The Politics Of Mamata Banerjee Perpetually in the Opposition Space
The sacking of Union Rail Minister Dinesh Trivedi on the same day that he presented the Railway budget for the financial year 2012-13 by All India Trinamool Congress supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is the first instance in Indian politics when a Chief Minister has fired a Union Minister. Though it is always difficult to surmise that ‘Mamata Banerjee ko gussa kyon ata hai?’ (What makes Mamata Banerjee angry?), her gussa (anger) was this time triggered due to Dinesh Trivedi ignoring her diktat against raising rail fares that have not been raised for the past eight years.
This unprecedented move, devoid of dignity as well as party democracy and constitutional propriety, deserves an analysis from the perspective of emerging party politics in the era of coalitions and constitutionalism in India. Such a move is unknown anywhere in the democratic world, even where coalition politics has become a norm. It has created a strange situation in which not only the Railway Minister has been changed soon after presenting the budget, but the reply to the proposals would be given by the Finance Minister, first time in the history of India. Indeed, a coalition takes two (or more) parties to be together at their accommodating best to make it function. Functionality in this case comes from power sharing, cohabitation and policy coherence; which is possible only through a collective effort. However, the pivotal party in the coalition has the responsibility of being magnanimous and leading the pack.
That said, this does not mean that the partners are not only demanding but contemptuously dissenting in public against the coalition, painting the pivotal political party in black as the monster spoiling the party. And, beginning with such an argument, some of them are destroying any, perhaps every, edifice of India’s already crumbling institutions. Mamata Banerjee with her antics is simply doing this, projecting herself as the David fond of demonstrating how weak and vulnerable the Goliath is, but instead of destroying the giant with a slingshot, she is doing it step by step. Indeed, her single-minded dedication to bringing the well-entrenched three and a half decades long Left Front rule in West Bengal to an end is a piece of political devotion rarely seen. Where her parent party, the Congress, did not succeed and virtually gave up, she carried on her anti-CPM crusade virtually single handed. Her maverick politics nonetheless continued, she amply conveyed to one and everyone that she was not constrained by any established rule of the political game; she is given to scripting her own rules. This perhaps endeared her to a section of Bengali common man as well as the Bhadralok, who eventually accepted leadership in remove CPM campaign. That it was a remarkable piece of political action—mobilization, organisation, selection of emotive issues, et al—needs recognition, whether or not one agrees with her.
However, in order to put her latest action, bizarre to the core, in perspective, it is worthwhile to look at her political journey.
Having entered politics (and Congress) in 1970, she entered Lok Sabha in 1984 and was a Union Minister in 1991 in P.V. Narasimha Rao government (Minister of state for Human Resource Development, Affairs and Sports and Women and Child Development). She was soon in opposition mode, and protested in Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata against neglect of sports by the government and threatened to resign. She was divested of her portfolios in 1993. Three years later she alleged her party, the Congress, to be behaving as a stooge of the CPM in West Bengal and asserted that she was the lone voice of reason in the party and wanted to cleanse the Congress. At a rally in Kolkata her theatrics reached a level where she wrapped a black shawl around her neck and threatened to make a noose with it. She sat in the well of the Lok Sabha in July 1996 to protest petroleum price hike by the government of her own party.
DIDI TAKE A BOW?
While evaluating the role of Mahatma Gandhi in Indian History, Subhas Bose asserts: “The role which a man plays in history depends partly on his physical and mental equipment, and partly on the environment and the needs of times in which he is born.”
However, Mamata Banerjee could not be at least, as of yet compared to the Father of the Nation. Nevertheless, at the same time, it won’t be impertinent to assess her role in Indian politics till date, more so after her ascension to the position of Chief Minister of West Bengal on May 20, 2011. Ten months highly eventful have elapsed since then. The climax was reached when Didi’s own man Dinesh Trivedi came out with a Railway Budget which though made a giant out of a political midget but had a number of extra-parliamentary ramifications: viz,
- It was unequivocally clear that coalition politics had reached its troublesome peak.
- Policy-making at the national level has become a diminutive affair, if not a complete nonsense.
- Contradictions within the Trinamool Congress (TMC) are out in the open but we also need to read between the lines.
- Nobody bothers to talk about the credibility of the UPA-II government; no, not any more.
