Sunday, January 8, 2012

Is this what West Bengal voted Mamata to power for?

She’s been opposing almost everything that the central government has proposed. She’s still behaving like a revolutionary, battling an imaginary enemy. Suddenly, having vanquished her enemy-of-long, she’s without a target in front. Mamata has suddenly become like a headless chicken – unsure of her purpose in life – running helter skelter in a maddening and heady start to her tenure. In the process, is she misreading the mandate the people of WB gave her?

I think so. After 35 years of Left rule – and tyranny – the people of West Bengal voted as much against the Left as they did for Mamata. Under the Left, Bengal suffered, losing its pride of place in the Indian economic growth story. Right under its nose, cities like Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Pune arose – and grabbed the top rankings of growth cities in India – pushing Kolkata down to a lowly position. Who wants to go and work in Kolkata any longer? Not many. From being a work destination of choice in the 70s, Kolkata has become a net exporter of high quality managerial and creative talent. The saying in corporate circles is that if you want good talent, recruit in Kolkata. After a few years, take them out of Kolkata and give them the best opportunities. They will almost always shine. For many years now, almost all professionals are willing to leave Kolkata to go to work anywhere in the country. In Kolkata, they feel suffocated.

It’s this suffocation that people voted against. And that’s what Mamata does not understand. After the tragic fire at the AMRI hospital, what Mamata was most keen on was to pack off a section of Kolkata’s influential Marwari business community. Now that community – the last bastion of industrial and trading progress in the city – is threatening to move out of WB. I doubt if Mamata even cares about what the learnings are from AMRI. For her, it’s the political mileage she gets by showing her anti-capitalist credentials. For her, being anti-capitalist is the same as being pro-poor. But does it have to be this way? As she sees it, it was her opposition to the Tatas Nano project in Singur and to Salim Group’s in Nandigram that got her to power. She’s just continuing in the same vein. But is Mamata right? Jailing independent directors is perhaps a good political strategy to shift the blame away from oneself, but isn’t that what the Left used to do? How is she any different from the Left?

One earlier post I wrote on 13th May after the WB elections read: In WB the Left is being booted out and how! The Left has destroyed the pride of the Bengalis. It’s not so much economic’s about putting the Bengalis – amongst the most intelligent of all people in this country – behind their counterparts in the country. It’s the assumption of absolute authority that has upset the people the most. The urban areas had rejected the Left a long time the rural areas have also done the same. This is a revolution....what happens once Mamata takes over is unknown. But what is clear is that the people don’t want the Left parties to rule. It’s not that clear however if the people of WB have rejected the Left ideology....some say that Mamata is more Left than even the Left parties. If this is true, WB will remain a communist state.....let’s wait and see what Mamata does now. Her likely Finance Minister – Dr. Amit Mitra – is surely not known to be much of a socialist thinker (in spite of his Delhi School of Economics education!).

Did the people of Bengal reject the Left ideology or did they just want a different – maybe a little less ruthless – version of the same soup that they have been served for nearly four decades? My bet is that Bengal is dying for economic liberalization. They want factories and industries, so that they can get jobs in their own state. They want private capital to flow in. They want to shop at the big Walmarts and Tescos. They’ve partially seen the gains to be had from the BPO revolution – but they know they still lag behind many smaller cities. The quality of urban infrastructure in Kolkata is worse than even in Mumbai. The number of pre-historic Ambassador cars in Kolkata is so high that a visitor to Kolkata would be confused if he/she has been transported back in time!

What people in Kolkata have voted for is change. In the absence of any liberal option to the Left, they voted for Mamata. Soon, they will be disappointed. If in the meantime, the Left becomes even slightly liberal – though I believe that’s a near impossibility – Mamata’s dream run will be over even before her term ends. She obviously hasn’t learnt her lessons from the past. She partnered with the BJP in 1999 and won 8 MPs in alliance with them, but ditched them soon thereafter. She joined hands with the Congress for the 2001 assembly elections. Having changed partners, the people gave her a thumbs down in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, when she managed to win only one seat. Likewise, in the 2006 assembly elections, the people gave her a snub for ditching the BJP – giving her only 30 MLAs in the assembly. What has happened since then is that she’s emerged back with the active support of the Congress. She’s now been with the Congress for nearly ten years. It is stability that has earned her the extra seats. She shouldn’t forget this lesson. She changes partners now…..she will be punished again.

What Mamata needs to do is show a liberal face. It’s the first time in a long long time that the state government in WB is from the same coalition as the central government. She should use this to her advantage. It’s ok for her to be upset about a few things, but she cannot make this into a compulsive routine. She should exploit the Congress’s numerical weakness at the Center to get more funds for WB and more projects sanctioned – but she shouldn’t push the center so much that they start looking for alternate allies. If Mamata now went into the opposition’s grouping, her decline in WB would have begun.

As much as it is a delicate and tentative time for the Congress at the center, so also is it for Mamata in WB. The only difference is that the Congress realizes its position and is playing it cool till it’s necessary; Mamata doesn’t and is continuing to throw her weight around. The Congress is clearly playing a waiting game – waiting for the UP results to spring up a more reliable ally in SP. If that happens, Mamata will suddenly find herself ousted from her position of strength. Who’s she going to throw a tantrum against then?

In the meanwhile, the field in West Bengal is being readied for parties with a liberal ideology. Both the BJP and the Congress have an opportunity of a lifetime to make inroads into the state. Both follow liberal economic policies – unfortunately neither has a strong state cadre. The Congress does have an advantage over the BJP given the state’s high Muslim population (some 18% or so), and as I had written earlier, the BJP never does well in a state with Muslim population above 10%.

The real truth is that Mamata runs the risk of losing the huge support she got in the assembly elections. Remember how Rajiv Gandhi frittered away the 411 seats he got in the 1984 elections? That’s what absolute power does. It makes politicians blind. Mamata’s 184 seats are almost 2/3rds of the assembly – that’s why she’s got the nerve to threaten the Congress to pull out of her government. But if she were smart, she would push the Congress, but never too much. If she were smart, she would let Dr. Amit Mitra – her liberal finance minister – have a bigger role to play…….but will she????

1 comment:

  1. i second the thought " She runs the risk of losing the huge support she got in the assembly elections." if not the rural...the majority of city's educated class for sure. For starters many Calcuttans voted against Left and their own wishes ..but voted for optimism. But this behaviour is completely unacceptable. What next? Hang the owner of every taxi that could not avert a life taking accident on Calcutta roads due to its driver's unintentional negligence? Or there isnt a point to prove there?