A visitor to Kolkata cannot but
notice how the city has become livable again, as it was nearly
throughout its 300-plus years of history except for the recent
period of communist rule.
While the traditionally affluent areas of Ballygunge, Alipore, New
Alipore and others have improved further with the new high-rises
confirming their prosperity along with the shopping malls - the
latest sign of wellness - it is the large numbers of multistoreyed
buildings which make emerging localities like Rajarhat look like
Gurgaon of the late 1990s.
Notwithstanding the all-round improvements in living conditions -
no prolonged load shedding, better traffic management and, above
all, the absence of the pervasive fear of falling foul of the
Marxist militia - the future remains uncertain because Mamata
Banerjee is apparently still some distance away from getting a
grip on the situation even if her six months in office is too
short a time to make an assessment.
For her, there has been only one positive achievement so far,
which is to defuse the Darjeeling issue although it has by no
means been resolved. It will be futile to expect the supporters of
the demand for a separate state to fade away quietly. But, at
least, the tension has subsided, mainly because Mamata has been
less arrogant in her dealings with the pro-separation leaders than
her customarily haughty predecessors.
Otherwise, her government can be said to be marking time for the
present, providing no clear indications about how it intends to
move forward. The improvements that have taken place are largely
the outcome of a slight tightening of the bureaucracy and the
private sector investments in hotels and malls because of a more
stable law and order situation. But the government is apparently
yet to find its feet.
One reason for the immobility is its focus on what the prime
minister called its "unbridled populism" when he rejected the
demand of the Trinamool Congress MPs to roll back the petrol price
hike. Reports suggest that he "scolded" the MPs as a headmaster
does a bunch of school children when he asked them to ponder over
the kind of West Bengal which they want to leave to the next
Although Mamata has toned down her earlier threats of withdrawing
her ministers from the centre unless the diesel and cooking oil
prices are also raised, her populism was evident when she turned
down for the seventh time an appeal by the electricity suppliers
to raise tariffs although the denial means that these companies
will incur a loss of Rs 1,600 crore by the end of the current
If the consumer paying user charges offends her "socialistic"
instincts, her opposition to land acquisition - the agenda which
led to her victory in the wake of the Singur and Nandigram
agitations - has held up the nuclear power plant at Haripur and
scared away the corporate sector. But, aware, like Buddhadeb
Bhattacharjee, that farming cannot absorb all the growing
population, she has sought industrial investment, but only in the
This was exactly the advice which the Marxist maverick, Ashok
Mitra, gave to Bhattacharjee. But, while such a course of action
may marginally increase the state's employment potential, it is
unlikely that the traditionally inefficient public sector will
boost industrial production or earn profits. Even the jobs will in
all likelihood be cornered by Trinamool supporters with the
Congress getting crumbs from the table.
But a blinkered economic outlook is not Mamata's only drawback.
Her heavy-handed political style is evident from the fact that
while, on one hand, she is seeking a gargantuan Rs.20,000 crore
economic package from the centre, on the other hand she treats the
Congress in West Bengal with barely disguised contempt. It is
probably Pranab Mukherjee's patience and the centre's coalitional
compulsions which sustain the alliance although there is no love
lost between the two partners in the state. However, it is
undoubtedly her economic bailout demand which made her retreat on
the question of the petrol price hike, her first concession.
While Mamata's uncertain course is evident from all this, her
inexplicable blunder over a local issue has shown her in very poor
light. This was when she stormed into a police station after
several Trinamool activists were arrested for indulging in
violence. Not surprisingly, the suspects were soon released, which
strengthened the impression of the chief minister's unwarranted
interference in a matter of law and order. For most people, the
incident is bound to arouse a sense of deją vu, for it was
precisely this kind of manipulation of the police for partisan
purposes that was the hallmark of the Left's rule. Earlier,
Mamata's feckless response to the disturbing number of deaths of
children in government hospitals also hurt her image.
It is clear that unless she stresses professionalism in
administration and seeks expert advice on economic matters, her
government will not have an easy run.
Amulya Ganguli is a
political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com