Going Steady?

Bengal’s Critical Moment

Bibekananda Ray

From Day One of Mamata regime, people were divided in assessing it and speculating about its survival, or early fall. A majority had mandated her in April-May 2011 to enable her bring about parivartan ('transformation') that she promised before the historic poll, but Leftists used to rubbish it as g gimmick. Remaining mute for six months, they opened their mouth wide and took up cudgels to beat her. Except a few dailies and TV channels that, being funded or favoured, by the regime, the State's media, by and large, had moulded public opinion in her favour. In nearly three years since, the aura has faded and the censure of her and the regime that she leads become shriller. Hoping to turn around through the Panchayet and five municipal polls by daily invectives, true and false, the Left parties were disappointed, when the electorate renewed their trust in her in 2013. The Congress which had a slender presence in her cabinet withdrew, also joined in the chorus of the CPI(M) and the BJP of crying foul. Many of the CPI(M)'s cadres and comrades left the sinking ship and joined the TMCP for political survival and escape from its reprisal, seeing no hope for its early return to power. Scams and scandals of huge magnitude by some Congress ministers, MPs and the party's other top brass disenchanted the electorate. On 1st March, 2013 eight Congress councillors and the chairman of Dhulian municipality defected to the TMCP. In 7th February, 2014 poll for five Rajya Sabha seats, a TMCP nominee won by getting five cross-votes- two of RSP, one of Forward Block, two of Congress MLAs,—to win. The CPI(M) alleged horse-trading, but Ms Banerjee retorted that they gave 'conscience vote', impressed by her regime's performance and were not bought by her. There has not been any significant reverse trend, except of Somen Mitra, an MP elected on TMC ticket, who returned to the Congress, apparently being marginalised along with his wife, Sikha. On 22nd February, three Congress councillors of Midnapore municipality joined the TMCP; a few days later, Mrs Hema Choubey also defected to the party along with some members of the local Gram Panchayet.

Mamata-bashing by the opposition and the media is similar, as if they are in the same boat. Their first target was a secret circular to State libraries and Panchayets to discontinue subscription to some critical dailies. The next was a chorus of their protests against her for dismissing a midnight mass rape of a solitary woman on Park Street as 'fabricated'. Soon, however, she was contradicted by a deft lady investigator of Kolkata Police, who found it to be genuine and nabbed four culprits; only to be rebuked and transferred out of Kolkata by her. Their fury was again unleashed by the arrest of a university professor, Ambikesh Mahapatra for online forwarding to friends of a cartoon, lampooning her, summary recall of Dr. Dinesh Trivedi, the Railway Minister from her party for proposing fare hike in the 2012-'13 Railway budget. They also condemned arrest of a native farmer, Siladittya Choudhury for asking an innocuous question, going up on the dais of her rally in Belpahari, about rising fertiliser price, initial condoning of some party hoodlums like Arabul Islam, Mahammad Iqbal, Shambhu Kau and Anubrata (Kesto) Mandal of Bolpur who led some mayhem and police inaction to punish them also stoked their wrath. Particularly culpable was the last, who often abuses local CPI(M) and Congress workers and threatens them with dire consequences (rather like CPI(M)'s Anil Bose) in foul language; he is also an accused in the mysterious death of a disgruntled party colleague. As in the Left regime, local roughs are protected by the party; a TMCP leader of Bali (Howrah), Tapan Datta fell to their bullets for protesting against land mafia, promoters and unlawful deeds of party members. People fear persecution by party's nouveau riche, as they did the CPI(M)'s.

