India File

Can Mamata charm people again?

Pratim Ranjan Bose Abhishek Law | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 14, 2016

Increasing convenience A road widening project work at Gayerkata, in northern West Bengal, where accessability has improved in the TMC rule ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

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The West Bengal Chief Minister is hoping that the development push in the hinterland will give her another five-year term. But the Saradha scam could still haunt her. Pratim Ranjan Bose and Abhishek Law report

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is a deft politician. The founder of All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) came to power in May 2011, with the masses endorsing her call for Paribartan or change. In the ensuing five years, she has used this vox populi to charm, and sometimes bulldoze, the opposition to great effect. And people are beginning to see the change.

Within six months of assuming office, she brought an end to the Maoist domination in the state’s poor, southern districts. An erstwhile CPI (M) bastion, the districts of Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapore – also called “Jungle Mahal” – suffered from poverty and lack of development. Maoists took this opportunity to consolidate their position in the region. When ultras ambushed a convoy of state and central ministers at Salboni in November 2, 2008, the region turned into a war-zone. Government records say that 260 people - including civilians and security forces - died in 2010. According to CPI (M), over 300 of their party activists were killed by the Maoists.

Banerjee used this political vacuum to her advantage. While as an opposition leader she insisted on removal of central paramilitary forces from Jungle Mahal, the stance changed once she was in office. Mallojula Koteswara Rao or Kishenji, politburo member of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) was killed by security forces in November 2011, bringing an abrupt end to the violence. A spate of arrests and surrenders in the following days sealed the fate of the Maoists.

To complement the political change, Banerjee introduced a series of programmes in a development drive that the region had never seen before. While moves like extending the scheme of giving rice at ₹2 per kg to the entire population soothed nerves, the rush to build social and physical infrastructure started impacting lives. According to the state, nearly 7,000 police constables and over 10,000 ‘civic police’ were recruited from the region. Krishak Mandis (agriculture markets) have come up almost in every block.

A massive scheme, with assistance from the Japanese government, was launched to supply piped water to drought-prone areas. New schools, colleges, health centres, and bridges were built. The once inaccessible parts of the region - like Bandoan or Marandi hill in Purulia - which were Maoist dens - are today connected by well-laid roads. “The government has made rapid progress in infrastructure creation. The weakness, if any, lies in human resource mobilisation - like doctors and teachers - in ensuring delivery of services,” says a researcher who prefers to remain anonymous. The effort paid dividends. In the 2014 General Elections, the Left lost all the six seats in the region to the TMC.

Making the difference

Banerjee’s shrewdness and agility have been evident in other spheres of governance too. If she successfully saw off Maoists in the south, in Darjeeling in the north, the Chief Minister has made Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, which was demanding a separate state, a spent force. On the economic front, during the last assembly elections she made the most of people’s ire with the Left government after the Nandigram and Singur incidents (both were against land acquisition for industries); but that hasn’t stopped her from pushing for industrialisation in the state, irrespective of her success.

But the Saradha scam, in which a Ponzi scheme collapsed, made a dent on Banerjee's well-cultivated image. The public fall-out with the once trusted lieutenant, Mukul Roy, bared factionalism in the TMC. Though Roy might be back with Banerjee, the Left is hoping that these reasons are enough to loosen the TMC leader’s grip in the state.

But it won’t be easy. Five years ago, Banerjee had used the two burning issues – Nandigram and Singur - to drum in the Left’s ‘anti-people’ agenda. She has been unstoppable in one election after the other – panchayat in 2008, Lok Sabha in 2009 and 2014, and the assembly elections in 2011. From 235 seats out of 294 in 2006, the Left crumbled to 65 in the 2011 elections, with the CPI (M) suffering a humiliating defeat. For Trinamool it was a meteoric rise from 29 seats in 2006, to 184 in 2011.

In the General Elections in 2014, the TMC bagged 34 of out 42 seats, a marked improvement from 19 in 2009; holding up against the Modi-wave that had swept out the rest of the political parties in the country. Even in the municipal body elections in 2015, TMC's seat share has increased exponentially.

Entrepreneurial politician

As a CPI (M) leader puts it, “The greatest advantage for Mamata is her dynamism. She doesn’t need to take permission from party authorities and she is making full use of it by taking quick decisions.”

For instance, in January, the 61-year-old politician offered shoes to lakhs of primary school students at an estimated cost of ₹154 crore. “On my way to ‘Mati Utsav’ in Burdwan district, I had met a group of children in a primary school. I was touched to see many of them barefoot. I immediately asked the education department to give shoes to all primary school children,” she said. By the end of February, majority of the school children had got their shoes.

Some question if this is the ideal way to run a government. Five years ago, it was unthinkable for a chief minister to interfere in the business of his fellow ministers. Not surprisingly, a few of Banerjee’s decisions have opened doors to criticism.

One of them was the decision to set up 41 new multi-speciality hospitals with over 20,000 bed capacity in remote parts of West Bengal, at an estimated cost of ₹2,400 crore. It was expected to give a big push to the state’s dilapidated health infrastructure, which had just 13 super speciality hospitals. Though the government has already opened 31 such facilities, there is one problem. Banerjee’s men didn’t have enough doctors to make use of these new facilities, exposing lack of planning.

