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The lady's in the house

In terms of influencing national policy, Mamata Banerjee is India's most powerful chief minister today. She is also the politician of the year. Ashok Malik writes.

india Updated: Dec 09, 2011 17:09 IST

This past Sunday, Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, did something unusual. In Kolkata, she told the media that the Union government's decision to permit enhanced foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail had been "suspended". Four years ago, M Karunanidhi, then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, had announced changes in the UPA cabinet even before a reshuffle by the prime minister in New Delhi.

The two examples are juxtaposed only to give an idea of what Banerjee's action amounted to. She is India's most powerful chief minister today, at least in terms of influence on national policy. Actually, for making the Manmohan Singh government bend on the Teesta waters accord as well as on the issue of FDI in retail - and for drubbing the Left Front and ending its 34-year run in West Bengal - Mamata Banerjee is simply India's politician of the year.

To analysts in the capital, Banerjee is a "maverick", "mercurial" and "temperamental". However, just short of seven months into her chief ministry, she has settled in far better than predicted. Like her neighbour Naveen Patnaik in Orissa - another underrated politician whose record as a cold-blooded, almost ruthless practitioner of power has not been entirely appreciated by the national media - Banerjee has quickly made herself the sole authority in her state.

Consider the evidence. Her finance minister was the one other person in her cabinet with a national profile. He finds his functional autonomy severely constricted. The West Bengal bureaucracy, loyal to the CPI(M), has been shaken up, and key state cadre officials brought back from the Centre. Kolkata's business and intellectual circles, such as they are, have been co-opted in the best traditions of time-servers.

Finally, the Maoists and their sympathisers have been used and dumped. If Banerjee wanted to convey a message it was best done by calmly presiding over a cultural event in New Delhi, while Maoist leader Kishenji was shot in the interiors of Bengal. The semiotics was devastating.

Those who imagine that Banerjee's hard-ball tactics and her inability to easily remedy West Bengal's bankruptcy will soon make her unpopular may be in for a surprise. There are three reasons why.

First, the lady is tapping into Bengali regionalism in a manner not dissimilar to, say, the Telugu pride NT Rama Rao invoked in the early 1980s. West Bengal has not had a chief minister with such national clout since Jyoti Basu in 1996. Basu was a voice respected by the United Front government that he had initially been offered leadership of. However, he had to function within the CPI(M)'s organisational framework. In contrast, Banerjee and her party are indistinguishable.

Each time the CPI(M) had a say at the Centre (1989-90, 1996-97, 2004-08) it expended its political capital on collateral demands - opposing the India-US nuclear deal, protesting against the privatisation of New Delhi airport, promoting the visit of Venezuela's president. Concerns pertinent to West Bengal, the state that gave the CPI(M) its votes and MPs, were not a priority.

On her part, Banerjee is astutely playing the regional party card. When she "holds the UPA to ransom" - to quote a news-channel cliché about her - she does so in the name of north Bengal's farmers or the state's small shopkeepers. She presents her ideology as, well, Bengalism. In a society that has long nursed the grievance that the rest of India doesn't take it seriously, this works like a charm.

Second, the Left Front's position in West Bengal is far weaker than its 41% vote share would suggest. Should Banerjee succeed in smashing the CPI(M)'s rural network in the 2012 panchayat elections, she will leave her chief rival even more vulnerable.

Key demographic groups have turned against the Communists. Muslims are a majority in an estimated 115 of West Bengal's 294 assembly seats. Not all the growth in the Muslim electorate has been organic. Some of it, particularly in border districts, has been caused by CPI(M) governments legitimising illegal migration from Bangladesh. It is some irony then that Banerjee has succeeded in moulding a pan-Bengal Muslim constituency in a manner even the Left couldn't.

Bereft of a leader and a defining identity the CPI(M) finds itself confused. Should it revert to doctrinaire economics or persist with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's reforms? How should it square the need to win back the Muslim voter with inner-party pressures to articulate a Bengali nativist line, in the manner of the AGP in Assam? If luck favours Banerjee, these questions will engross the CPI(M) for another term.

Finally, while an early Lok Sabha election could suit the Trinamool and give it greater presence in Parliament, Banerjee is unlikely to precipitate matters. She realises the benefits of a friendly Centre. As railway minister, she had inaugurated 19 projects in West Bengal. For the Hooghly riverfront redevelopment, she is using the Union Ministry of Shipping (which runs Kolkata Port) and the Railway Ministry as partners. Both have Trinamool ministers. Banerjee needs to deliver on some of these initiatives before she goes back for votes.

Neither is she certain of the composition of the next government, even if Trinamool has more MPs. Given her dependence on Muslim voters, she cannot possibly join a BJP-led ministry. As such, she is unlikely to destabilise the UPA arrangement, especially when, after 20 years of struggle, New Delhi is finally paying her attention.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Dec 08, 2011 21:41 IST