The Leftists also bay her for her unchecked prodigal expenses on holding new fairs, festivals, jamborees and on 'glittering' advertisements of the regime's claims of success and on her huge cut-outs on streets. To this, they add huge outgo of public fund on 11 commissions of enquiry that she set up in vengeance to expose Left misdeeds, which made little progress and questioned liberal grants to clubs, creation of 44 posts of legislative secretaries to appease her party's MLAs who missed being ministers, all causing a 'financial anarchy'. They also allege breakdown of law and order and enormous rise in incidence of rapes and police inaction to apprehend culprits, if they belong to her party. The former health minister and leader of the Opposition, Dr Surya Kanta Mishra alleges that she is alienating Bangladesh by secretly allying with fundamentalists in that country and Pakistan, that she is following a 'divide & rule' policy to set the Lepchas against the secessionist Gorkhas of Darjeeling. They also allege that she is secretly trying to eliminate comrades and cadres to pave the way for becoming Prime Minister. The former Finance Minister, Asim Dasgupta often questions the data that the present incumbent, Amit Mitra gives, allegedly to defame the 34-year Left regime. The General Secretary of the party, Prakash Karat, film-maker Mrinal Sen, an avowed Marxist and other top brass often accuse her of 'murdering democracy' and infringing citizen's rights, respectively. They also allege that she exaggerates, or simply lies about, her regime's achievements. For instance, the former CM, Buddhadev Bhattacharya believes, "Nothing is happening and development has come to a standstill". He alleges police inaction behind the spree of rapes and winning Panchayet polls by use of 'muscle power, money power' and misuse of public fund by liberal grants to clubs, on sprucing up the temporary Secretariat in Howrah (Nabanna) and awarding prizes and titles to her cronies. Biman Bose lambasts the regime for delay in paying old-age pension, grants to Adivasi students and schools and arrear DA to State employees, all due to prodigality. In many instances, the charges by the Leftists are like the proverbial "pot calling the kettle black".

The Congress's charges are nearly the same as, or similar, to the Leftists'. Returning to his party, Somen Mitra alleged police threats to chairmen of some Congress-run municipalities. Asit Mitra and Manas Bhuniya cite her administration's inability to utilise allotted funds in many departments, some headed by her. Mr Bhuniya often refutes her pet charge (continuing from the Left regime) of Centre's apathy to the State. Sukhavilas Verma alleges corruption in building the new secretariat for north Bengal, Uttarkanya in Siliguri and demands audit by AG, Bengal. In an assessment report, released last year, the Congress alleged the regime's performance was 'negative'; it was politically opaque and wasted public fund on propaganda.

Bashing By Media
Coincidentally, the media bash Mamata in cock-eyed reports, editorials and edit-page articles. The editor of a Bengali daily, rather ludicrously, found the regime a laggard in comparison with Andhra Pradesh. A scribe called her a schizophrenic, a split personality; another English daily labelled her as 'petulant, mercurial, unpredictable, suicidal, and whimsical', a 'Villain of almost every political play'. He wrote, "When there is need to fence [she] swings a club and when a scalpel is needed, [she] reaches for the sledge-hammer". She has also been accused of unleashing "a culture, reminiscent more of royalty than a responsible democracy". Eminent economists like Amartya Sen and Pranab Bardhan, columnists, freelancers and speakers in TV chat shows find her regime wanting. Only a few, like Bibek Deb Roy, commands her performance, despite the Centre's apathy.

Extent Of Parivartan
While critics do not see much 'transformation' in the State, common people see a lot. Ms Banerjee's claim for 'a deluge in development' may be an over-statement, but it cannot be denied that festering spots like Darjeeling, Junglemahal, Singur and Nandigram have healed. Strikes, bandhs, protest rallies and traffic hold-ups on political grounds are much less. Political murders, skirmishes and abductions are fewer. Work culture in State offices is improving and by and large, peace prevails across the State. The economy is turning round in spite of nearly Rs 2.47 lakh crore of Central and market debt, on which about Rs 28,000 crore go out a year on servicing. Revenues are rising steadily. The own-tax revenue that was Rs 24938 crore in FY 2011-12 rose to Rs 32405 crore in the next FY. With the Centre refusing any moratorium on paying interest, or rescheduling payment of debt, and its grants being meagre and tardy, the regime took huge trenches of market loan through auction, repeatedly, which is likely to exceed Rs 55,000 crore by 31st March, this year. These borrowings for mainly statutory expenses did not slow development, delay or stop debt servicing, or compel the regime to practise austerity. On the contrary, West Bengal is now ahead of other States, having cleared 27.20% of the debt liability. The Asian Development Bank has lent Rs 2000 crore (interest-free for three years) to West Bengal as reward for carrying out suggested administrative reforms, to ameliorate health care, education and building infrastructure. The Kanyashri scheme to encourage education of girls and stop their early marriage has elicited a huge response; under it girls reading in eighth to 12th classes are given annual book purchase allowance of Rs 500 and a lump sum grant of Rs 25,000, if they go for under-graduate studies, without marrying. The Yuvashri scheme, under which a monthly allowance of Rs 1500 is given to each jobless youth, registered with the newly created 'Employment Banks'. About one crore people in the State are presently jobless.

