Bengal Today

Populism and Gimmicks


After becoming the Chief Minister in the wake of the 2011 Assembly Polls of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee has been trying gimmicks one after another in her bid to maintain the charisma that was created around her over the years. Her steps in the face of the phenomenal price rise in the state constitute one example. The fallout of her announcement fixing the price of potato at Rs 13 per kg and banning the movement of potato trucks into Jharkhand and Orissa was an artificial scarcity of this staple vegetable in the market. The government set up stalls for the sale of potatoes through its own shops with the results that extremely low-quality potato was sold at Rs 13 per kg. On the other hand, the public of Orissa began to obstruct the traffic of fish, eggs and other commodities in the Orissa-Bengal border region. The overall result of this plan was a chaos in the retail market. It is a fact that the prices of onion, vegetables and other commodities have significantly risen in all the states. It can be attributed to the weather only partially, but not entirely. After the start of the reforms programme, the successive Central Governments have drastically reduced public investment in agricultural infrastructure, which has badly hit the production of food grains and vegetables. The problem has been aggravated by the control of monopoly traders over the trade in food grains.

In this situation, the state government could have at least assisted agriculture by making provisions of bank credit, insurance and other facilities for small and medium cultivators, who constitute the overwhelming majority of West Bengal's farmers. The TMC government has utterly neglected this aspect of the situation. It refused to make any arrangements for the purchase of paddy during the last harvesting season, resulting in the suicide of a number of farmers. The government however brazenly denied the incidents of suicides.

It is true that there are a large number of instances of failure on the part of the earlier Left Front Government. But the successes achieved during the first few years were by no means insignificant. Any meaningful person should realize that the Mamata Banerjee-led government should and could have tried to maintain these successes and to rectify the malpractices. But this government, immediately after coming to power, tried to reverse the process of land reforms and by crippling the panchayets, enhanced the power of the bureaucracy. The panchayets elected in 2013 have not yet started functioning and they have no orientation or direction per se. They are dominated by persons whose ambition is only to appropriate public money in the name of 'development'.

Such sort of gimmickry, coupled with the urge to acquire cheap popularity and create a class of subservient people, is evidenced inter alia by the grant of allowances to the imams and moajjims of mosques. Before coming to power, Mamata Banerjee promised to do much for the welfare of the Muslim community. In the report of the Sachar Committee published in 2007, it was seen that the share of Muslims in government jobs in West Bengal was only 2.1%, although Muslims constitute more than 25% of the population of West Bengal. It is true that the Left Front Government hardly paid any notice to this problem. Had it done so, it could have made provisions for the entry of Muslims into at least some low-level jobs (e.g. police constables, primary teachers, fourth class employees, ICDS workers etc). But it did not. It is true that the backwardness of the Muslims of West Bengal has a definite historical background and the extremely low participation of Muslims in official jobs is not solely due to the neglect by the Left Front Government. Yet it cannot be denied that the Left Front Government did not do what was possible for them. In 2010, this government identified one section of the Muslims as OBCs and announced 10% reservation for them. But it had to go out of power before the implementation of this announcement.

Had Mamata Banerjee been sincere about her promise, she could and should have started from this premise and taken special initiative for the entry of Muslims into official jobs. Besides, her government should have started a process of setting up adequate number of schools in Muslim-dominated areas and making the provision of better health care and drinking water facilities in such areas. But Mamata Banerjee instead resorted to the devious trick of providing allowances to imams and moajjims, which were to cost Rs 150 crore to the government per year. The sole purpose of such a measure was to buy the loyalty of these religious functionaries and to use it for election purposes. But this money would have enabled the government to set up at least 50 high-quality residential schools for poor and meritorious Muslim students. The government did not take such steps ostensibly for the reason that there was no guarantee that Muslims receiving higher education would remain loyal to the Trinamul Congress and its government. When Najrul Islam, an IPS officer, wrote a book on the problems of Muslims, an effort was made to ban it from circulation. The show of a documentary film on the problems of Muslims produced by Soumitra Ghosh-Dastidar was stopped by the state government—it was being shown in the government-owned hall, Nandan. These two events clearly show that the state government did not want any section of the Muslims to speak on behalf of themselves. All would be Mamata-loyalists, and the 'didi'would distribute charity among them according to her whims. Another despicable and brazen example of such loyalist-creating tricks is the lavishing of money on clubs. Each club has been granted Rs 2 lakh and this has cost the public exchequer about Rs 500 crore per year. Although it was told that this money would be spent on the development of sports, the grants have not been made on a programmatic basis and the money is being spent on the annual functions of these clubs and for shows of dance, music etc. The purpose is to secure the loyalty of those unemployed club members who are otherwise related with speculation in land and housing or are promoters themselves.

