Monday, December 19, 2011

Mamata changes, question on pace - Reminders and a reward on eve of govt’s 200th day, the first cut-off set by Trinamul manifesto ASHIS CHAKRABARTI

Mamata changes, question on pace

- Reminders and a reward on eve of govt's 200th day, the first cut-off set by Trinamul manifesto

She came to power promising to change Bengal. But six months on, it appears that how much things change may ultimately depend on how much Mamata Banerjee changes herself.

If the chair makes the person, it could not leave Mamata or any other Opposition leader-turned-ruler completely unchanged. There are clear indications that she is changing. The question is whether she is changing enough and fast enough to bring about her promised change in Bengal.

Two completely unconnected events — the first Calcutta film festival of her reign and the killing of the Maoist leader, Kishan — showed the first flickers of change. Film festivals are events that the people in Bengal have always considered to be the natural turf for someone like culture-minded Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

But the widely acclaimed professional quality of the inaugural programme of the festival this time was something new to Bengal. That a government-sponsored programme could be organised with such professionalism revived hopes that change is possible in Bengal.

For the first time, the government bowed to its own inabilities and let professional groups manage the event. It marked a change of attitude that the government and Bengal had long needed.

Much more than the film festival, the killing of Kishan in a battle in Jungle Mahal showed that Mamata can change herself to facilitate the change she promises.

It is no secret that the Trinamul Congress had taken the help of Maoists in its battle with the CPM. Mamata had public spats with the Union home minister, P. Chidambaram, with her demand for the withdrawal of the security forces from Jungle Mahal. Once in office, she suspended the anti-Maoist operations and sought the help of civil society mediators to negotiate peace with the Maoists.

When the Maoists failed to respond to her overtures, she had no hesitation in joining the battle in right earnest.

In doing so, she seemed to have alienated some of her supporters in civil society, prompting writer Mahasweta Devi to famously call her government "fascist". But she did not allow the attacks from former friends to stop her in her tracks. The killing of Kishan and her fury at the civil society groups that condemned it showed that she was evolving into her new role, whatever the consequences.

A third instance of a changing Mamata was in the government's agreement with the NRI businessman, Prasun Mukherjee, on the power plant and other projects at Nayachar. True, it is not the pertrochemical project that Mukherjee had proposed to invest in under the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government.

But, remembering the fierce opposition that Mukherjee once faced from Mamata, it is a remarkable change. It showed that, if she could turn old friends into critics, she could also make new friends.

A fourth case — that of Presidency University — shows another aspect of the evolving Mamata. Friends and critics agree that she takes all important decisions in the government. So much so that old hands in Writers' Buildings talk, half in jest, of her similarity with Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, whose imperious ways reduced other ministers and bureaucrats to irrelevance.

In the case of Presidency University, she has been uncharacteristically hands-off, leaving the matter entirely in the hands of the mentor group. Similarly, on other issues of higher education, she has let experts do their job. The difference with CPM rule, when Alimuddin Street controlled everything about education, is already obvious.

The de-politicisation of panchayats that she supposedly intends to bring about with a new emphasis on reviving the rural bureaucracy is a different matter, though. She knows how crucial the political bases are in the villages and how important the panchayats are to strengthening those bases. So her change of the panchayati raj may not be as much of a rollback as some of her critics suggest.

But Mamata has grown into too astute a politician to know that change alone does not help in politics. That is why, for all the changes, she remains enough of the old Mamata, who must fight, if not old, fallen foes, then new ones.

Her fight with Pranab Mukherjee over a special economic package for Bengal, the petrol price hike and over foreign direct investment in retail are all part of vintage Mamata. So much about her politics, ironically, is a flashback to old CPM fights with the Centre. She shares with the CPM the view that fighters win people's hearts in Bengal, whatever the means or the causes.

The same populism is behind her refusal to raise transport, power and other tariffs, which is desperately needed to get the state's finances out of the ruins.

Six months may not be a long time in power or in politics. But industry circles remain sceptical about two things about her first half-year in government. What they call the "Singur politics" remains a major worry for local businesses and potential investors.

Her insistence that the government keep away from purchasing land from farmers makes them wonder how any new industry can buy land from hundreds of small farmers and other stakeholders. They fear that populist politics will continue to force Mamata to shy away from the ground reality about land.

The bigger worry is about the challenges for changing Bengal's economy from the agricultural to the industrial. They do not see a light as yet at the end of the Singur tunnel.

The other big worry is the growing tendency among Trinamul-backed unions and groups to hold businesses to ransom. In Haldia, in the jute mills along the Hooghly and elsewhere, the shadow of the Trinamul extortionists is lengthening over industries. It may still not be as big a threat as the Citu militancy under Left rule. But, unless checked, it may assume disturbing proportions.

On this, Mamata may have a problem that her predecessor faced –— of the enemy within. But the difference is that she is the party in a sense that Bhattacharjee never was.

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