In education, Ms Banerjee aspires to make Kolkata a global destination. She has invited private investment to create additional 1.5 lakh seats in moffusil areas. Student Union polls, which were suspended owing to violence in some campuses, have now been held. A new university, The Techno India came up at Barasat in 1912; the Assembly passed bills in February, 2014 to set up two more private universities—SEACOM Skills in rural Birbhum and Adamus at Barasat. A third, Eastern Institute of Learning & Management is coming up in South 24-Parganas. A women's wing in Jhargram Raj College and three new government colleges are ready to go on stream at Salboni, Nayagram and Lalgarh—all in Junglemahal. However, contrary to the Education Minister's aim of depoliticising educational institutes, the TMCP's control persists. Presidency University is out of the woods and will have another sprawling campus in Rajarhat. St Xaviers College will have a medical wing.  Ms Banerjee's often-mocked pre-poll promise of "making Kolkata like London" and "north Bengal like Switzerland" may never be wholly redeemed, but she has launched some beautification schemes. A 6.5 km tunnel is on the anvil between Kidderpore and Garden reach to ease traffic congestion. A boulevard has come up along the Bhagirathi bank on Kolkata side from Armenia to Fairlie ghats, apart from a 1.6 km stretch near Princep Ghat, already beautified. An 'Eco-Park' and Tagore Centre (Rabi Tirtha) in New Town draw crowds in the evening. Kolkata and some suburban towns flaunt trident lamps, on which a scam is now under probe. Food kiosks on Kolkata streets and a giant wheel ('Calcutta Eye') in Millennium Park, a Gateway at Digha are to come up. The state's second bird sanctuary is proposed on a marshy field in Dhapa garbage dump area. A marvellous 130-foot Shahid Minar ('Martyrs' Tower') has been built at Bhangabera near Nandigram, where 31 villagers fell to the bullets of the police on 14th March 2007 and eight who are missing since are also probably killed. Kolkata traffic police, at her instance, plays Rabindra Sangeet on the city's street crossings to ease tension of drivers The regime will set up a sports complex in each district headquarters; work has begun to build Nadia's.

All politicians in power make promises, but few keep them. Many foundation plaques, laid in the Left regime are hid in bushes. Soon after swearing in on 20th May 2011, Ms Banerjee announced two agenda—one for 200 days and the other for 1000 days thereafter, i. e, together up to 21st September, this year. Both contained many promises, which add up to her flagship vision of 'transforming' the State. Her first focus was on ameliorating the trouble spots, created by the previous regime—the Maoist-infested Junglemahal  comprising three western districts, Darjeeling, Singur and Nandigram. She did little for the last two, but did and promised a lot for five north Bengal districts, Birbhum, Murshidabad, Nadia and East Midnapur She visited Junglemahal and north Bengal 20 times each and held meetings with local administrators to monitor progress and sort out problems. On 20th January, this year, she opened an exclusive secretariat, Uttarkanya near Siliguri, held a cabinet meeting there and announced a host of decisions and projects. On 12th November 2013 in a rally in Ilambazar in Birbhum, she opened, or announced 78 projects of diverse nature. Five days later, at Plassey, she laid foundation of 500 projects in Nadia and Murshidabad. She moved her secretariat from the Writers' Building, completed in 1906, to high-rise premises of the HRBC across Bhagirathi on 5th October, 2013 naming it Nabanna and entrusting the renovation of the decrepit British structure to the State PWD. On 22nd February, 2014, she announced 46 projects and commissioned 44 others in a public meeting at Raidighi in south 24 Parganas.

