The newspaper headlines during two exceedingly pleasant days in Kolkata this week were intriguing, to put it mildly. They were full of taxi fares.
Every political leader reads the popular mood right sometimes, and goes awry on other occasions, but no one actually goes out of his or her way to woo hostility. Bengal's permanently combative Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been courting public anger and wasting her diminished urban political capital with all the enthusiasm of an addict when she appeased a cabal of taxi drivers at the expense of the citizen's interests.
In April last year, Ms Banerjee, responding to a perennial problem, imposed a fine of Rs 3,000 on any taxi driver, who refused to pick up a passenger in Kolkata, in an effort to rein in the rogue behaviour of too many cab drivers. Their meter was a negotiable instrument; or, rather, not very negotiable, since they routinely demanded extra or drove off. When they saw a patient, or anyone headed towards a railway station or airport, extortion to the extent of a doubled fare was routine. Last Wednesday, the Chief Minister reduced that fine to a meaningless Rs 100. She also appealed to the "conscience" of taxi drivers and pleaded with them to "think about the plight of the people". It is probably the first time that anyone has used "conscience" and "Kolkata cabbie" in the same sentence. A splendid bit of investigative journalism by the Times of India on the Friday after this deterrent became a joke, revealed that of the 53 taxis that reporters sought during a one-hour random survey, 28 refused to respond [possibly smelling evil journalists from afar] and 13 demanded double the fare. The couldn't-care-a-damn lot included taxis bearing a bold "No Refusal" slogan on the body. One of the "No Refusal" cabbies even informed the newspaper that it was behind the news. The CM had already given him a free ride.
Why did cabbies get away with such blatant blackmail, particularly when their familiar reason for more, fuel prices, has become irrelevant with falling prices? Why did Mamata Banerjee choose to pamper them and antagonise voters weeks before Kolkata is due to elect a new mayor? When no sensible reason is offered, you cannot blame the citizen for believing the worst.
The stench of corruption pervades over Bengal's government, and is spreading into too many corners. At the centre is the Saradha scam. Investigations have established that Mamata Banerjee's party collected huge funds from a loan shark called Saradha. Corruption corrodes governance, takes down political institutions and inevitably destroys the credibility of a leader. Police have evidence that Saradha money travelled to top leaders of Trinamool either through complicit businessmen or by direct transfer. One such businessman, rewarded with a Rajya Sabha seat for services rendered, has resigned from Parliament, party and politics. It was probably the best of rotten alternatives.
But his hurried departure from a befogged limelight is small potatoes compared to the rift that is being reported between Mamata Banerjee and one of her nearest colleagues, Mukul Roy. Roy has been interrogated by CBI, and seems shaken. He has distanced himself from his mentor. He did not campaign for the byelections held on 13 February. There are whispers that a split in the party is imminent. Obviously no one can be certain about this, but conversation is doing its share of damage to the ebbing morale of Trinamool.
Gathering depression and party fissures may not lead to any dramatic reversal of electoral fortunes just yet, for political space is vacated far more easily than it is occupied by any claimant. That is one of the more stubborn laws of democratic practice. New political forces on an upsurge need time to create the mechanisms that can turn support into votes. It may take a little while for them to hit critical mass, but once their momentum begins to gather pace, it is only a matter of when, not if. Mamata Banerjee should understand this better than anyone else. It took her time to demolish the Left, but once the explosion happened, not even rubble was visible in the Marxist citadel.
Kolkata is a city that admires education, enjoys reading and loves a good quote. It is also a city that is ambivalent, for good reason, about Winston Churchill: the great British imperialist presided over the tragedy known as the Bengal famine. But Churchill was also an iconic world leader with a keen understanding of human nature and sparkling wit. Churchill's finest general during the Second World War was Bernard Montgomery, later to become field marshal. Churchill said of Montgomery: "In defeat unbeatable, in victory unbearable."
This is precisely what Kolkata thinks of Mamata Banerjee today.