“Mamta is a dangerous, populist demagogue: economically illiterate but politically astute – (a) deadly combo!" tweeted Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Chairman & MD of Biocon, when Mamata Banerji fired her own party’s minister of railways last month to the surprise and outrage of many and discomfiture of her ruling alliance, the UPA. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw’s is a fair assessment. Mamata has thrived right through her political life on populist demagoguery. A great street fighter, many used to call her “rabble-rouser”. She could rustle up a few lakhs to choke the Kolkata streets at the drop of a hat. Mercurial and combative to the core, she has had a history of intemperate, even aggressive conduct inside and outside the legislatures, including the Parliament. Age does not seem to have cooled her down.
Highly strung and self-opinionated, Mamata has progressively degenerated into an unpredictable politician, an authoritarian leader and a difficult ally. Her stunning success last May at the Assembly elections when she demolished the 34 years old Left Rule of Bengal was a great achievement as well as an opportunity and a time that should have bred humility in her. I still remember Kolkata on the 13th May 2011, the day the counting of votes was to commence and results declared. The air was pregnant with expectations. The city folk abandoned their normal chores. Glued to their TVs, people deserted the streets and buses and taxis were scarce. There was a curfew-like ambience barring that Rabindra Sangeet (Tagore songs) rendered by Bengal’s popular and distinguished singers – a passion with Mamata – was being played on the public address systems since early morning. Hope permeated the atmosphere – the hope of a change, poribartan, as Mamata called it. As the evening wore on and the results of the elections started trickling in, the excitement was palpable. Announcement of every seat captured by Mamata’s Trinamool Congress was accompanied by roars as people exploded into hysteric excitement. Numerous Bengali language TV channels went to town carrying the latest about an overjoyed Mamata and brooding Left Front bosses. With all the results out by 5 PM people seemed to have heaved a sigh of relief at the loosening of the decades-old stranglehold of the communists and their goons. They had overwhelmingly voted for “poribartan” – a change that they had been waiting for for years.
It is not yet a year since Mamata, followed by hundreds and thousands of euphoric supporters, triumphantly walked down to the historic Writers’ Building to take over the reins of a populous and backward state and already disillusionment seems to have set in. Arrogance born out of infliction of a stupefying electoral defeat on her arch enemy and exhilaration of heady power has bred a perceptible brashness, even a certain amount of recklessness. She and her party-men have come to believe that they can do no wrong and, hence, everything is blamed on the Opposition – the CPI (M) and, of course, the Congress, her electoral alliance partner with which she has had for long an uneasy relationship. Suffering from paranoia, Mamata feels that everybody is out to do her in. Whether it is a fire in one of the reputed Kolkata hospitals or inordinately large number of infant deaths in hospitals or rapes in Kolkata’s outback, for her every such incident is a “set-up” or a “conspiracy” to malign her. Suspecting such a conspiracy she recently had a reputed professor arrested for lampooning her.
Intolerant of dissent, she could not stomach the temerity of Dinesh Trivedi of deviating from what Mamata thought was the brief given to him. Populist, as she is, she could not have countenanced burdening the “aam aadmi” by hiking railway fares. Further, what got her goat was the gumption of Trivedi to thank Prime Minister, other ministers and leaders of various parties including the leader of the Opposition before thanking his own party leader besides articulating the fact that the Railways were languishing in the ICU – pointing finger at Mamata who was his immediate predecessor. No wonder, she blew her top.
With an amorphous ideology, Mamata was earlier a fighter generally for the peasants. Now she is trying to take up the cause of all the down-trodden to the discomfiture of the CPI (M). Even goons of the Left, finding themselves lost in the new milieu, promptly aligned with her party. Believing she has captured the Left support-base, she is out to encroach on the UPA’s territory. She has embraced its “aam aadmi” and has claimed him as her own. Not only did she sabotage the UPA’s plan to hike oil prices and later to bring in FDI in organized retail, she even fired her own Railway Minister for committing the ‘sin’ of harming “aam aadmi”, embarrassing the UPA.
But, for her, it was business-as-usual as she had embarrassed the Prime Minister earlier as well when she haughtily withdrew from his entourage for Dhaka disagreeing with the water-sharing Teesta Accord – a pre-negotiated international treaty. Embarrassing her alliance partners comes to her so naturally. She had twice walked out of the NDA government and, now, with her 19 MPs, she keeps the UPA government on tenterhooks. What matter to her are her votes in West Bengal, the country’s international image or its economic progress hardly figure in her political calculations. Indulging in meaningless trivialities, she thinks she can lead the state towards progress by banishing Marx and Lenin from its schools, painting the capital blue, or asking her supporters to have no truck with the commies, running a state television channel and her own government’s newspaper.
She hardly is an achiever. Her neglect of two years of the Railways made the organization comatose, not that it was very much up-and-about when she took over its reins. It had already slipped into somnolence having become a victim of “coalition compulsions” more than a decade back, headed as it has been by self-centred regional parties. Hostage to politics of votes, the Indian Railways is seemingly devoid of any future. All the talk about high-speed trains, air-conditioned lounges, introduction of anti-collision devices, etc., is hogwash. Some tinkering will be indulged in with the rolling stock or the tracks here and there but it will take eons for it to roll out a swanky high speed train that China rolls out in dozens every year. Passengers will continue to crowd into virtually primitive, pests-infested coaches and journey in trains that clatter along swaying from side to side on rickety obsolete tracks. Ride in trains like those of Trains `a Grande Vitesse (TGV) of France, Shinkasen (Bullet Trains) of Japan or the Chinese High Speed Railways will, therefore, remain a dream for generations of Indians.
Apart from having a running feud with the Centre to which she has been issuing ultimatums for bailing her out of the financial mess, she has done nothing so far for the state. With nothing tangible to show for her year-long rein in West Bengal it remains to be seen whether, with her limited vision, the electoral victory that Mamata branded as “the second independence” is going to deliver the Bengalis from their misery and backwardness.