The state of Bengal: Ma, Mati, Morbidity

March 28th, 2012

There was no lack of prophecies when Mamata Banerjee stormed Writers Building, West Bengal’s administrative centre, last year. Yet, few of those soothsayers would have been able to predict the reign of randomness that Ms Banerjee has unleashed upon the state (and the nation) since taking office.

True, it may be far too early to conclusively decide whether Ms Banerjee’s turn at helming a state that was run to the ground by over three decades of Communist rule is going to end badly. Indeed, when it comes to the Knockout Lady from Kalighat, there is little that is ever conclusive.

But the way in which events in the past few weeks — let’s take just three issues: the staunch denial of the rape on Park Street and subsequently putting the blame on the Left, the fascinating series of incidents leading up to the dismissal of Dinesh Trivedi as Railway Minister and now, the absurd decision to provide a list of newspaper that the state’s 2,482 libraries are allowed to keep — have panned out, evoke a feeling of fear and delight in equal proportions.

After all, such incidents are unprecedented, even in the wildly subjective annals of Indian democracy. No Railway Minister has been asked to resign just days after delivering what was widely thought to have been a realistic budget after many years; not in the recent history of liberal West Bengal has the government decided what patrons of its libraries must read; and rarely has a chief minister told a rape victim that she wasn’t actually raped, while a junior minister simultaneously questioned why the lady in question was at a night club by herself.

And that is precisely where the mirth ends and the trepidation takes over. During her term as Railway Minister, Ms Banerjee promised much but delivered little, except that even after leaving office she has ensured that passenger fares remain illogically suppressed.

Despite that unenviable track record, she was greeted with much enthusiasm after a landslide electoral victory, a result that she had assiduously fought for through her political career. But all that goodwill, especially concerning Bengal’s industry and industrialists, now stands eroded. The miserable handling of the AMRI fire episode merely added to the slide.

In the heartland, where the Trinamool Congress (TMC) was able to dislodged a deeply entrenched CPI(M) party machinery, some of Mamata’s magic may be eroding, too. Her complete denial of farmer suicides was a case in point, and the decision now to limit library newspapers is unlikely to go down well is the many bhadraloks that frequent these institutions. There are also reports of infighting within the TMC ranks.

The middleclass, which swung away from the Left, is disillusioned with how nothing has really progressed. If anything, having the state’s governor come out and talk about how West Bengal was once safe for women is instructive. The intelligentsia, once ardent supporters of Ms Banerjee, are now having second thoughts. The IT industry is in limbo since the TMC’s manifesto expressly states that it isn’t against any SEZs, but the government of course is willing to provide SEZ-like benefits, only that it can’t be called a SEZ.

But the most scathing indictment that I have come across was from a taxi driver —one of the many thousand immigrants from Bihar who drive Kolkata’s iconic yellow cabs —on a recent visit to the city.

“We used to come here for jobs back then,” he said, taking a turn near the massive Eden Garden stadium, “but now, it seems that Nitish has made Bihar better than Bengal. What can Didi do for you now?” For a man from Bihar who moved to Kolkata to make a living some two decades ago, that’s saying a lot. And for West Bengal’s chief minister, that’s a tall order to meet.

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