Chief ministers are assessed by popularity, performance and perception. That third attribute is decidedly subjective and slippery. Often, it amounts to how newspapers, news channels and the broader media ecosystem look upon an individual. If perception were all there was to public life, Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, would long have been history.
Since September 2012, when the Trinamool Congress withdrew support from the UPA government, Mamata has faced an acutely hostile media. She has been mocked for both serious errors of judgement as well as trivia. For someone who sees her herself as incorruptible and essentially well-meaning, Mamata is within her rights to wonder why she is being so targeted.
Other women chief ministers have got away with such angularities and worse. They have been applauded for a “no-nonsense” imperiousness (J Jayalalithaa) or for representing the social deepening of democracy (Mayawati). In contrast, Mamata is sniggered at.
Take an example. On the evening of February 20, West Bengal came out of a bandh that was only half successful. The government did not support the bandh; Writers’ Buildings, the secretariat in Kolkata, functioned normally.
Anybody who has lived in the state through 40 years of State-sponsored bandhs would acknowledge this is a change, incremental change perhaps but change nonetheless. Yet, when Trinamool Congress spokespersons gamely tried to make that point on television, anchors shouted them down. It did seem unfair on Mamata, and it was.
It is true West Bengal has an image problem, but then so do vast parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. If you forget its 19th century history, those are the states West Bengal has to benchmark itself against. This may seem harsh, but it is not fundamentally untrue. Mamata has to contend with that reality; unfortunately she also has to contend with non-resident nostalgia.
The Kolkata diaspora — vast, prodigious and talented as it is — has a disproportionate influence on media discourse. It has arrogated to itself the right to interpret contemporary Bengal for the state’s residents. It has wedded itself to an idea and an ideal of Bengal that never existed or is so remote it may as well be a fairy-tale. Measured against such parameters, Mamata can just never succeed. Nobody can.
So embedded is the nostalgia that some critics have even begun to weave a mythology about CPI(M) rule and its alleged cultural creativity and commitment to industry. This is bizarre. Over 34 years, the CPI(M) reduced West Bengal to a provincial backwater. Mamata has only emerged within that construct, she has not created it.
What of her performance as chief minister? Admittedly she has not matched the enormous and almost scary expectations of “Poriborton” (Change), the slogan that swept her to office in 2011. Even so, the police is freer of political influence than it was under the Left Front. Maoist violence has declined. A genuine attempt has been made to address Darjeeling’s urgings for autonomy.
However, the essential tendency of the ruling party in West Bengal remains hegemonic. The syndicates and informal networks, extending from auto-rickshaw drivers to tradesmen, that provided the CPI(M) its underpinning have simply switched allegiance. In that sense, Mamata has embraced an extortionate political tradition and not challenged it. Perhaps the choice was made for her. To challenge entrenched interest groups would be to risk losing them again to the CPI(M).
So is Mamata still popular? This past week West Bengal saw three assembly by-elections, all in seats the Congress won in 2011. When the votes are counted on February 28, it is expected Trinamool will win English Bazaar in Malda district. Nalhati (Birbhum), won by President Pranab Mukherjee’s son two years ago, and Rezinagar (Murshidabad), where Adhir Chowdhury, minister of state for railways, is the Congress strongman, remain imponderable.
This trio of by-elections will tell Mamata if she has absolute sway over the non-Left space or if she needs to worry about the Congress. Following this there are the panchayat elections in April-May. These will tell Mamata if she has absolute sway over rural Bengal or if she needs to worry about the CPI(M).
In 2008, the Left Front won 13 of 17 zila parishads (district councils) and Trinamool only two. The Left won 183 panchayat samitis and the Trinamool only 79, up from 12 in 2003. That 2008 contest was Bengal’s final old-era election. In 2009, the wheels turned and the Marxists lost the Lok Sabha polls. This summer Mamata hopes to finally cripple the CPI(M)’s once-formidable rural machine. If she does it, she will have the last laugh over the “nattering nabobs” of the newsroom, to borrow William Safire’s famous put-down.
Governance is more than just astute politics. It must include a rich economic agenda. West Bengal remains an economic laggard. After 18 months, Mamata can still get away with blaming the Left Front; after five years, people will be less patient. The CPI(M) used the Tata Motors project in Singur to convince people of a new awakening. This was premature, but the thought of big-ticket investment and industrialisation was appealing. Mamata needs a similar game-changer.
Her government is looking to sell its stake in Haldia Petrochemicals. Rather than do the expected thing and negotiate with a public-sector buyer, she should aim to privatise the company. Mamata could gamble on an auction for the shares, with major oil-sector corporations invited to participate. It may be the tonic she — and West Bengal — need.
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.