The Trivedi Affair
The latest from TMC supremo, at the time of weaving this piece was: “TMC will quit UPA-II if it is humiliated”, Ms Banerjee told CNN-IBN, but further affirmed that the party did not want to topple the government. While defending her decision to sack Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi, she said that he had kept the party in dark on the fare hike and it was her right to name the Railway Minister and the Congress could not interfere.
Yes, Didi, you are right because you hardly could be wrong. But doesn’t this whole Trivedi Affair tarnish the image of your own party? Even if we agree that he kept you in dark regarding the price hikes, which Mr Trivedi acknowledged publicly, does it not mean that you have people in your own party over whom your control does not work? Is Trivedi a saboteur? And if that is the case indeed as far as Trivedi is concerned, why not cancel the primary party membership of Trivedi? Didi, so many questions remain unanswered.
Why are you diffident to dislodge the dissident MP Kabir Suman when he openly subscribes to the Maoists and maligns the credibility of your party? Do these acts reflect your largesse? Or are these simply a sign of an immature and confused politician who fails to manage the state of affairs? Both the interpretations would be hard to digest unless we are nincompoops which the aam aadmi the manush whom you have vowed to serve are not; simply put, not.
This author interacted with the manush of Bengal; oops, Paschimbanga, after the Railway Budget 2012-13 was unveiled and TMC supremo’s dictates from Kalighat in Kolkata were unleashed. Apart from coming across normal assessments of the budget of whether price was justified or not with people taking sides on a normal basis, a comment from a middle-aged academic in Kolkata was worth noting. The professor said: “The decision of Ms Banerjee after the budget is farcical. The hike would take place—if not wholly, but partially at least. Mr Trivedi would once again be reinforced in TMC after few months with a new portfolio. Well the history of TMC points to that and it would happen. It is just to gain the political sympathy of 70 per cent or more of not ‘too rich’ aam aadmi it has been fabricated. All the hullabaloo will only increase and improve the TRP of TMC.”
Didi, are you listening? Is the professor’s assessment true? Or is it a mere rambling? Let us all forget about the degradation of Paschimbanga’s image in the national fora, at least after a long long time, the Bengalees are having something to cheer about in the Great Indian Political Drama. And Ms Banerjee was unrelenting, as she said: “We would roll back the hike in lower class fares.”
You are absolutely correct and we applaud. However, what about Trivedi? If he has been ‘coerced’ to quit, he should be further ‘forced’ to leave the party. After all, how can you provide shelter to saboteurs? Didi, the whole India is looking towards you for justice.
At the other end, Dinesh Trivedi is obdurate and defends his policy of increasing the fares. He is supposed to have consulted the ‘common man’ before formulating the revolutionary budget, and not his party supremo! So, what does all this drama indicate? Still, hard to decipher in exactitude. Nonetheless, a couple of options emerge for us.
- The Railway Budget could have been engineered by the Congress in order to facilitate their own policy decisions to hike prices
- The Railway Budget, in the Trivedi-format, would have proved to be a boon for the Congress party as it would shut up the Maa, Maati and Manush slogan of the TMC.
- But who carried out the masterstroke would probably be palpable with time. Presently, you and I can merely speculate.
The Other Affairs
Since inception to office, Ms Banerjee has been in news. It is no wonder that she should have been the darling of the media at least in West Bengal for historic as well as ‘other’ reasons. And she has paid back to the media by nominating three editors for Rajya Sabha membership. Eulogy pays and the ‘other’ editors now realise it fully. She was also religiously and linguistically secular by picking up editors of a Hindi daily, an Urdu daily and a Bengali news channel respectively, along with Mukul Roy—Banerjee’s trusted lieutenant.
The Rajya Sabha and the Gorkhas
Bengal’s Industries Minister Partha Chatterjee announced the names of Union Minister of State Mukul Roy and journalists Kunal Ghosh, Mohammed Nadim-ul-Haq and Vivek Gupta as TMC’s candidates for the Upper House of Parliament.
Ghosh is the associate editor of Bengali daily Sangbad Pratidin, Haq is the Executive Editor of the Urdu daily Akhbar-E-Mashriq and Gupta is the director of Hindi daily Sanmarg.
“Mukul Roy, Nadim-ul-Haq and Kunal Ghosh are the first three candidates. Gupta is the fourth candidate. Roy has been re-nominated,” Chatterjee told reporters.
