Mamata is only doing what Congress has always done

Vivek Kaul
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 on September 22, 2012
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])

Ek Thi Tigress: Why Mamata tilts at every windmill

Vivek Kaul

Mamata Banerjee ko gussa kyon aata?” is an intriguing question.
Why does she brand people who tend to disagree with her as Communists and Maoists? Very recently Shiladitya Chowdhury was arrested under non-bailable sections when he questioned the West Bengal government’s policy farmers during a rally being addressed by Banerjee. As The Hindu reported “Eyewitnesses said that Ms Banerjee was heard giving directions to isolate him from the crowd, referring to him as a “Maoist.””
A few months back she had called some students “Maoists” after they had asked her uncomfortable questions during a television interaction organised by CNN IBN. “I must tell you that you are CPI(M) cadres, Maoist cadres … I cannot reply to CPI(M) questions,” Banerjee had said on that occasion before she walked out of programme. This happened in May.
A little earlier in April Ambikesh Mohapatra, a professor at Jadhavpur University had been arrested for posting cartoons of Mamata Banerjee on the internet. “They don’t do any work but think of ways to frame me,” Banerjee had said justifying the arrest and alluding to the CPI(M) being behind the cartoons.
And now she has taken on the judicial system in this country. On the occasion of the platinum jubilee celebrations of the West Bengal assembly she recently said “at times favourable verdicts are given in return for money. There are instances when judgments have been purchased. There is corruption among a section of the judiciary. I know there can be a case against me for saying this. But this must be said and I am ready to go to jail for saying so.”
Now why does the Chief Minister whose alliance has 227 out of the 294 seats in the state assembly want to go to jail? Even if we were to leave out 43 seats which belong to the other alliance partners, her party, the All India Trinamool Congress has 184 seats in the assembly.
Why does the Chief Minister of a state whose party has absolute majority in the assembly, bother about small dissent so much so that it forces her to label the dissenters as Communists and Maoists?
The answers to all these questions lie in the 42 years that she has spent in politics.
Mamata Banerjee entered politics in 1970. As Monobina Gupta writes in Didi – A Political Biography “As an undergraduate in Kolkata’s Jogmaya Devi College, she became active in Chhatra Parishad, the Congress’s student wing. The college union was then controlled by the Democratic Socialist Organisation(DSO), students wing of the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI)…Her dogged fight against the DSO drew the attention of some Congress leaders, even though she did not known them personally then.”
By the late 1970s Mamata was at the forefront of the protests happening in Kolkata (then Calcutta). “Mamata was out on Kolkata’s streets defending Indira Gandhi after the latter lost the parliamentary elections…From waving black flags at the then prime minister Moraji Desai on his visit to Kolkata to getting into a bloody fight with the Left student activists in Ashutosh College, she was gaining a reputation for being a strong combatant of the CPI-M,” writes Gupta.
Mamatas big stroke of luck came before the 1984 Lok Sabha elections. Indira Gandhi had asked Mamata’s then mentor and Congress legislator Subrata Mukherjee to find a suitable woman candidate. As Mukherjee tells Gupta in her book Didi– A Political Biography “The elections were approaching. Indira ji suddenly asked me to find a woman candidate. The Congress was in a bad shape. Finding a woman candidate was a tough job. I suggested Mamata’s name, and she got her nomination from the Jadhavpur constituency.”
Indira Gandhi was killed by her bodyguards Beant Singh and Satwant Singh on October 31, 1984. In the sympathy wave that followed, Mamata Banerjee won, becoming a Lok Sabha member at a young age of 29. She defeated CPI(M) stalwart Somnath Chatterjee. The Congress party won 16 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal.
This was enough to rattle the CPI(M) led ruling Left Front government . It unleashed violence across the state and attacked Congress workers. “This was the scene Mamata entered flush with the success of her maiden electoral victory…She had courted danger right from her days as a student activist. The first in a series of trips Mamata made in this period as to Magrahat in South 24 Parganas, where a Congress worker was brutally murdered and his wife gang-raped by alleged antisocials backed by the CPI-M. Media reports spoke of the horror of the incident – the assailants ‘playing football’ with the murdered worker’s severed head. Mamata’s visit and her meeting with the family of the deceased made front page news,” writes Gupta.
