Life without Marxists

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Now that Trinamool has trounced the CPM at municipal polls, Mamata Banerjee senses power within her reach in West Bengal. Here’s what this might mean

If there was any doubt over the Trinamool juggernaut continuing its unstoppable run in Bengal, results of the recent municipal polls in the state laid it to rest. There is nothing now that stands between Mamata Banerjee and her cherished dream of ousting the CPM and capturing power in the state. Except, of course, her own self. But discounting the possibility of the stormy petrel committing a monumental folly—she’s done so in the past, though on current indications she has matured since—it’s quite likely that the CPM-led Left Front government, a lame duck one at present anyway, is on its last legs.

The bigger issue, however, is what a Trinamool or Trinamool-led coalition government (with the Congress and some smaller parties and independents as constituents) would mean for West Bengal, a state that has slid down all development indices during the 32 long years of Marxist rule. There are many views on this, but the popular one is that with the state reaching its nadir, things can only get better now. This outlook, and optimism, is buoyed by the restraint, maturity and pragmatism displayed by Mamata Banerjee after the spectacular win in the Lok Sabha polls. “Mamata Banerjee has mellowed a lot and is no longer impulsive and whimsical. She is more open to ideas and opinions now,” says a senior Congress leader who worked closely with her during the election. Her party colleagues attest to this, saying their leader’s outbursts are few and far between these days. “There is this elitist view of Mamata as an uneducated, fiery, whimsical woman with a one-point agenda of ousting the Left from power in Bengal. This is a totally false perception spread by so-called intellectuals who eat out of the CPM’s hands. Many of us have been interacting with her very closely ever since Singur and Nandigram, and I can say that she is very accommodating, liberal, fair and intelligent,” says Suvaprasanna, an artist who played a pivotal role in rallying the intelligentsia against Marxists after the Nandigram carnage of 2007.

But to many, especially middle and upper-middle class voters, the image of Mamata is that of a street-fighter, an ardent campaigner against CPM misrule no doubt, but one without a stable, long-term vision for the state. Admittedly, this image has been reinforced by the CPM’s formidable propaganda machinery.

Her colleagues and supporters justifiably chafe at it. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. The CPM cannot be defeated and ousted from Bengal through intellectual discourses and chats in air-conditioned drawing rooms. Prolonged agitations and street campaigns are the only means to mobilise the people and counter the strong-arm tactics of the CPM,” says Mamata aide and legislator Madan Mitra.

There are, however, far more important issues of governance and policies to lift Bengal out of the morass that the Left has dragged the state into. Do Mamata Banerjee and her senior colleagues have what it takes? Opinion is divided. To be fair, she has constituted a formidable group of advisors, a policy think-tank of sorts, to provide inputs to her on a regular basis. Comprising former IAS and IPS officers, prominent academics and intellectuals like Suvaprasanna, this group is well capable of framing policies and advising the Trinamool chief on ways to take Bengal forward. The important part is that she consults them regularly and extensively, and often accepts their ideas and suggestions too. “I had my reservations initially, but once I started interacting with her, I found her to be intelligent and with a sharp mind. She is not what many newspapers make her out to be. She has a vision for Bengal that will be unveiled by her at the right time. We are helping her out with that, but the broad idea of how Bengal should progress, and how the progress should be happy and inclusive, is hers alone,” says a former IAS officer who is part of the advisory group. “The development model for Bengal that we’re looking at is totally different from the CPM model that only aimed to benefit rich industrialists at the cost of poor farmers. We aren’t anti-industry, but we’re against forcible land acquisition. There is no reason why fertile farmland should be taken over for industry. There’s a lot of fallow land in Bengal where industries can come up. They may be in areas that are less accessible now, so we plan accelerated infrastructure development to make all these areas easily reachable. We will create a land bank for industries,” says Saugata Roy, Trinamool leader and union minister of state for urban development.

The development model for Bengal that the Trinamool is looking at is alternative. “For instance, instead of going in for a chemical hub at Nayachar [the new site after the Nandigram fiasco] that can be environmentally disastrous and will rob thousand of fishermen of their livelihood, besides providing employment to only a couple of thousand and benefiting only rich investors,” adds Roy, “we will explore ways to boost farm productivity at Nayachar and increasing the catch of the fishermen through sustainable and environmentally friendly technologies. We will frame policies that will generate the maximum employment. We will regenerate small and medium industries and pay special attention to the rural economy.”

The Trinamool enjoys a huge advantage of central clout now, thanks to it being part of the Union Government. Mamata Banerjee has already showered a lot of projects on Bengal through the Rail Budget and these are sure to pay rich dividends in the Assembly polls scheduled two years away. Her six ministers of state have also been asked to pay special attention to Bengal and route as many schemes and projects through their ministries to Bengal as possible.

At the same time, these seven ministers in Delhi intend to leverage their positions to expose the Left Front’s misgovernance. Already, Roy has highlighted the state’s failure to use its quota of funds under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), while Sisir Adhikari, minister of state for rural development, has briefed the media on Bengal’s dismal performance under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS).

Another concern voiced by many is Mamata Banerjee’s personal style of functioning. She’s said to be authoritarian, brooking no dissent from colleagues and often thwarting the rise of talent within her party; her critics point to her refusal to accept a second cabinet post for her party in Delhi. “She didn’t want any of her colleagues to get the same status of a cabinet minister as herself. This shows how insecure she is,” said a prominent lawyer who was a senior functionary of the party till a couple of years ago. Mamata Banerjee, admit Trinamool insiders, often insults, abuses and ignores even her senior colleagues and is seldom receptive to their ideas. Her abrasive attitude could result in dissension that erodes the party’s ability to govern Bengal properly once in power. But there’s a foil to this—the Congress, with which she’ll have to join hands to capture Bengal, could be the sobering influence. And then there’s her think-tank, to which she’s beholden and whose members she respects. It has already started acting as a force for moderation, and could play a critical role in governance. To top it all, Mamata Banerjee might perhaps choose not to become the chief minister at all, preferring to be the power behind the throne, much like Sonia Gandhi at the Centre. This way, her image needn’t be sullied by any day-to-day governance goof-ups. With retired bureaucrats and corporate honchos joining the Trinamool in droves, Mamata Banerjee would have no problem picking her own Manmohan Singh from the ranks. And even if she does become the CM, her authoritarian streak would hardly matter to the people of Bengal, as long as she delivers.

Bengal, thus, needn’t lose sleep over the prospect of life without Marxists at some point in the future. For all we know, the Trinamool could be the rainbow on Bengal’s dark monsoon skies. And all that the people of Bengal would lose are the chains that Marxists had shackled them with for more than three decades.