Through such a decision, Didi might have planned to win the propaganda war. However, in the process she has jeopardised her camaraderie with the Gorkhas. On March 18, Bimal Gurung said: “The Trinamool Congress government is walking on the paths of the earlier Left Front government. They have conspired to damage our party. Time and again we have accorded her warm welcome to the Hills. Prior to her, no Chief Minister had ever received such welcome. Yet she has failed to reciprocate. During the signing of the GTA agreement and during her recent visit to Darjeeling, she stated that she would not allow Bengal to be divided; yet we remained silent. But now she has broken the 45-year-old tradition of fielding a Rajya Sabha MP from Darjeeling. We vehemently oppose this.”
The College Principals
First it was the Raiganj College on January 5, 2012. Thereafter it was followed by two other attacks on Principals of colleges. Interestingly, TMC was linked to two of the three incidents. Bobby Hakim, a TMC minister commented rather rudely: “Respect cannot be demanded. Respect has to be earned. And the principals have to behave.” Stupendous. It was apt for a goonda-raj minister.
And to add to the emotional woes of the principals, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accused the Marxists of appointing “political recruits” to key posts across the state during their rule. Well, this might be true to a large extent. But was it apt for a Chief Minister to pass such comments in the wake of political violence? Didi, are we living in a lawless state? Is this not systematised form of ‘systemic anarchy’? Didi, are you listening?
To quote media reports: “The comrades (CPI-M) have appointed these political principals. What will the new government do? Are we going to worship them? I don’t want the principals to be beaten up. But whoever is involved in corrupt practices, they will have to face investigation,” said Banerjee.
Didi, shouldn’t we be a little more merciful towards the hapless academics? We agree, that they might as well have been handpicked by the ‘comrades’; but will such rhetoric not send wrong waves among the student community? We will again be pushed to Mao’s Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution where professors and teachers were rebuked and beaten up in public to ‘teach them lessons’.
Didi, will you open the outlet of your merciful reservoir only on Trivedi, Mukul Roy and Kabir Suman? What about us? If the present principals are political recruits, then will you guarantee us that from now on, all academic posts shall be filled up without political interference?
NCTMC and Teesta
“The NCTC is worse than TADA and POTA”, said Banerjee after meeting the Prime Minister on March 19. She also defended her party’s walkout in the Lok Sabha on the NCTC. “The Trinamool Congress is part of the government. It cannot vote against and, therefore, it has maintained decorum by walking out.”
The pressured Prime Minister in fact said in the Lok Sabha on the same day that the proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) would be formed only after adequate consultations with state governments. Let us see in what direction this drama proceeds.
However, till now, Mamata-di had been most belligerent vis-à-vis her senior partner in UPA-II in the case of Teesta water-sharing issue with Bangladesh. Manmohan Singh had to work extremely hard, although in a futile manner, to save India’s diplomatic face in front of our trusted ally the Sheikh Hasina government.
Interestingly, the same Banerjee who made Dr Singh a humble being in front of the Bangladeshis during his trip to Dhaka told Dipu Moni, the Bangladesh Foreign Minister: “The people of Bangladesh want Teesta water. It is their long-standing demand. We appreciate their demand. We will be glad if water can be shared.
Banerjee went on record: “We will definitely do what we can. We love Bangladesh. We will have to see that Bengal does not face water shortage and Bangladesh also gets water. We will have to see what can be done about this. Therefore, we have sought expert opinion. After we get their report we will give our view.”
Banerjee’s stance in this matter has made her a villain not only in the national fora but also in the international domain; especially for the Bangladeshis. For instance, barrister Harun Ur Rashid from Bangladesh writes: “The survival of Manmohan Singh’s 20-party coalition government depends on the support of 19 MPs from the Trinamool Congress. Therefore, New Delhi cannot afford to politically annoy Ms Banerjee.”
Rashid further asserts: “Coalition governments everywhere suffer conflicting pressures from different party components, and the Teesta water-sharing appears to have become a victim of political manoeuvring between New Delhi and Kolkata. Interestingly, records tell us that Bangladesh could not sign any water agreement either with the Congress or with BJP-led government in New Delhi.”
