The abrasive Ms. Bannerjee

Jun 20, 2012

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Mamata Banner-jee revels in being abrasive, or so it seems. There is something about her brand of politics which does not allow her to exercise the sort of grace you would find, naturally, in someone like Aung San Suu Kyi. In Oslo last week, the Burmese democracy icon reminded us once more of why she remains a much respected figure on the global stage in these times. The years of internment, the denial of power after the 1990 elections, the psychological torment inflicted on her by a regime clearly out of joint with the times have never been able to nibble away at the fundamental dignity in Suu Kyi. Through her travails, Suu Kyi has grown, from the perspective of both morality and politics. Like Nelson Mandela, she is today the voice of conscience for oppressed people everywhere. She does not enjoy power and yet power is what she exudes through the simple graces she bestows on those she comes in touch with.
You cannot say the same about Mamata Bannerjee. Having stormed to power in West Bengal over a year ago, she has demonstrated in this period of time a remarkable ability to squander the goodwill she came to office with. When Pranab Mukherjee emerges, through the deep and abiding respect of people, as India's next president, Bannerjee makes it known to everyone that she does not like the man. And like some people who cannot quite express the reason for their dislike of others, she cannot quite convince others why she does not approve of Mukherjee as India's future head of state. Part of the reason could be Mukherjee's no-nonsense attitude in politics. There have been the times when he snubbed Bannerjee on significant issues in cabinet (when the West Bengal chief minister was part of the union government). Part of the reason could be the growing ego in Bannerjee that if she could dislodge the thirty-four year-old Left Front government in Kolkata nearly single-handedly, she can very well call the more important shots in the rest of India. That is a mistake. Proof of it lies in the rising unpopularity of her government.
The emergence of Mamata Bannerjee as chief minister of West Bengal was in a number of ways a rude decline in social and political values among India's Bengalis. No matter how ill disposed towards the CPI (M) you might be, no matter how much of an anti-socialist you could be given your belief in the ability of capitalism to do wonders for the world, you cannot ignore the truth that the collapse of the Left Front government in Kolkata was but a synonym for the rise of mediocrity in the state. And mediocrity comes from those whose politics has traditionally been grounded more on agitation and less on policy. Mamata Bannerjee may have had all reasons to prevent Tata from making new inroads into West Bengal, but she did not quite conceive of the opportunities of progressive industrialisation she was throwing to the winds in her state.
A seasoned politician does not treat her political opponents as enemies. Yet Bannerjee has brought precisely that attitude into her assessment of the Left in West Bengal. She does not want to have anything to do with the colour red, for it reminds her of what she believes was an age of darkness for India's Bengalis. When anyone calls the times of Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya a dark age, he or she is not quite at home with a study of history. For thirty four years, the Left Front made Bengalis feel secure in their homes and on their streets. Where once West Bengal and especially Kolkata cowered in fear of terrorists and criminals of an assorted kind, the Left Front gave Bengalis freedom from fear, to a point where young women were not afraid to stay out till the late hours of the night. In these new Mamata times, though, instances of women going through the ordeal of rape have occurred. The blame, of course, is being put on the victims, for their audacity in staying out late and so provoking the rape.
In the early months in power, Mamata Bannerjee marched to a local police station to free two of her party workers hauled up for criminal conduct. She not only compelled the police to let the two men go but also publicly reprimanded the police officer in charge over having brought Kolkata to such a bad pass. Having been placed in power through the democratic means of popular electoral exercise, Bannerjee now believes democracy is another name for conspiracies against her. She storms out of a television channel live show when uncomfortable questions are put to her. There are Maoists and their agents in the audience, she cries indignantly, before stalking off. That is a clear sign of a leader losing her way. Another is when a leader believes, as does Bannerjee, that the media are deliberately looking away from the achievements of a government and so the government needs to have its own media. Bannerjee now has her own newspaper and her own television channel to disseminate the wonders her administration achieves. That is a step toward megalomania.
Mamata Bannerjee has held up progress in India-Bangladesh relations through refusing to countenance a Teesta deal between the two countries. She now thinks even the land boundary agreement between Dhaka and Delhi goes to Kolkata's disadvantage.
When a politician keeps saying "no" to everything, she remains petty and pitiable. Worse, people like her end up fanning distrust among their own kind and between nations, to everyone's regret.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
The Daily Star, 20 June 2012 

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