Her confrontation with CPI-M continued in the years to come. In August 1990, the Kolkata police was following her 24×7 relaying her activities to the higher ups. On August 16,1990, Mamata Banerjee stepped out of her Kalighat residence and walked towards Hazra junction to be a part of the procession she had called for. The atmosphere was tense and Mamata was attacked. As Gupta writes “The attackers had come prepared. Swinging his stick, Laloo Alam, a CPI-M worker, hit Mamata hard on her head, she (i.e. Mamata) writes in her memoirs. ‘The right side of my head (just a hairline away from where the brain is) had cracked open and I was bleeding profusely. I was still undeterred…When I saw them getting ready to hit me on the head with an iron rod, strangely in that grave circumstance, I covered my head with my hand,’ Mamata narrates.”
Covering her head with hand nullified the impact of the blow on her head, and broke her wrist. Over the next few days Mamata was at a nursing home fighting for her life. She survived and thus started the second phase of her political career. It took her 21years more to beat the Left Front and form her government in West Bengal. Along the way she quit the Congress party and formed her own party, the Trinamool Congress.
Mamata Banerjee was a leader of agitations who became the Chief Minister of West Bengal on May 20,2011. All the agitations over the years ensured that confrontation became an integral part of Mamata Banerjee’s career and her nature. As Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay writes at “The bottom line is that as a leader of agitations you require to be spontaneous and have the ability to cock a snook at your adversary.” (you can read the complete column here)
This is a trait that has become in-built in her and explains to a large extent why she has been spontaneously branding her dissenters as communists and Maoists. The aggression that came out in all the protests, dharnas and bands she called for against the CPI-M, still needs to come keep coming out, but in other ways. That explains to a large extent why she is hell bent on shooting herself in the foot and is needlessly taking on the judicial system by calling it corrupt.
What also does not help is the fact that she sees herself as having been betrayed time and again. “Much of the excess of Mamata’s emotional rhetoric stems from a lifelong sense of betrayal. The hurt and anger run through most of her writings. In school, the classmates she helped stabbed her in the back; the party she grew up ruined her chances of routing the CPI-M by striking undercover electoral quid pro quo deals with the communists,” writes Gupta. She concludes that all this has led to a situation where Mamata Banerjee is “haunted by a constant apprehension of persecution and conspiracy.”
Hence, this is a major reason where even a hint of dissent gets labeled as a communist or a Maoist conspiracy.
The traits that Mamata had developed over the years held her in good stead as she fought the CPI-M rule in West Bengal. And those are the traits that she can’t seem to get rid off now. As Mukhopadhyay puts it “I have long maintained among friends that she is the Uma Bharti of West Bengal. Meaning, both – and they are inherently well-meaning leaders – can lead an agitation to its logical culmination but cannot govern in their wildest dreams. In politics you require the chutzpah to ensure that the government – or people in authority – of the day bend before your agitation. But in governance you are required to listen, think, put one against another and act.”
“In governance you need to be routine (diligent if you prefer this word), ensure that the horse comes before the cart (meaning systems are followed) and above all grant the others, the right to disagree with you and agitate if they wish to exercise their democratic right,” Mukhopadhyay adds.
But this is easier said than done because for this to happen Mamata Banerjee will have to stop being Mamata Banerjee.
To conclude, let me put it this way. Salman Khan has been labeled a tiger only in reel life. Mamata Banerjee has been a tigress in real life. But its time she stopped being one because it’s hurting her more now, than ever before.
(The article originally appeared on on August 17,2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])