A Punch and Judy show playing out on a loop

  • chanakya@hindustantimes.com, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jan 11, 2015 01:38 IST

Pyromania it would seem is a preferred pastime in Bengal these days. First we had the irrepressible chief minister Mamata Banerjee saying that a symbolic burning of copies of the new land ordinance was the order of the day to register her protest. Then along comes Trinamool Congress MP Idris Ali, who tells us that Mamata is an ‘agninayaka’ and that if she is touched in the Saradha scam, which has been rocking the state for some time now, not only Bengal but all of India would burn. This hyperbole extends to Didi’s family as well it would seem. A man who dared to slap her nephew has not just been beaten to a pulp by the faithful but also been charged with murder.

Now this need to resort to burning things would be faintly comical if we were not dealing with the running of a strategically important state which has had no real governance for some years now. I know that many people find Mamata’s emotional responses appealing, even childlike. But I don’t. She is chief minister of a huge state which is suffering an enormous governance deficit. Her antics and mercurial temper may have been refreshing at one time, but now it is downright irritating, even dangerous.

Her track record has been abysmal. She has treated even the former prime minister with disdain, thrown childish tantrums at the drop of a hat, invokes some non-existent Bengali pride to justify the excesses of her partymen and has detected a Left conspiracy in every criticism of her. At the Bengal investment summit, the finance minister spoke of Bengal being the gateway to Southeast Asia and of the challenges it faces to re-emerge as an industrial centre. ITC chairman YC Deveshwar spoke of how investment would flow to states which are competitive. Didi has blithely said that land would be no problem. I wonder if her excitable partymen share that view. When in the midst of her adoring party workers, Mamata seems to revert to the street corner firebrand avatar that she favours. I cannot see the investment rolling in when it is back to chaos as usual.

But something’s got to give. If she did not like the UPA, she does not seem too comfortable with the NDA either. Rabble-rousing cannot be a substitute for good governance. The hapless people of Bengal, I think, will settle for just governance, never mind the good part. The state is in dire need of investment, it is in urgent need of better policing, it absolutely requires employment and, most of all, it needs a calm and reasonable person at the helm. It has none of this.

Mamata cannot go on forever talking about stepmotherly treatment by the Centre. She has done nothing to make out a compelling case for her state. Her partymen have become a law unto themselves and now have their fingers in every pie from extortion to intimidation to street violence. In fact, politics has become a form of employment in itself.

Despite all its failings, it almost makes me yearn for a Left leader like Jyoti Basu, who at least was able to conduct a civil conversation. Mamata’s language leaves much to be desired as with her remark about the anatomical place for a bamboo. There have been other leaders who have come up the hard way from the streets. But at some point of time, they have made the transition from street corner entities to leaders. But Mamata seems congenitally averse to governing. She has painted the city blue, she has painted some works herself, she has struck up friendships with other politicians only to jettison them the next day.

Under her watch, Bengal, once a safe place for women, has seen a drastic rise in rapes, many of which she dismisses as part of a conspiracy against her. She scuttled a much-needed water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh for no rhyme or reason other than some misplaced desire to establish her Bengali credentials. But people were willing to give her a very long rope since she was seen as a simple woman, not given to acquiring material things as many politicians are wont to do. But now that too is under a cloud.

The Saradha scam could have been dealt with very easily had it not been for the alleged involvement of TMC functionaries in it, many say the trail leads right up to the CM’s doorstep. Instead, this too has become a huge plot to unseat Mamata, hence Idris Ali’s inflammatory remark.

When the leader talks in such crude language, when she alleges conspiracies in all that militates against her and her partymen, can you blame them for taking this as licence to do as they will? And they have. They routinely beat up political rivals, ranging from the Left to the BJP. I think many excesses may have been overlooked had she delivered something tangible. She has not. This explains why the BJP’s vote share has gone up in the state despite dire threats from Didi.

She came to power on a vote for historic change. But so far, as I see it, all we have got is some Punch and Judy show playing out in a loop. When Idris Ali made that remark, she should have shut him up double quick. She did not. Similarly, whenever her partymen have made the most ugly and vicious remarks about raping women and beheading political rivals, she has looked on indulgently. This is not what a chief minister is all about, in fact, this should not be what an ordinary party worker should be all about.

Crushing opponents cannot be a full time job for the chief minister. She should indicate that she is open to any investigation in the Saradha scam. She cannot be in eternal battle ready mode. The state has poor health care parameters, serious law and order problems, its educational institutions are in a mess and its industrial growth is next to nothing. If this does not worry the CM, then nothing will. Either she does not have the attention span to sit down and put all her drama aside and address these issues, or she thinks that by thundering on about imaginary foes and plots, these will go away. One visit to Singapore does not constitute a consistent policy of attracting investment. For a start, she should put aside this adversarial stance with the Centre unless absolutely needed. She cannot take her local fights into her dealings with the Centre. To use the TMC favourite terminology, it really burns me up to see a once great state reduced to nothing more than the grounds for petty political vendettas and negative rhetoric, all of which will pull Bengal further into the quagmire.

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