Friday, June 21, 2024

Populism is Mamata’s Achilles heel


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By Amulya Ganguli

A visitor to Kolkata cannot but notice how the city has become livable again, as it was nearly throughout its 300-plus years of history except for the recent period of communist rule.

While the traditionally affluent areas of Ballygunge, Alipore, New Alipore and others have improved further with the new high-rises confirming their prosperity along with the shopping malls – the latest sign of wellness – it is the large numbers of multistoreyed buildings which make emerging localities like Rajarhat look like Gurgaon of the late 1990s.

Notwithstanding the all-round improvements in living conditions – no prolonged load shedding, better traffic management and, above all, the absence of the pervasive fear of falling foul of the Marxist militia – the future remains uncertain because Mamata Banerjee is apparently still some distance away from getting a grip on the situation even if her six months in office is too short a time to make an assessment.

For her, there has been only one positive achievement so far, which is to defuse the Darjeeling issue although it has by no means been resolved. It will be futile to expect the supporters of the demand for a separate state to fade away quietly. But, at least, the tension has subsided, mainly because Mamata has been less arrogant in her dealings with the pro-separation leaders than her customarily haughty predecessors.

Otherwise, her government can be said to be marking time for the present, providing no clear indications about how it intends to move forward. The improvements that have taken place are largely the outcome of a slight tightening of the bureaucracy and the private sector investments in hotels and malls because of a more stable law and order situation. But the government is apparently yet to find its feet.

One reason for the immobility is its focus on what the prime minister called its “unbridled populism” when he rejected the demand of the Trinamool Congress MPs to roll back the petrol price hike. Reports suggest that he “scolded” the MPs as a headmaster does a bunch of school children when he asked them to ponder over the kind of West Bengal which they want to leave to the next generation.

Although Mamata has toned down her earlier threats of withdrawing her ministers from the centre unless the diesel and cooking oil prices are also raised, her populism was evident when she turned down for the seventh time an appeal by the electricity suppliers to raise tariffs although the denial means that these companies will incur a loss of Rs 1,600 crore by the end of the current financial year.

If the consumer paying user charges offends her “socialistic” instincts, her opposition to land acquisition – the agenda which led to her victory in the wake of the Singur and Nandigram agitations – has held up the nuclear power plant at Haripur and scared away the corporate sector. But, aware, like Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, that farming cannot absorb all the growing population, she has sought industrial investment, but only in the public sector.

This was exactly the advice which the Marxist maverick, Ashok Mitra, gave to Bhattacharjee. But, while such a course of action may marginally increase the state’s employment potential, it is unlikely that the traditionally inefficient public sector will boost industrial production or earn profits. Even the jobs will in all likelihood be cornered by Trinamool supporters with the Congress getting crumbs from the table.

But a blinkered economic outlook is not Mamata’s only drawback. Her heavy-handed political style is evident from the fact that while, on one hand, she is seeking a gargantuan Rs.20,000 crore economic package from the centre, on the other hand she treats the Congress in West Bengal with barely disguised contempt. It is probably Pranab Mukherjee’s patience and the centre’s coalitional compulsions which sustain the alliance although there is no love lost between the two partners in the state. However, it is undoubtedly her economic bailout demand which made her retreat on the question of the petrol price hike, her first concession.

While Mamata’s uncertain course is evident from all this, her inexplicable blunder over a local issue has shown her in very poor light. This was when she stormed into a police station after several Trinamool activists were arrested for indulging in violence. Not surprisingly, the suspects were soon released, which strengthened the impression of the chief minister’s unwarranted interference in a matter of law and order. For most people, the incident is bound to arouse a sense of dejà vu, for it was precisely this kind of manipulation of the police for partisan purposes that was the hallmark of the Left’s rule. Earlier, Mamata’s feckless response to the disturbing number of deaths of children in government hospitals also hurt her image.

It is clear that unless she stresses professionalism in administration and seeks expert advice on economic matters, her government will not have an easy run.


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