So, what is the upshot of the above chain of factoids? Is Didi totally Bengal-centric? If that is the case, then why is she trying to expand her base in Manipur? In fact, TMC has bagged 7 out of 60 seats in the 2012 Assembly elections. A commendable performance indeed! But to expand her base in other states, she might need help of the Congress. Even in Bengal, she would need the partnership of the Congress to keep the Marxists at bay. So, why is Didi creating chasm between TMC and the Congress? Will she cling to BJP when time shall be ripe?
Is Banerjee a die-hard believer in Federalism? Or does her behaviour bespeak an erratic, mismanaged, autocratic and seamlessly aimless leader of errant cadres? Time will surely tell.
Can we conclude?
A facebook comment posted on the author’s wall in the aftermath of the Trivedi affair is worth mentioning: “Budget apart, Didigiri is holding the whole country to ransom! With just 19 seats in the Lok Sabha she is virtually ruling the country!
The whole country is virtually at the mercy of her whims! What a terrible outcome for democracy—the spineless Congress is playing to her tune shamelessly to avoid a fresh mandate but those nincompoops are not realising or avoiding to realise that nothing will change between now and 2014. So by resigning they can avoid the daily humiliation from Didigiri at least! She is openly blackmailing the government, enacting daily childish pranks, behaving in a cantankerous way not befitting a Chief Minister… and enjoying as ‘mastans’ do while bullying weak people!!”
However, Banerjee might not, still, deserve such a scathing rebuke. Another chance can as well be bestowed upon her.
The electorate of West Bengal hardly had any choice—after witnessing the Left misrule, ill-governance, party cadres’ vanity, they could only elect Trinamool Congress—the only viable political alternative in parliamentary democracy. Furthermore, it is undoubtedly a fact that Ms Banerjee’s honesty was never in doubt. In addition to that, she was extremely resilient and full of energy.
We need to give her some time before we could judge her comprehensively. By all means, two to three years have to be granted to her. Her treasury is bankrupt. Moreover, at the present juncture, it seems that she is losing control on her rowdy cadres, and at times, even some leaders.
This author had essayed a cover story for Uday India on April 16, 2011, a month before the Assembly election results were declared in West Bengal in which he wrote: “If Bengal has to grow holistically, then it needs a ‘fresh’ regime with a strong, vocal and learned opposition.”
Eleven months down, the author does not feel ‘out’. Rather he still fervently believes that the ‘change’ in West Bengal was necessary. And it might be pre-mature to predict the Fall of the ‘Reich’ so soon. But with a maverick Chief Minister and her ruffian elements, Bengal is definitely witnessing a historical phase in its politics. And along with Bengal, the rest of India too.
In fact, this author had admonished in the said piece: “Banerjee’s TMC will have its task cut out if it emerges victorious. A debt-ridden beleaguered exchequer, the Maoist-menace, the aspirations of a number of neo-TMC cadres and above all, the hopes of over 80 million denizens of Bengal could turn out to be extremely onerous.”
The warning has not gone in vain.
By Uddipan Mukherjee from Kolkata
Of course, while in the opposition she has is known to have taken her role a little too seriously. She held Amar Singh of the Samajwadi Party (July 1996) and Daroga Prasad Saroj, also of the SP, (December 1998) by the collar inside the House. In February 1997 during the presentation of the Railway budget, she threw her shawl at the then Railway Minister Ram Vilas Paswan for ignoring West Bengal and verbally resigned from Parliament, which speaker P.A. Sangma did not accept and asked her to apologise.
Her leaving the Congress in 1997 to form the Trinamool Congress and joining National Democratic Alliance created by the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1999 brought her in the government again as the Union Railway Minister. She positioned herself here too in the opposition space, embarrassing the NDA, the BJP and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee personally. Two notable incidents were (i) her sending 280 files in one go, following her prolonged absence from office, in October 2000 through the Railway Board Chairman to the Prime Minister for clearance, with the instruction that he alone should clear it, not his junior minister; and (ii) she announced her resignation and that of his party colleague Minister of State for External Affairs Ajit Panja to coincide with the news of Cabinet expansion, putting the government in an embarrassing situation as at some of the official functions, Panja was supposed to receive the Russian guests. In March 2001, she resigned and withdrew support of her party from the NDA following the Tehelka exposé. She joined back the NDA a year later, but this time round she had to cool her heels even for a meeting with Prime Minister Vajpayee, who snubbed her of not taking up her demand on Eastern Railways division, she even had to cool her heels for an audience with him in the capital. Desperate to be back in the power-fold, she took this in her stride. The list indeed is long.
