That Indian politics has become a vaudeville is best exemplified by West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chairperson Mamata Banerjee. What is a leader of her stature, a chief minister to boot, doing stomping out of her car and threatening a group of people shouting Jai Shri Ram?
The recent decision to ban the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from taking out victory processions paints Didi more as a petulant politician sulking after an electoral hiding rather than a competent administrator.
The war of postcards that BJP and TMC have threatened on each other shows how puerile politics has become in the state. Mamata has said her party would send 20 lakh postcards with Jai Bangla and Jai Hind written on them in response to the BJP’s 10 lakh Jai Shri Ram postcards.
Union minister and a BJP MP from West Bengal Babul Supriyo has jumped into the fray threatening to flood Mamata Banerjee’s mailbox with Get Well cards. And there’s more to come: Some sadhus from Varanasi have promised to send copies of Shri Ramcharitmanas to Didi.
Amid all these posturing and nose-thumbing the news of Rs 380 payment to priests at Kolkata’s crematoriums per cremation got buried. This decision is in continuation of the appeasement politics that Mamata Banerjee has been accused of. Remember the decision to pay imams and muezzins an honorarium? That decision was thankfully squashed by the Calcutta High Court in 2013.
It is surprising that Mamata Banerjee is losing her political nous and playing right into the hands of Narendra Modi-Amit Shah’s game plan. Noted filmmaker Aparna Sen, an early Mamata Banerjee supporter, has said that with her knee-jerk reactions Mamata is digging her own grave. And that’s a widely held view.
BENGAL ON THE BRINK
Mamata Banerjee should step back and reflect on how and why BJP made such deep inroads into West Bengal. In the space of five years the saffron party has made huge strides in the eastern state — from two seats (2014 LS elections) to 18 (2019 LS elections) out of a total 42 seats in West Bengal. BJP’s vote share in the state has also seen an incremental jump: 17.02 per cent (in 2014) to 40.25 per cent (in 2019).
Which basically means that West Bengal is now ripe for BJP’s polarisation politics. Mamata by saying, “Joh humse takraiga, woh choor choor ho jayega” [anybody who opposes us will be shattered] – this was said at an Eid function in Kolkata on June 5 – is helping consolidate the Hindu vote. Denizens at Delhi’s 6A Pt Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg are rubbing their hands in glee.
For decades Bengalis have hung on to their secular credentials — thin maybe, but still secular. Memories of a land lost are still alive among many Bengali Hindus. A land that was fertile, with groves and ponds… all left behind during Partition. Religious polarisation in Bengal simmers just below the surface. And Mamata Banerjee’s overt appeasement of Muslims has just about sprinkled salt over barely healed wounds.
On being asked about coddling Muslims, her retort — “Je goru doodh dei taar lathi khete raji achhi” [roughly translated to “Am willing to be kicked by the cow that gives milk”] has riled many.
But Mamata cannot play the polarisation card. She would be on very thin ice. Instead she should bring back the doughty-Bengali-woman-taking-on-the-world persona. In this case her villain should be those Hindi-speaking goons. If she stokes Bengali chauvinism against the Hindutva of North India there will be takers. Just look at how Trinamool fared in the Lok Sabha seats in Kolkata and neighbouring areas post-desecration of a Vidyasagar statue.
JOBS, JOBS AND MORE JOBS
West Bengal’s chief minister should also look at how to create jobs in the state. All those Bengal Global Business Summits make good headlines. In this year’s edition the state received Rs 2.84 lakh crore worth of investment proposals, according to wire service IANS. How much of this will trickle down to create infrastructure to power growth remains to be seen.
Manufacturing is unlikely to take off in West Bengal. Big industries need land. And that is in short supply. With an area of 88,752 sq km, West Bengal is one of the smaller states in the country. Moreover the land is fertile, usually giving three crops a year. Difficult to convince agriculturalists to sell their land for building factories.
Instead what Mamata has done, and she should focus more on it, is to encourage medium, small and micro enterprises (MSMEs). In its latest report, the MSME ministry says there are 8.86 mn MSME units in Bengal, second only to Uttar Pradesh. Young people busy setting up their own little businesses would be the perfect foil for any rhetoric based on religion.
Kolkata over the past decade and more has become the hub of medical tourism – especially from neighbouring Bangladesh. According to Technopak, a consultant, the number of medical tourists is expected to be 24 lakh by 2020 and is likely to rise to 49 lakh by 2025. Medical tourism is a sunrise sector, and Mamata should harness Bengal’s central location and Kolkata’s connectivity.
West Bengal’s two economic mainstays in the past were tea and jute. Tea gardens in north Bengal and the terai are languishing. Any improvement there would be a boon to the state’s economy. And also to Mamata’s vote bank. BJP won all eight Lok Sabha seats in north Bengal and the terai in 2019 as opposed to only one (Darjeeling) in 2014.
North Bengal farmers have had to face a double whammy this year. Potato prices have crashed leading to farmers staring at a bleak future. From Rs 8-9 a kg, prices have come down to around Rs 5, according to news agency ANI.
The hollow and rusted jute mills on the Hooghly are now a testament of a glorious past. Revival of these should boost Mamata’s chances of holding on to Bengal.
These are sectors that need Mamata Banerjee’s immediate attention.
There are other areas too that Mamata Banerjee can focus on instead of sulking. For one she can revamp Bengal’s education system. Once the pride of the country, Bengal now produces students who only complain about how difficult Madhyamik/Uchha Madhyamik (Secondary/Higher Secondary) courses are compared with CBSE or ISC. So are there more students from West Bengal cracking all-India competitive tests? Extremely unlikely.
FOR DIDI TO LOSE
Mamata Banerjee is a politician who has worked her way up the ranks. She knows the public pulse. She knows voters are angry because of the institutionalisation of corruption (the syndication system), cronyism (she may be clean but that can’t be said about those close to her) and the regular handing out of sops.
Mamata Banerjee once promised ‘poriborton'(change). That promise has not been kept in full. She can try and redeem herself. She still has two more years to crank up the economy instead of playing silly politics with rivals who are more adept (and also have more resources).
Mamata Banerjee should know she is not part of the cast of Keystone Cops. There are many who have invested in her.
Mamata Banerjee knows that it is for her to lose the state.