Amma, Behenji and Didi
(Mamata at the Writers Building after her swearing-in)
Singur Season 2
Mamata Banerjee has kicked off her innings in characteristic style – with a great flurry, seeking publicity and courting controversy from day one.
It seems her “surprise” visits to government departments and hospitals – without informing her officers and ministers – are undertaken only after tipping-off friendly TV channels.
The Singur Soap Opera Season II has also unfolded along predictable lines. First, the hurried ordinance and then passing of the Singur Land Act in the assembly. Her legal advisers would have surely told her that, it was bound to be challenged in court by the Tatas. But, so what ? – she could claim that, she has kept her promise to the electorate and started the process for returning the land in right earnest – blaming any delays on the Tatas and the courts. Those – who view the Supreme Court’s interim ruling as a set-back for the government could be mistaken. Even during the original Singur controversy in 2008 – the intelligentsia went ballistic but she knew her real constituency (read my earlier blogs: Nano Vision I and Nano Vision II).
TV Reality Show Queen
The knowledgeable and politically astute were not expecting a honeymoon. They had anticipated it would be more like a TV Reality Show wedding where the sparks and shoes start flying even before the bride takes off her grease paint. And, this lady never wears any make-up in the first place. So, it was back to the kitchen (cabinet) almost from the nuptial night.
In keeping with her image – she deliberately gives the impression of being in a mad rush, impatient and restless to get things done. And, a little more dangerously, having all the answers with her. This was on display her first interaction with the industry (her brusque disposal of all interjections) – which seemed more an exercise for the camera rather than a genuine interest to solicit ideas and encourage interaction. One suspects - the same would be the objective of forming the "mentor group" for Presidency College - a la the Nalanda University initiative of Nitish. Neither she nor her lieutanants (who faithfully emulate her churlish mannerisms and 'instant solution' proclivity) would have much time for advisors no matter what their stature may be. Her churlish handling of the situation arising out of the death of 18 infants at the Dr B C Roy Memorial Hospital was again true to form.
The worry is how far will mere rhetoric and native PR take her ? She may have the ideas – but does she have the plan and, more importantly, the people and administrative acumen to give it shape. That’s why most of her much touted projects in the railways went beyond the foundation stone ceremonies (and opening of new stations and introduction of new trains in West Bengal) and the ministry has been precariously close to being “derailed” – with an appalling fall in its operational efficiencies.
Poster boys or toy-boys
The older guard in the party are already feeling marginalized. Some senior leaders – like Subrata Mukherjee – have been given insignificant cabinet births – with most major portfolios retained by her. A veteran MLA I met the other day – lamented that they find it difficult to even get an audience with her. The more visible and vocal faces around her lack both administrative and political experience – in any case don’t have much authority to function on their own. Someone like Amit Mitra – is seen more as a “poster boy” - like some big names she had tried to ‘collect’ in the past – such as Nitish Sengupta, General Shankar Roychowdhury (who later went to Rajya Sabha as an independent supported by the Left Front) and the Panja brothers – with the strings of control firmly in her hand.
The bureaucracy is nervous on 2 counts. First, because of her impulsive, whimsical and unpredictable ways - though, this is primarily a concern of the senior officers at Writers’ Building who have greater interaction with her and, in any case, the 'babus' are trained to take the frailties and tantrums of their political masters (can't say mistresses, in this case) in their stride. But, what is making people down the line – especially in the districts - feel shaky is the absence of clear leadership at the ground level. In the Left Front regime there was no ambiguity in the line of command. It was either the local MLA or the party secretary who called the shots. Now everyone is a self-styled leader and none of the pious pronouncements from the top – advising cadres not to interfere with the administration are taken seriously by the local satraps.
the CEO syndrome
Personality cult is here to stay in Indian politics. Suddenly, our political leaders seem gripped by the CEO syndrome. So, it would be unrealistic to expect West Bengal to be any different. But, to be successful what’s the style Mamata Banerjee should adopt ? In neighbouring Bihar, Nitish too has largely by-passed his party men (much to their resentment – but the astounding results of the last election – silenced all criticism) and empowered the bureaucracy. He has gathered some outstanding officers – whose clear mandate is to deliver with speed. Narendra Modi has done pretty much the same in Gujrat, as has Navin Patnaik in Orissa with mixed results.
Even Mamata’s greatest admirers would not put her in the league of these 3 stalwarts of change and development. She would, probably, be more comfortable in positioning herself somewhere in between her two lady contemporaries – the Behenji in Lucknow and the Amma down South in Chennai. Both are imperious and neither have a strong reputation for probity (Mamata wears a brooch of integrity prominently on her pallu - but her partymen make no such pretence). But, in their own way they have ‘delivered’ for their respective constituencies – notwithstanding the corruption in both the states and abysmal Law and Order situation especially in UP. The progress made by Tamil Nadu in Jayalalitha’s previous term – when it had the second highest Industrial growth in the country (next only to Gujrat) is well-known. On a recent trip, I saw the transformation of Lucknow. Though many would call the grand new architectural extravaganza - monuments of megalomania, it says something about the lady’s execution capabilities. Even the CWG scam and a series of other scandals couldn't taint the image of Sheila Dixit, the grand-dame of Delhi - as an able administrator.
A respected political analyst had said, the problem with the Left front was that, even when in power they viewed themselves as an “opposition party”. Mamata too has to quickly get out of that stormy petrel of protest syndrome. Otherwise – the hounds of the CPM are waiting in the wings to trip at her at the first opportunity, doing unto her what she did to them all these years.
If she doesn’t change gears – she could well score a “self-goal” and get beaten in her own game