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Mamata live and livid: CM’s televised meetings draw anger, appreciation

Meeting and reviews where she pulls up officials and ministers has state administration on its toes.

india Updated: Dec 06, 2017 14:26 IST
Avijit Ghosal
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in conversation with Chief Secretary Basudeb Bandopadhay (R) at the first administrative review meeting of her government in Kolkata on June 3, 2016.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in conversation with Chief Secretary Basudeb Bandopadhay (R) at the first administrative review meeting of her government in Kolkata on June 3, 2016. (Subhendu Ghosh/ HT file photo)

“Subtract your commissions and cuts, and the cost of projects will come down. The money allotted for projects will be sufficient then. I cannot fund your commissions.”

Mamata Banerjee tells Trinamool MLA Asit Mazumder in Tarakeswar on June 1.

“You used to till the land earlier, but you no longer do it. How will you know what is happening when you don’t go out of your home?”

She tells backward classes welfare minister Churamoni Mahato in Jhargram on October 10.

The sight of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee pulling up her MLAs and ministers in closed-door meetings is not unusual, and probably even expected. It is when she gives them a tongue-lashing on live television – with some aggressive body language and finger-pointing thrown in – that real eyebrows of apprehension are raised.

The mercurial chief minister has shaken up the administrative machinery as well as her party leaders over the past few months with a new model of ‘live’ governance that comprises virtually shifting the entire secretariat to district towns and inviting the common people to telecast administrative meetings in real time.

“Indian cinema’s angry young man was born when Zanjeer hit the screens in 1973. The people of Bengal witness the rise of an angry young woman in these meetings,” says Kaushik Maitra, a Kolkata-based entrepreneur.

The live telecast of these meetings began just a year before the rural polls, deemed as a rehearsal for the crucial 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The astute politician has fully exploited the potential drama and shock that live shows allow. During a meeting in North 24 Parganas, she pulled up the inspector-in-charge of Titagarh police station for failing to take action against encroachers at the site of a shipbuilding unit.

“Why haven’t you done anything?” she asked the officer, who could be seen fumbling for words.

When he tried explaining that no complaint was lodged, the chief minister asked: “How will they complain? They probably know they will not get protection. I am bringing it to your notice. Take action tomorrow.”

For the public, the televised meetings provide the incredible sight of a frail woman pulling up “high and mighty” people like district magistrates, superintendents of police, hospital bosses, departmental officers, public representatives and municipality authorities. To give them a first-hand feeling, the government even invites them to air grievances and voice their opinions.

The attendance on the podium is usually imposing, with everybody from the chief secretary and home secretary to bureaucrats in charge of key departments such as education, health, transport, industry, MSME, power and irrigation registering their presence. The chief minister holds the microphone, functioning as the emcee throughout the meeting. The state information and cultural affairs department provides the input, which is then telecast live by almost all Bengali news TV channels in the state.

While there have been other chief ministers – such as Lalu Prasad Yadav – who held durbars to hear public grievances, the live-telecast factor has lent the Bengal experiment a new colour.

However, not everybody is impressed. “We also went around the districts holding meetings too; we did not rule the state from the capital. The chief minister advised us to visit remote districts and blocks to hold administrative meetings. But there was no technology to project our efforts. Mamata is only offering old wine in a new bottle,” said Pradip Bhattacharya, former minister in the Siddhartha Shankar Ray cabinet (1972-77).

Bhattacharya also had a warning for Banerjee. “She must also know that meetings can be counter-productive. People will find out that the administration has failed to achieve what she asked it to deliver months ago,” he said.

Others, like Debesh Das, professor of computer science at Jadavpur University, are downright dismissive. “Mamata is trivialising administrative meetings by turning them into television reality shows. We held numerous meetings in various districts and participated in serious discussions, but the ones we now see on television are nothing but image-building exercises,” said Das, who was the IT minister in the Buddhadeb Bhattacharya government (2006-11).

The state government began its live telecast on April 26, and the first one pertained to a meeting held at Alipurduar in north Bengal. The idea behind it can be traced to a high-profile meeting that Banerjee held with authorities of both state-run and private hospitals at Kolkata’s Town Hall on February 22. Back then, she bluntly told the medical officials present that they were not only overcharging patients but also providing shoddy service. This became a talking point among the people for weeks to come.

The admirers of Banerjee’s initiative are many. “By doing this, the chief minister has increased transparency and accountability among government servants. The chief minister comes fully prepared to the meetings. She pulls up the people involved and gives them a dressing down for lapses. She also praises those who deserve it,” said Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, vice-chancellor of the Rabindra Bharati University.

Chaudhury, who attended one such meeting in Howrah on May 12, praised the practice of inviting college and university students to the televised events. “These meetings have a definite impact (on the government machinery). While such events keep officials on their toes on the one hand, they – on the other – tell the people that here is somebody who does not hesitate to fix responsibility if the authorities fail to perform,” he added.

Jawhar Sircar, former CEO of Prasar Bharati, agrees. “The point here is to enhance transparency. Common people never come to know much about the decision-making process,” he said.

Biswanath Chakravarty, professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University, expressed his approval for the exercise but issued a word of caution. “It is good that Mamata is trying to bring the administrative machinery to the doorstep of the common man, but she should ensure that people from her own party are not the only ones invited to these events. The televised meetings are now starting to look like a political tool,” he said.

Chakravarty, who popularised psephology on Bengali TV, also points at another flaw. “The chief minister issues diktats from the dais in micro-matters that often belong in the domain of gram panchayats. This defeats the important goal of local self-governance,” he said.

While former Presidency College principal Amal Kumar Mukherjee wondered why university vice-chancellors should attend these meetings when they aren’t public servants, Sanjoy Mukherjee – a teacher of film studies at Jadavpur University – said he was waiting to see whether the “dramatic” meetings would help in governance.

The exercise, however, has created some discontent within the ruling party. “The meetings should not be telecast live. What is the point of humiliating us before everybody?” said a Trinamool MLA who was pulled up in a south Bengal meeting.