Between April and May 2011, Bengal stood on the threshold of some great hope. After more than three decades of red tumult, there emerged a leader from within it who promised the people some fantastic times ahead. Change. That is what she had as her one-point electoral agenda.
There were the naysayers back then as well – those who derided Mamata’s mercurial nature, her hand-picked, yet inexperienced team of political rag-tags, and certainly her rustic ways of politicking that cut through all notions of diplomacy.
Despite those critics, the people of Bengal dared to dream. At the risk of sounding like a certain ponytailed management guru, the people of Bengal dared to think beyond the Communists. They dared to look beneath the surface and give the Mamata’s brigade a chance. More correctly, they dared to give passion a chance. Many may have been hoping against hope. But they had scarcely an alternative.
Today, a bittersweet year since she took office, the same people are a rattled lot. The hope has turn into hopelessness. The change they got was more than what they had bargained for. And even though I call the year gone by “bittersweet”, more bitter memories of Bengal fly by than the sweeter ones.
What exactly has gone wrong? How did the universe conspire against Bengal to take away from it its tryst with destiny, to borrow a cliche? How did the very same people go from being her staunchest supporters to her fiercest critics in a shade over an year?
Let us recount some of the past year’s highlights, starting with the precious few positives. One of her regime’s biggest highs have come in the form of the creation of the autonomous Gorkhaland Territorial Administration. Didi herself takes every opportunity to highlight this achievement saying, in her own characteristic way, “Today Darjeeling is smiling, the hills are smiling, Kanchenjunga is smiling.” While all is nice and peaceful on that front, a deeper look would point out a few things. One, the agreement was signed at the Pintail Resort at Sukna in the plains. There is a possible political signal to this – perhaps Didi intended to tell the Gorkhas that their demand of including more mouzas under the agreement was acceptable to the government. Two, the GTA was also granted 6-times more annual funds from the Centre when compared to the erstwhile Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. Three, the agreement itself does not remove the original demand for a separate Gorkhaland state as has been reiterated by their leaders. It merely defers the agitations.
Another high point of the new government was the restoration of peace in Junglemahal – a region torn by Maoist strife. Mamata has announced the vastly reduced number of deaths in the area since she took over, the development package that she has arranged for the people there, and generally about how “Junglemahal is smiling.” Many opposition leaders and intellectuals however feel that she has failed to address the core issue leading to violence – extreme poverty among the tribals. The opinion among them being that merely announcing rice at Rs. 2 a kilo and recruiting more than 10,000 local tribals into the police is not sufficient to bring about development and peace.
As soon as Mamata had taken over Bengal last year, she had announced the Singur Land Rehabilitation Act by which the land that was “forcibly” acquired by the Tatas for their Nano plant would be returned to the farmers who were originally unwilling to part with it. The Tatas had challenged the constitutional validity of the said Act in the Calcutta High Court which suggested that the Tatas return the 400 acres of forcibly acquired land while giving them the right to undertake any development work on the remaining 597 acres that were supposedly sold by willing farmers. One year down the line, the matter is still sub-judice having been challenged by the Tatas and Mamata has not been able to make further headway in terms of returning the land as she had so vocally promised.
She has recently announced a measly pension of Rs. 1000 per month for the affected farmers besides rice at Rs. 2 a kilo. Would the poverty-stricken farmers not have better off working in the Tata Nano plant, had it been allowed to come up as planned? They are left hanging with untillable land that is not their’s, nor a factory job that they were promised originally.
During the recent eight-day “Pragati Utsav” to highlight the maiden TMC government’s first year in office, the three achievements above were lauded with much flourish.
If, however, we take the time to gauge the sentiments of the people, say in Kolkata – the intellectual, thinking, Bengali middle-class, the picture would be coloured more with despair, helpnessness, hopelessness, and a seething, muted anger that only the Bengalis are capable of nurturing.
First came the AMRI Hospital fire. Such an incident at a private institution would, per se, not be considered among the failures of a government. However, in this case, the way Didi’s government handled the fiasco, raised eyebrows. She acted promptly by cancelling the licences of the hospital, effectively downing its shutters. She also had the board of directors of AMRI arrested with the exception of the four Bengali physicians who were not charged immediately. Not unexpectedly, the treatment meted out raised the heckles of the massive Marwari business community in Kolkata who felt that they were being discriminated against. Mamata’s vitriol against those accused – equating them with murderers and terrorists – further worsened the insecurities. Earlier this year, two more directors – both non-Marwaris – were arrested in the case.