This politics of gimmickry is evident also in the state government's handling of the Sarada affairs. It is common knowledge that quite a number of leaders and ministers of Trinamul Congress were patrons of the Sarada group, and that a portion of the money obtained by cheating the people has found its way into the pockets of these persons. Now they are trying to cover up their misdeeds by the suspension and arrest of an MP who used to receive a monthly salary of Rs 1.6 million from the Sarada group. The first step of the government should have been to confiscate the property of the Sarada group and to compensate the loss to the depositors with the money obtained by selling this property. On the contrary, the government has tried to douse the flame of anger of the depositors by imposing a burden of Rs 500 crore on the people. But the question is : if the depositors in Sarada are entitled to a refund of their money, why not the depositors in other chit funds as well?

On the claim of the present state government that it has no obligation to repay the loans incurred by its predecessor, forgetting the fact that it is the inheritor of both the assets and the liabilities that the earlier government had left. The HRBC (Hooghly River Bridge Commissiners) had built up a huge multi-storied building in Howrah during the period of Left Front rule, and the Mamata Banerjee government showed no qualms in renaming it Nabanna for her administrative purposes and satisfying her whims. Thousands of acres of land acquired by the Left Front Government in the New Town-Rajarhat area are now in the hands of the present government, and it, instead of returning this land to its original owners, are selling the plots at high prices. This is a policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hound. Another criminal act is the decision to hand over the land lying with the CSTC (Calcutta State Transport Corporation) and CTC (Calcutta Tramways Company) to promoters.

Another crime committed by the state government is to stop the allowances of political sufferers who had participated in post-1947 democratic struggles. The post-1947 period in West Bengal witnessed many struggles of the people, and the society advanced through such struggles. The Left Front Government made provisions for an allowance for those who suffered imprisonment for these struggles. From February 2013, the Mamata Banerjee-led government has stopped the payment of these allowances, which has exposed her extremely rightist character. Ironically once she honoured the mother of Nurul Islam (the legendary martyr of the food movement of 1966) on the dais of a public meeting.

During the period of fascist terror in West Bengal in the early 1970s, Mamata Banerjee made her first entry into politics as a worker of the Youth Congress. She was also among those Congress workers who came to disrupt the meeting of Jayprakash Narayan at the University Institute Hall. Much later, when there was a sympathy wave over the country after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, she cashed on it to get elected from the Jadavpur parliamentary constituency. Then she at first built a faction within the Congress and later formed the Trinamul Congress. When, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the BJP ascended to power in the wake of nationwide communal riots, she joined hands with the BJP, and was a minister of the central cabinet during both rounds of NDA rule. Then she deserted the BJP and joined hands with the Congress. Finally she also broke this alliance after consolidating her position in West Bengal.

Before the assembly polls of 2011, Mamata Banerjee shared the same dais with Chhatradhar Mahato, the leader of the People's Committee Against Police Atrocities, and demanded the withdrawal of the joint forces from the Jangalmahal region. But Mahato and his colleagues, arrested by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya's police, are still languishing in jail. Koteswar Rao, alias Kishenji, had openly expressed his wish to see Mamata Banerjee as the Chief Minister. But after coming to power, the West Bengal Government's police killed her former ally in a fake encounter. This is an example of double standard. Mamata Banerjee has also cancelled the act of granting political status to political prisoners, so as to force such prisoners to live like ordinary criminals. Her concept of 'development' is confined to some catchy slogans and the people are now passing through 'a hellish experience. It is not possible to predict with certainty how long this will continue. It is to be hoped that the people of West Bengal, with their long tradition of struggle, will rediscover and redefine democracy, and put an end to the authoritarian rule.
(Courtesy : Sramajibi Bhasa)

Vol. 46, No. 29, Jan 26 -Feb 1, 2014

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