A soft hiss from the Mamata balloon

A soft hiss from the Mamata balloon

By M.J. Akbar | 13 November, 2011
Mamata Banerjee interacts with actor Prosenjit (C) and director Goutam Ghosh (L) at a party in Kolkata on Thursday. PTI

The chaps who wrote fables, and there was none better than Aesop the old Greek, knew what they were talking about. All those centuries ago Aesop told those who would listen that it is dangerous to make threats your staple form of communication. When you huff and puff and promise to blow the house down, you have to consider a simple question: is that your own house? It might be temporary rented accommodation, but you don't stop paying rent until brokers have found alternative digs and the new landlord has signed the documents.

Mamata Banerjee is an edgy politician, who is happiest when she is perched at the brink. Something about her temperament makes her nervous about a safe habitat. She treats the political habitat like a casino, always playing the odds. Perhaps her experience has reinforced such inclinations. After all, in Bengal she played the same number for decades, raising her stake each time she lost, certain that whenever the roulette wheel stopped on her number it would deliver unprecedented returns. It did.

The big question before any committed gambler is basic: what do you do with the winnings? Keep playing, or consolidate your assets and shift to a game where there is a less stormy relationship between investment and return? Mamata seems to enjoy playing both sides against the middle, in the hope of squeezing what she can from whichever is ready to deliver on her terms. This is clever when the going is good, but in public life good news is transient. Of course you have to be clever to become too clever for your own good. Mamata Banerjee is in danger of stepping into that slippery zone called overstretch.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee punctured her threat to withdraw support over the oil price hike with a fat needle that they brandished in public. They made no effort to use anaesthesia to dull the pain. The Singh-Mukherjee message was transparent: all allies of the Congress are welcome to send mail to the Prime Minister, and expect a reasonable answer, but the PM will not waste time on blackmail. They called Mamata's bluff with the practised ease of experienced players who have seen dozens of new kids prance around their block. The hiss of gas escaping from the Mamata balloon could be heard all across the Maidan between Writers Building and Fort William in Kolkata, and was loudest in the Press Club which is situated in between. Journalists have begun to factor it in as they do their next round of calculations about Mamata Banerjee's credibility.

Mamata Banerjee is an edgy politician, who is happiest when she is perched at the brink. Something about her temperament makes her nervous about a safe habitat

Perhaps the lesson that politicians do not quite understand is that people do not necessarily buy populism, which is the art of gestures without the substance of decisions. Mamata Banerjee believes she can always exploit the sentiment of the local street to bully Delhi. She has done this before, over the Teesta waters agreement with Bangladesh, when she sabotaged the Prime Minister's high moment in regional diplomacy with a last-minute display of petulance. Dr Singh swallowed his embarrassment and a bit of his pride, but went along. A second gulp of pride would have undermined his authority, which has been wobbling for a while in any case. The difference was palpable. Mamata Banerjee's MPs started their journey to meet the PM from Calcutta like Bengal tigers; they left his room like errant lambs. Dr Singh could have raised the price of petrol further at that point, and they would have whimpered their assent. The word is out that the PM is going to go ahead with the Teesta agreement and if Mamata Banerjee does not like it, she can keep her objections to herself.

Dropcap OnMamata still has a great deal of support in Bengal; that reservoir of goodwill cannot become empty so quickly. But doubts about her ability to deliver have begun to surface in teashop conversations. Bengalis know that she does not possess any magic wand to convert campaign promises into instant reality. But they also know that you do not need Delhi's help to sort out Kolkata's traffic indiscipline. Whispers of corruption have begun to gather momentum around those she has chosen to head the city's corporation. Her ministers, whether in Kolkata or Delhi, are not permitted any leeway in decision-making. Every decision belongs to her, and her alone. They live in constant terror of her idiosyncrasies.

The substantive challenge is the annual budget. The mathematics between commitments and resources has collapsed. A prominent industrialist has sponsored a havan in the hope of enticing new investment, but industrialists want land, not divine intervention. Mamata's ministers have made it clear that they cannot provide land. Power projects cleared by the Left Front are stalled because committed land is no longer available. You cannot set up factories in the sky, at least not yet.

Mamata Banerjee won a fabulous victory last summer because the Left Front had forgotten how to rule. It would be a tragedy for Bengal if it discovered that Mamata Banerjee had never learnt how to.

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