Mamata Banerjee has been severely criticised for quitting the Congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The major reason for the same is the fact that the government of West Bengal is in a financial mess. As on March 31, 2012, the debt burden of the government stood at Rs 2,08,382.58 crore. To repay this loan the government needs to pay interest and principal amounting to Rs 23,200 crore during the course of this financial year (i.e. between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2012).
As an article in the Business Standard points out “West Bengal’s outstanding debt by the end of this financial year is slated to be about Rs 2,26,000 crore , making it the most indebted state in the country in terms of debt to gross state domestic product ratio at close to 39 per cent.” (You can read the complete article here)
This huge debt is a legacy of nearly three and a half decade of misrule by the Left Front. “The Left believed that the key to power was to co-opt every section of society – school and college teachers, bus drivers, municipal employees, healthcare workers and so on – into government. So, the Bengal government is one of the largest employers in the country today,” writes Abheek Barman in an editorial in the Times of India. (You can read the complete piece here).
Given this, the expenses of the government of West Bengal are higher than its revenues. The difference it has to meet by borrowing. The revenue that the government expects to earn this year stands at Rs 76,943 crore. The expenses are at Rs 83,801 crore, leaving a deficit of Rs 6,585 crore.
The government of West Bengal had been negotiating with the government of India for a debt relief package. “When President Pranab Mujkherjee was the Union finance minister, both Mitra(Amit Mitra, the finance minister of West Bengal) and chief minister Mamata Banerjee had lined up for countless meetings in the hope of a financial package. “During the last 11 months, I have met the Prime Minister ten times and finance minister 20 times,” Banerjee had earlier said,” the Business Standard points out.
The government of West Bengal was hoping that the government of India allows the state to skip interest payment and principal repayments amounting to around Rs 22,000 crore, for each of the next three years. It also wanted its debt restructured with the interest rate on the debt being lowered as well as the repayment tenure being extended.
This relief programme would have helped the government of West Bengal to fix the state’s economy to some extent. It would have given them money to spend on the state’s infrastructure rather than just about being able to pay salaries to its employees. As Barman writes “People who voted for Mamata and her Trinamool Congress had hoped that she would fix Bengal’s broken economy, attract investment and jobs back to the state and repair its broken finances. A key component of the recovery plan was the debt-relief programme.”
Also with the withdrawal of support to UPA, Trinamool has had to give up the Railways Ministry which is one of the biggest job creators in the government. And it is a well known fact that Railway Ministers do influence jobs towards states they come from
With this background in mind the prevalent opinion is that Mamata has shot herself in the foot. Critics are also of the opinion that if she was so against foreign direct investment in multi-brand foreign retailing then she had the option of not allowing it in West Bengal. The Press Note allowing multi-brand foreign retailing clearly points out that “the State GovernmentslUnion Territories would be free to take their own decisions in regard to implementation of the policy.”
Also after all this any debt relief package for West Bengal, from the government of India, clearly won’t see the light of day. Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, clearly saw an opportunity here and threw his hat into the ring. He said that his party (the Samta party) would support anyone who would come up with a package for Bihar.
Mamata Banerjee has had a very edgy relationship with the Congress since she quit the party and formed her own party, the Trinamool Congress on January 1, 1998. Given this her past behaviour with the grand old political party of India has appeared to be fairly whimsical.
She has often been accused of thinking with her heart and letting her emotions override her decisions rather than thinking with her head and making cold and calculated political decisions.
But what people forget very easily is that Mamata Banerjee is the only woman political leader of some standing in India who has risen on her own, without the support of any male or for that matter family.
As Monobina Gupta writes in Didi – A Political Biography “In fact, viewed through gender lens, Mamata’s story does indeed stand apart from the narratives of India’s most powerful contemporary women leaders. Says Krishna Bose “Mamata has not been the widow, the wife, daughter of companion of somebody.’ Just pick three top women leaders in Indian politics today – Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati, J.Jayalalithaa – each has had a prop, a male guardian of compelling power, or a lineage or redoubtable political growth.”