“Shortcomings apart, it’s a different administrative culture in West Bengal. In the past, the CPI (M) was a parallel power centre dictating terms, especially to the lower levels of bureaucracy, at every step. Today we are answerable to one person,” a senior bureaucrat told BusinessLine on conditions of anonymity. The Chief Minister presides over majority of the administrative meetings and ranks the officers, right up to block level, on the spot. A poor performer, be it a minister or a secretary, often gets a public snub.

The government claims to have built or improved 1.5 lakh km of roads and doubled the expenditure on physical infrastructure in last five years. “Travel in the districts and you will not miss the evidence,” says Kaushik Sinha, Vice-President, Communications and CSR of Magma Fincorp, a Kolkata-based NBFC. The only black spot is the North South Corridor of NH-34, which has been delayed due to land acquisition tangles.

Focus on the north

Banerjee has shown special interest in resolving issues in the northern parts of the state.

The penultimate days of the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government were rocked by a popular agitation, spear-headed by Bimal Gurung’s Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in Darjeeling, demanding statehood. When Banerjee took over, the call ended in a whimper. In September 2011, GJM signed on the dotted lines for creation of Gorkha Territorial Authority (GTA), which has more administrative powers. Later, as the GJM tried to revive the issue of separate statehood, Mamata took them head on by creating development boards for other prominent hill communities like the Tamangs and Lepchas. It ended the Gorkha monopoly in the hills. One of its top leaders, Harkabahadur Chhetri shifted allegiance to the TMC.

Similar has been Banerjee’s administrative overdrive in Siliguri, at the strategic chicken’s neck in north Bengal, and the capital of the state’s tea and tourism sectors bordering Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The TMC has not done well in this backward region, prompting critics to point out that Banerjee, with the Paribartan call, wants to improve her party’s vote share.

Banerjee set up a branch secretariat here (the only one after Kolkata), which includes 19 departmental offices, a full-time cabinet minister in charge of development of the region and the Chief Minister’s office. The North Bengal Development Minister, Gautam Deb lists the government’s achievements that include 17 colleges, ITIs, poly-techniques and a sports complex. The most remarkable change has been in the region’s accessibility. A new ₹100-crore-bridge over the Ganga is nearing completion at Manikchak, in the Congress bastion of Malda, offering farmers crucial link to markets to sell their crop. Another upcoming bridge will reduce the distance between Dinhata and Sitai, in Coochbehar, from two-and-a-half hours to 20 minutes.

All not rosy

During its 34-year reign, the Left created a seemingly unbeatable organisation in the state. But as the collapse of its rule became evident, the length and breadth of the organisation – from intelligentsia, bureaucracy to the auto-rickshaw drivers - started switching allegiance. Even as Trinamool maximised this opportunity, the party ended up inheriting some of the vices of its peer.

The same dubious investor who took the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government for a ride, became cosy with the current dispensation. By 2011, Ponzi operators had a roaring business in West Bengal, even though some of them like Rose Valley and MPS were under the scanner of market regulator SEBI. Their collapse hit Banerjee the most. Though she is right in pointing out that Saradha Group, the most infamous of the Ponzi operators, had already become a household name when she assumed power, many point out the rise of the company’s media empire, which campaigned in her favour during the 2011 elections.

Similarly, ‘syndicates’ – an extortion racket in the garb of co-operatives that forces builders to buy construction material at high cost - were a creation of the Left to let party cadres capitalise on the real estate boom. By 2009, the TMC had allegedly made inroads in the lucrative syndicates business in the upscale Rajarhat New Town satellite township in the outskirts of Kolkata. The township contributes to 60 per cent of the state’s real estate business. With every cubic feet of sand attracting an extortion tax of ₹600, over the market price of ₹2,700, the average construction cost in Rajarhat is 20 per cent higher than the rest of the city.

Presently, senior TMC leaders are alleged to be backing different factions of the syndicates. The competition between them has brought out the turf war between different factions of the ruling party. “It would be an exaggeration to say Trinamool invented the extortion rackets. The difference is that the Left had a control over it, making life easier for business,” says the owner of a nearly ₹1,000-crore logistics company. He didn’t want to be named. “Such factionalism is a hazard as you don’t know with how many groups and on what terms you have to negotiate,” he adds. At Rajarhat such rivalries often take a violent turn. On February 25, a building material supplier was killed in broad daylight.

For a makeover

Sources close to the government say Mamata is now desperate for an image makeover. Over the past one year, party-members have been asked to keep out of extortion rackets. It has worked, but in pockets. In the port city of Haldia, things have become better. “Syndicate- e ar poisa nei dada,” (Not much cream left in syndicate business), says a member of one of the syndicates there. But in Durgapur, the businessmen are still allegedly at the mercy of three different factions of the TMC, each backed by senior party leaders from the region. The syndicates ask for regular 'subscriptions', vehicles, supply contracts, purchase of factory scrap at lower-than-market price and control over the supply of casual labours.

“At least 30 units have closed down in the last six months. The situation is worsening,” says a businessman. Rafique Ali (name changed) had set up a fast-food stall in Durgapur’s DPL township last year. The business wound up in five days, as three factions demanded a daily commission of ₹1,000 each. For Ali, the Paribartan didn’t work. But in Kolkata, Banerjee, or Didi as she is popularly called, might still continue to reign.

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Published on March 14, 2016
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