Mamata Banerjee may not have been an outstanding success in any portfolio that she handled, and not just because the lady has an itch to resign from an administrative responsibility whenever it appears to her that such a step would generate public applause. Rajiv Gandhi knew his cheli well, and hence declined to make her a minister. Instead, Mamata was put in charge of the Youth Congress, which acted as both cheerleader and protection squad for the party in CPI(M)-ruled West Bengal. Ms Banerjee dealt with Marxist cadres in a no-nonsense way, trading blow for blow and broken bone for broken bone, although the fact that the CPI(M) was in power meant that the party could call upon more goons than the Youth Congress, and besides had the state police as their auxiliary force, foisting cases against Mamata and her supporters. While Priyaranjan Das Munshi was considered the street fighter par excellence in the 1970s, by the end of the 1980s, that honour went to Mamata Banerjee.
Perhaps because he was partial to charming women, or was a secret admirer of pugilistic reflexes in the fair sex, P.V. Narasimha Rao brought Ms Banerjee into the Union Cabinet in 1991. In days, he was to discover the qualities that made CPI(M) veterans reach for their blood pressure medication whenever they thought of Mamata. Many a tantrum later, she finally bade goodbye to ministerial office in 1993, only to be brought back seven years later by another gallant man, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Despite the BJP PM’s charming ways, Mamata left him for Sonia Gandhi and the Congress, returning to the NDA in 2004, in the final months of their period in office.
Although Mamata Banerjee did not prove lucky for the NDA in 2004, she did for the UPA in 2009, having once again teamed up with Sonia Gandhi after the Congress had parted ways with the CPI and the CPI(M) over the Nuclear Bill. By then, she had become Ms No, blocking the Singur and Nandigram projects, thereby depriving West Bengal of more than 130,000 new jobs. By 2005, Mamata had become a devotee of Mahatma Gandhi’s economics, even though she had serious doctrinal differences over his theory of non-violence. Ms Banerjee was opposed to large industry, or indeed any industry, except those that did not need any land to be set up, such as painting or music. She knew that by then, the Bengali had become used to industrial under-development, and was wary of those who sought to convert West Bengal into another Maharashtra or Gujarat. Simple living and high thinking was the Mamata motto, and it has to be admitted that she followed her own precept, living in a tiny Kolkata dwelling in the shadow of Mother Kali, along with a dozen relatives, including her only boss, her mother.
Mother Kali obviously found something likable in her feisty disciple, for neither Mamata’s lack of administrative achievement nor her negative attitude towards industrialisation stopped one of the most evolved and cultured people in the world, Bengalis, from voting the Mamata — sorry, Trinamool — Congress to office in 2011. Both Singur and Nandigram had significant concentrations of Muslim voters, many of whom resented the fact that they were to lose their land so that some tycoon could set up a mammoth factory. This columnist has for long believed that if the state ever needed to commandeer land “for public purposes”, it ought to take over twice the land needed, and distribute half to those losing their lands, in proportion to their loss. Coupled with monetary compensation for the extent of territory actually surrendered, such a scheme would ensure that those losing land would also be gainers from the appreciation in values that would follow the setting up of a giant factory. The present system of merely monetary compensation (that too at prices that are usually far below market value) cheat the persons who surrender land, to the benefit of those who get the land — again at very low prices — from the government. However, such details were of no interest to Ms Banerjee, to whom all is either Black or White. In a paraphrase of the words of that champion of “military democracy”, George W. Bush, those who are not with Mamata are deemed to be against her. And like President Bush, she believes in Open Season on the latter category.
Being Chief Minister Mamata is a tad different from being Sheikha Banerjee, an absolute ruler in the category of the Sheikh of Dubai, for example. While the latter is the law of the land, in the case of Mamata Banerjee, despite her extraordinary talents, state property belongs neither to her nor to her party. Such a small detail, however, has not stood in the way of Mamata refusing to meet anyone not a professed admirer, or allowing the venerable Kolkata library to offer its members any English-language newspaper or any mass-circulated Bengali paper. Clearly, Ms Banerjee does not want citizens to waste their time reading newspapers when so many good books are going unread. As for development, seeing for themselves in Singur and Nandigram what Mamata Banerjee is capable of, unsurprisingly, few industrialists are willing to make huge investments in West Bengal.
Dropcap OnHad Mamata Banerjee been a good neighbour to Bangladesh, such an attitude may have changed. Or had she devoted 20% of the time that she has spent on sacking Dinesh Trivedi into making the Manmohan Singh government finally establish adequate road and other links with ASEAN via Assam, her state may have entered into a boom period. But for Mamata Banerjee, it is not just that all politics is local, but that the only politics she practises is local. Mamata Banerjee cares not a hoot for any vote not belonging to her home state. And because of such an exclusive focus on the next Kolkata headline, even in the newspapers banished by her from state libraries, she is likely to become unpopular as rapidly as she won the favour of her voters in better times. Democracy, Mamata-style, may be a diet too spicy for the Indian diet.