Mamata has clearly made it of her own and understands the games that people play in politics very well. As Gupta writes “Even when Rajiv Gandhi was alive, Mamata found herself in the company of Congressmen liaising with senior party leaders in Delhi, plotting to sabotage her career to crash her soaring political ambitions to the ground. In the void following Rajiv’s death, Mamata was left to defend herself against plots and counter-plots often real, sometimes imaginary, hatched by her own party leaders to pull her down.”
Mamata Banerjee may not understand economics. She may not be fit to govern. But she does understand what politics is all about. And given that the decision to withdraw support to the Congress led UPA government at the centre was nothing but a cold and a calculated chance that she is taking.
And how is that? Before I answer that let me deviate a little to discuss something that Gurucharan Das writes about in his new book India Grows At Night. As he writes “There are two spaces in the politics of India and one of them is largely empty. They reflect the classic division between those who look ahead and aspire versus those who look back and complain. India’s political parties still tend to cater to the second – to the victim in us – through their politics of grievance.”
Leading this list is the Congress party. “The Congress appeals to the victim in policies for the aam aadmi…with an ever expanding menu of job guarantees, food security and subsidy for gas diesel, kerosene, fertilizers and more…All this is about the politics of grievance…grievance admittedly can be a powerful motivator to action.”
This has put India in an economic mess and has forced the Congress led UPA to suddenly turn reformist. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes in the Indian Express “these reforms are coming after four years of colossal mismanagement is making the reform narrative problematic…politically it is not easy for the government, after running all fiscal responsibility into the ground for four years, and after stoking structural inflation, to turn back and accuse opponents of being populist.”
Given this Mamata is only doing what Congress has done all these years. She is practicing the politics of grievance and appealing to the victim in us i.e. the voters. She is trying to project herself on the national stage, as someone who cares about the poor and the not so well off. With the Congress talking reforms someone has to fill the space that has been left empty for the time being.
And how does that help Mamata and the Trinamool Congress? The panchayat polls in West Bengal slated for May next year could be advanced to the coming winter months. Mamata is appealing to the victim in the voters, by asking for a partial repeal in the diesel price hike and an increase in the number of subsidised cooking gas cylinders, which the government of India has limited to six.
She is also trying to influence the traders and the small shopkeepers by projecting FDI in multi-brand foreign retailing as a devil and asking for it to be squashed. A victory in the panchayat elections would really make Trinamool Congress stand true to its name.
The word Trinamool means grass-root. And currently the Trinamool Congress only controls two out of the seventeen zila parishads in the state. A victory here for the Trinamool Congress would be a further dent to the Left parties in West Bengal and would help consolidate Mamata’s position.
Also any instability in Delhi benefits Mamata and Trinamool. The party currently has 19 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal. An early Lok Sabha election will clearly benefit Trinamool. Hence by withdrawing support Mamata is trying to destabilise the Congress led UPA government, and hoping that UPA loses its majority in the Lok Sabha.
If an early Lok Sabha poll does happen and the Trinamool Congress does get 30-35 seats, then Mamata Banerjee will clearly become an important player in the so called “fourth” or “federal” front that is now being talked about. It is a likely coalition of strong chief ministers like Nitish Kumar (who runs the Samta party), Naveen Patnaik (who runs the Biju Janta Dal), J Jayalalithaa(who runs the AIADMK) and Mamata.
This could mean that Mamata Banerjee could end up playing a very important role in the government of India. If the sleepy HD Deve Gowda could become the Prime Minister of India, why can’t Mamata Banerjee? That is the game at play.
And what about West Bengal? Well for a state that has gone through 35 years of mis-governance and is an economic mess, can surely wait for a few years more. In the meanwhile, their Didi is meant for bigger things.
(The piece originally appeared with a different headline on www.firstpost.com on September 22, 2012 http://www.firstpost.com/politics/mamata-may-be-trying-to-out-sonia-sonia-for-bigger-stakes-464467.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])