Today is supposedly an important day in India’s politics. No, there are no general elections happening nor the announcement of any election results. There’s no stormy Parliamentary session either (oh, we don’t care much about Parliament these days!). There’s no cabinet re-shuffle; no major cabinet meetings; no major announcements either. But today is still – supposedly – a very very important day. Because Mamata Banerjee – supposedly one of the 50 most powerful women in the world – is supposedly going to decide the UPA’s fate. I am sorry there is so much “supposedly” in this para, but that’s how everything about Mamata Banerjee is these days. Yes, Mamata Banerjee. Who with all of her 19 MPs will decide the fate of the UPA which has more than the requisite 272 required to run a government. Supposedly.
But then what’s new about this. There is a threat from Mamata every second month, when politics is on a slow burner, and every month when it’s running a little hot. People have never understood what drives Mamata, and I doubt if she has understood her well enough too. One thing is sure. Mamata is a very gifted person with great powers to see what no one sees (communists everywhere!) and do what no one dares do (protesting against her own cops!). But one thing that Mamata certainly isn’t gifted with is reading the mood of her state. For the truth is that Bengal is craving for reforms. For jobs. For the outbound migration to stop. And for Bengal to be rid of the “East of Kanpur” stigma (a jab at the poor states). But for all Mamata cares, reforms is a bad word.
This usually happens. When a new CM takes over from a tyrant regime that has ruled for several decades, he/she is put on a pedestal. No matter what he/she does, the people applaud. In the initial days, just minor steps can make a CM popular. In Mamata’s case, she has brought a semblance of law and order to a hitherto chaotic, even violent, state. And people have cheered. Not so much for what she is, or what she’s done, but because she’s the anti-thesis of the Left. For the moment, and for a few more years maybe, Mamata will continue to ride this wave of anti-Left sentiment.
The same thing happened for Nitish Kumar in Bihar in his first term. Coming after decades of misrule by Laloo, just providing a safer state made Nitish the darling of his people. But in his second term, there is a growing disenchantment with Nitish. People are now asking where the jobs are, where the electricity is, and where the governance is. Patna still resembles a rural village; and its economy looks like that of a 17th century village. There is also rampant corruption in the state. Nitish benefits from the absence of a viable alternative. People certainly don’t want Laloo back. And there is no other alternative. It’s the same with Mamata. Very soon, people will be disenchanted with her. In fact, a recent India Today poll indicated that people were already starting to rate her “below expectations”. Again, Mamata benefits from a lack of alternative.
This is where the reforms oriented parties must step in. In the past, I used to call both the Congress and the BJP reform oriented. But as the events of the last few days have shown, the BJP has given up the reforms platform. That leaves the Congress to take the reforms mantle forward in these two states. Bengal should be easier, since its seeking an anti-left government very eagerly. If the Congress can re-build its organization and go to the people with the promise of reforms, private industry, jobs and a promise to redeem Kolkata’s historical economic clout, the people could vote for the Congress. But the problem for the Congress no doubt will be that it may not have too many believers of reforms in its ranks. After 35 years of Left rule, and one more of a more-left-than-the-Left Mamata rule, even those who believed in reforms have become partial Leftists. Maybe an implant from outside could help the Congress in its revival.
With her constant anti-Tata tirade, and her constant anti-reforms push in Delhi, Mamata has ensured that no industrialist enters Bengal. In the last one year of her rule, there has been no progress towards development. If she continues this way, she might as well start counting her days. With the Congress in no position yet to revive, the Left will be back in Writer’s Building.
This then is the chance for Mamata to make amends. She should support the UPA’s reforms agenda. She can play her local anti-Left politics by passing on some subsidies from the state coffers a la Sheila Dixit. Sheila Dixit has been smart – she’s passed on the benefit of 3 extra subsidized cylinders only to the notified poor. Mamata surely realizes that the diesel price hike will give her state hundreds of crores of extra taxes. She could deploy some of those towards providing more subsidy on LPG cylinders. She could even cut taxes on diesel if she was so concerned with the same. But whatever she does, unless she openly supports reforms, she will fail to create jobs in her state.
Mamata has to realize she has no options at this point. Her bluff was called during the Presidential elections. The third front bogey is just that – a bogey. No one will even allow her into the 3rd front, what with the Left occupying prime position there. She cannot tie-up with the BJP, knowing that her state has 30% Muslims. Her only hope can be forcing a mid-term election, and hopefully picking up more seats in her state. But suddenly, that’s not such a certainty. Also, can she force a mid-term election at all? Has she forgotten what Mulayam did to her recently?
So just like everyone is predicting, Mamata is going to lose face today. She’ll do the most obvious. Throw some more tantrums. Pull out her ministers. Scream at the top of her voice. But that’s it.
In fact, I think it would be great if she pulled out her ministers. That would allow a new reforms-oriented minister to be put into the Railways ministry. Maybe the price hikes there can be taken; safety improved. Maybe that vital sector can be allowed to breathe.
The real truth is that Mamata is cornered. She’s damned if she quits; damned if she doesn’t. Some all-too-expected tantrums aside, there’s nothing much she can do. Life will continue as normal. And Bengal will continue to groan under her rule for some more time. Till – hopefully soon – a reforms oriented party smells the opportunity and makes a move….