Then came the spate of baby deaths across government hospitals in Bengal. As news kept pouring of more and more babies dying across hospitals, Mamata Banerjee was busy rubbishing them as rumours and conspiracies by the Left. Shockingly, she justified the deaths saying that the babies were brought to the hospital at the end, dying stages and no treatment was possible then. She also indulged in high-decibel quabbling over the actual number of deaths – vociferously arguing in a particular case that 11 babies had died in two days at a certain hospital, and not 15 as claimed by a section of the media. No acknowledgement was made of the bigger issue of the deaths itself – 11, if true, was no small number either.
By the time matters came to the infamous Park Street rape case, the Bengalis had had enough. Their anger was rather palpable. It shook the collective conscience of a city when a Chief Minister, herself a woman, questioned the morals of a rape victim and sought to malign her instead of trying to deliver swift justice. She claimed that the victim had fabricated a rape story to malign her government and that the opposition was behind the fabrication. Detective chief Damayanti Sen and and Joint Commissioner, HQ, Javed Shamim were rounded up soon after they managed to solve the case and arrest the accused. They were, reportedly, summoned to Writers’ Building and rapped for having solved a case that Ms. Banerjee felt was “fabricated” in the first place. Soon, Damayanti Sen was transferred out to an inconsequential role, most probably as a punishment posting.
The rattles did not stop there. There was news of a Chemistry professor of Jadavpur University being hauled up for circulating a harmless caricature of Ms. Banerjee and the Railway Minister, Mukul Roy in a scene inspired by the Satyajit Ray classic – Sonar Kella. Not even the ones with the gravest demeanour would find that cartoon even mildly offensive. It was, at worst, as malicious as a child’s playful spank.
Mamata Banerjee, shockingly went on to take the word “vanish” from the cartoon horribly out of context and attribute it to theories of murder conspiracy against her that were allegedly doing the rounds. She went on to say that the Professor was working on behalf of the CPI (M) by circulating the cartoons and that the Left was conspiring against her in “Facebook society, Twitter society, Email society, and Apartment society”. The last referring to the apartment society among whose members Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra had circulated the “offensive” cartoon.
What went wrong? Why such massive intolerance? One way to look at it would be to infer that Mamata perhaps is herself acutely aware of her own failures and misgivings, and therefore is more cautious than needed to save face. Her insecurities probably force her to smell conspiracies in everything around her, and manifest as behaviours that seek to demolish even a whiff of dissent. When that goes too far, it results in ridiculous situations such as the one on May 20, 2012 when, at a programme organized by a television channel, she labelled a student as a Maoist and as belonging to CPM cadre for having asked her an uncomfortable question.
The other side of the her bizarre behaviour also has to do with the quality that led to her meteoric rise in the national political arena and ultimately led to the fall of the well-entrenched Left government in Bengal. It is to do with her being a self-made leader who played by her own rules without a political mentor. By having fought her way through infallible bastions of power single-handedly, it is perhaps natural to have an air of arrogance around oneself. And when one is surrounded by sycophants in the name of leaders, the arrogance tends to get multiplied manifold. The ones in Didi’s inner coterie are either willful sycophants, or are forced to be such after witnessing the fate of leaders such as the former Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi who attempt to do reasonable work even at the cost of falling sour with the “Dear Leader”. Such men, as we have seen, are promptly booted out, leaving, evolutionarily, the apple-polishing survivors.
Without sane voices of dissent around her, it must be tough being Mamata Banerjee and taking the right decisions while walking the political tighrope.
I must speak for many Bengalis when I say that I hoped for a resurgent Bengal, one with renewed hopes, and renewed vigour. I was not carried away for once by Mamata’s snazzy promises of turning Kolkata in to a London. Or of turning Darjeeling in to Switzerland. However, I did believe that there would be a tangible change on the ground. Albeit slow, but a real, positive change. I hoped for that change would start by acknowledging the problem, and then through accountability.
What are we left with instead? A city, already reeling under massive neglect, is now left with its intellectuals – its only source of pride – wounded. Apprehension is in the air. One wrong utterance, one mistimed joke, or one wrong stroke of the pen could probably lead you to a prompt arrest.
The City of Joy, is probably turning out to be the City of “Bhoy” – Bengali for fear.