in political cases, and also made it clear that she wants to open talks with the Maoists. The latter have already reciprocated, announcing their readiness to start a dialogue. ‘If she creates a favourable situation, we are ready to consider the proposal for joining talks,’ said one member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) West Bengal state committee. They also welcomed the chief minister’s proposal on the return of land in Singur.
Still, the Maoists claim that their anger is the result of conditions of poverty, and West Bengal’s problems centre on its crumbling infrastructure. From roads to healthcare to education, the state ranks at or near the bottom among India’s states – and turning that situation around will be very difficult. ‘Thus far,’ says Mohammed Salim, a former CPI (M) member of Parliament, ‘Mamata is making flash-in-the-pan gestures, going around unannounced to hospitals, hitting the roads without the police making way for her – these are
At least at this early going, it is hard not to see such words as reflecting sour grapes. New state Finance Minister Amit Mitra bristles at such words, and says that the CPI (M) has forfeited the right to make such accusations. ‘They have messed up the state’s finances,’ he says. ‘They have left us in huge debt, and the state’s coffers are empty. Look at our public hospitals – they are filthy and overcrowded places without adequate staff, equipment or medicines. What my chief minister is doing through her surprise checks is trying to see, to assess for herself, the lack of infrastructure and instil some discipline into
West Bengal is said to have inherited the highest per capita debt in the country; in the last seven months alone, Governor M K Narayan says, the government has amassed unpaid bills of some INR 35 billion. ‘Our main problem is the work culture – the mindset,’ Mitra continues. ‘We cannot change the mindset in one day after 34 years of the left’s rule.’ Indeed, Mamata has said that one of her top goals is tackling Bengal’s infamous ‘babu’ culture, where the whole administration seems to suffer from a collective and perpetual lethargy. She has already made clear to all ministers and bureaucrats that all new projects have to be cleared in a time-bound manner.
Ultimately, one of Mamata’s most significant contributions as chief minister will be to disengage the many institutions of the state from the sway of the state itself. For decades, the CPI (M) made a veritable fiefdom of the institutions of state. Mamata has already promised to overhaul the police force, which has faced severe criticism for having functioned in a partisan manner. A similar process is required in the education system. ‘We have seen how the politics of vendetta against ideological opponents has seeped into the system,’ says Pinakesh Sarkar, a former head official at Jadavpur University. Pradip Kumar Bose of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences agrees: ‘We need the new government to unshackle the education system from the tentacles of the CPI (M). We have a situation where, even a laboratory assistant’s appointment has to meet the CPI (M)’s approval – we need dramatic changes.’
After having talked about paribartan, Mamata Banerjee now has to deliver change amidst a populace that had almost lost hope.
~ Sumon K Chakrabarti is the chief national correspondent of CNN-IBN.