On the last week of 2011, I was at a dinner party hosted by a Kolkata industrialist. I asked my host the most obvious question that a visitor to Mamata Banerjee-ruled West Bengal would ask: how are Bengal's homegrown industrialists faring in the climate of 'paribartan' (change)? The gentleman, always soft-spoken, paused. Clearly, this wasn't the first time he was asked this question since the Trinamool Congress swept away the 34-year-ruling Left Front out of power in Kolkata some seven months before. "Her intentions are good," he started, "But till now there has been nothing we have seen in terms of execution." My host added, almost hiding a sigh, that as far as he knew - and if anyone, he sho-uld know - the new government hasn't met industrialists behind closed or open doors. And then he went on to repeat that Banerjee's "intentions were good".
The question is: whether in Kolkata or with Delhi, what are Mamata Banerjee's intentions? To answer that question would be to know how to deal with the Trinamool Congress, a party that has, for all practical purposes, become the real opposition to the UPA at the Centre - of which, in case it isn't apparent, it is an alliance partner.
It is one thing to have 19 Lok Sabha seats and be part of the UPA, and quite another to proclaim, as Bengal urban development minister and a partyman close to Banerjee said on Thursday, "If we quit the Union government, they [the UPA] along with their leader Manmohan Singh will vanish into the thin air." If such open 'boasts' are a form of playing to one's own gallery, the litany of the Trinamool's obstructions to UPA policies are hardly in the realm of the rhetorical: Banerjee's opposition to the Gove-rnment of India's Teesta water treaty with Bangladesh; her opposition to the UPA's petrol price hike; her opposition to the Union Cabinet's decision to allow foreign direct investment in retail; her opposition to the inclusion of lokayuktas in the Lokpal Bill...
The connection between her treatment of industrialists and the business community in Kolkata and her way of dealing with the Centre may not be immediately apparent. But it doesn't take an incredible amount of talent in joining the dots to figure out that Mamata Banerjee and her party are loath to sidle up to industrialists and business interests. For a party that came to power out-Lefting the Left and by pretty much hijacking the rhetorical and strategic goals of the communists, that strain of anti-capitalism continues without any lack of ardour.
If the Left Front was the de facto opposition to the central government during UPA 1's tenure, the Trinamool has taken up the mantle with relish during the government's second innings. And if the image of a 19-MP party (successfully) bullying the Congress seems rather incredible, one must take into consideration that the Congress in UPA 2 has been a politically weaker force than it was during the latter's first stint.
But such an image of utter asymmetry has also led to strong suspicions from various quarters that all these wrangles between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress are nothing but shadow boxing. If the government found it politically awkward to block the Lokpal Bill in the winter session of Parliament, it outsourced the job to allies such as the Trinamool (and the far less relevant RJD). Or so goes this theory that, frankly, is as impossible to prove as it is to disprove. Of much more importance - and with proof as evident as a pudding - is Banerjee's ingrained antipathy against tried and tested forms of wealth creation aka free market economics.
Last week the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) issued a statement demanding the release of the board directors of AMRI hospital in Kolkata that had seen the horrible fire deaths last month. Ficci had added that the police action that followed the tragedy was "not completely non-discriminatory". This led to the perception that Banerjee may be targeting Marwaris, who make up for a large part of Kolkata's business community. I put this question to a Marwari friend of mine who runs his own business in Kolkata. "Mamata isn't a sectarian at all. She has nothing against any community. But what she is against is those who make money. She isn't a communalist but a classist." Similarly, her government's actions against the charitable trusts of certain industrial houses also stems from the latter's perceived closeness to the previous regime.
I have no bone to pick with federalism and stronger regional political forces. There have already been some arguments that conflate Banerjee's blocking UPA policies with the advent of stronger regional satraps. However, what Banerjee, fluttering the banner of populism, is doing is giving such devolution of power a bad name.