The regime's worst performance hitherto has been in setting up new industries. It appears, there is no large chunk of arid land available in the State to offer to big industries. It did sign a number of MoU’s with willing investors, but in almost no case, failing to get site clearance they filed Industrial Entrepreneur Memorandum (IEM). The former Industries Minister, Partha Chatterjee claimed implementation of 33 projects with total investment of Rs 2042 crore till last year. The Chief Minister told potential investors in last October that the government can allot over 12,000 acres of land for projects in roads, transport, civil aviation, tourism, helicopter and surface transport. A beginning to reach the regime's target of building 3,000 km of road on PPP model was made in the once-famished village of Amlasol in West Midnapur. A cargo hub is to be built by two private firms at Chakdwipa, near Haldia, at a cost of Rs 700 crore, with job potential of about a thousand unemployed. A trade centre was opened by local party MP, Shubhendu Adhikari on 25th February. Panchayets run by the TMCP, are widening rural roads, laying them over with concrete. With so much happening and on the anvil, it is amazing that the Left regime did so little. Both Jyoti Basu and Buddhadev Bhattacharya were short in ideas; Ms Banerjee scores much above them. She has been generally unsparing of the erring bureaucracy, often sent them on penal transfer and kept some on 'compulsory waiting' on flimsy grounds. As the CPI(M) founded Co-ordination Committee was notorious for spoiling work culture and "running a parallel administration", she revived the umbrella outfit of all TMCP-backed employees' unions, founded last year to promote proper work culture.

As a saying goes, "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely"; the TMCP is no exception. Sudipta Sen disclosed to the CBI the party's beneficiaries of his largesse of deposits of gullible people. The Supreme Court is dissatisfied with the State's probe and wants them to be identified. Ms Banerjee opposes a CBI probe, apparently fearing that it will pull the cat out of the bag. Media often reports of TMCP leaders amassing undreamt of fortunes like mansions, cars, garden resorts and spending millions of rupees on family celebrations. Such 'rags to riches' tales of TMCP guys are, these days, heard everywhere. Another scam in appointments to vacancies in primary schools through the TET is now under probe; party's successful candidates were allegedly given priority.

Ms Banerjee gets both praise and blame. Writer Mahasweta Devi, swinging between her praise and blame, sees in her the potential to become India's next Prime Minister. So did the social activist, Anna Hazare who volunteered to campaign for her party to get for it at least 100 seats in other States, but mysteriously withdrew. BJP's Vasundhara Raje admires her work ethic. Kalyani Shankar, a scribe, advises her to rein in her 'mercurial temper' if she aspires to be Prime Minister. Markandeya Katju, Press Council Chairman, going out of his way, finds her 'intolerant' and unfit to remain Chief Minister for long. To common people, she is dynamic, zealous, full of ideas, aggressive and whimsical to her critics, absolutely honest and austere, but somewhat eccentric. Recently, she hinted at auctioning the assets of Left leaders to service the huge debt that they bequeathed to her regime and demanded the Centre to pay the DA to State employees to bring it at par with Central allowance.

The substance in Mamata-bashings is thus thinner than it appears. Will they impact the fortune of the TMCP in the ensuing Lok Sabha poll? In a democratic State, the radison d’tre of the opposition is to criticise the ruling party, or coalition, with a view to disenchanting the electorate, but it should state the truth and reflect the reality, not their reverse, to remain credible. No person or regime can be above board; a regime should be evaluated, keeping both its good and bad aspects in mind, as Rabindranath expected of his critics. The next State poll is more than two years away, but the 16th Lok Sabha poll is going on, if, as she claims, the TMCP wins up to 30 of the 42 seats in the state and she plays a decisive role in forming the next government at the Centre, her bashing by the opposition and the media will not affect her party's political fortune. That, of course, does not mean that it does not deserve bashing, or an adverse public mandate in due time.

Vol. 46, No. 42, Apr 27 - May 3, 2014