Her return to the government in January 2004 as Minister for Coal and Mines was short-lived as the NDA lost in the fifteenth general elections. She was in her elemental oppositional mode for the next five years. Her virulent campaign against the CPM-led West Bengal government and violent protests in Singur and Nandigram against Special Economic Zone to be developed by Salim group of Indonesia and Tata’s Nano car project created a strong popular discontent against the state government. She succeeded in winning over the intelligentsia against the entrenched rule of the CPM.
SMOKE AND FIRE WITHIN INDIAN POLITICS
The political drama which the world’s largest democracy has been witnessing for the last couple of weeks once again established Indian democracy as strange and multidimensional politics.
Mamata Banerjee no doubt is still a firebrand leader of Bengal who single-handedly had challenged the longest-ruling Left Front government in Bengal and had been successful in uprooting its rule. This historical event has established Mamata Banerjee as the mass leader who can feel the pulse of the common man and whose lone will power has made the impossible possible for the people of Bengal.
People in Bengal think, eat and sleep politics. The cultural loving Bengalis can be violent only on the subject of politics and football and now the sentiments of majority are associated with Mamata Banerjee and that is the reason, Mamata Banerjee seems to be growing adamant day-by-day.
The inner fight between the Congress Party and Trinamool Congress led by Mamata Banerjee is open nowadays. Mamata with the support of people support of Bengal wants to influence the politics at the centre sitting in Writers Building, and the ruling UPA under the leadership of Congress had to bow before all her wishes. Since Trinamool Congress is the second largest ally in the UPA government with 19 Members of Parliament at the Centre. This is becoming unbearable for the Congress.
But now the political calculation in national politics is changing with the change in power in Uttar Pradesh. Political analysts are of the opinion that it is the Congress, which is adding fuel to the fire using Dinesh Trivedi. As of now it can have the support of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, which came out with clear a majority in Uttar Pradesh in recent Assembly polls and the Congress has an option in UPA without the Trinamool Congress.
As Mamata Banerjee is exerting pressure on the Centre, the outnumbered members of Congress alliance in ruling government of West Bengal are time and again trying to put pressure on Mamata Banerjee government. When contacted by Uday India, the West Bengal Congress chief Pradip Bhattacharya clearly declared: “We and our Congress leadership support the Rail Budget presented by Dinesh Trivedi but said no comments, when asked whether Dinesh Trivedi has the support of the Congress. Pradip Bhattacharya also added: “The Congress is not happy with the working of the Trinamool Congress in Bengal.” He accused Mamata Banerjee of running a rule of her party not of government.
Now the Trinamool Congress and Congress relationship is on the chess board. From the rail budget day it became more open when one witnessed the immense confidence in Dinesh Trivedi defying his party. After presenting the Railway Budget he stated that Railways was in ICU and it was his effort to take out Railways from it, which maligned the image of his own supremo Mamata, as she was his predecessor in Railways. But as Mamata declared that she would go to Delhi instantly Dinesh’s confidence evaporated. The story which is doing rounds in political circles is that Trivedi had the support of Congress but the moment Congress realised that Mamata might blackmail it to withdraw its support, some invisible power worked on, Dinesh Trivedi and by the time Madam reached Kolkata Airport to take her flight to New Delhi, Dinesh Trivedi surrendered. Now Dinesh Trivedi is just a coach without engine. But that very day Congress fielded its candidate for the Rajya Sabha. So basically their relation is now directly proportional to political pressure game.
In Bengal all the political parties are preparing themselves for the upcoming Panchayat election next year. Congress believes the people of Bengal had seen the governance of Left Front and now the government of Trinamool Congress, and the general view in the political circle is Mamata Banerjee is losing her support base in politics in Bengal and therefore Congress wants to steal the show by embarrassing and encouraging Mamata Banerjee for taking a wrong decision—the latest example being Railways Budget and Dinesh Trivedi.
Here all the political parties are trying to project Mamata Banerjee as the Queen of Hearts—the Queen is a character in the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by the writer and mathematician Lewis Carroll. She is a foul-tempered monarch that Carroll himself pictured as “a blind fury”, and who is quick to decree death sentences at the slightest offence. Her most famous line, one which she repeats often, is: “Off with their heads!”
As the CPI (M) leader and former Member of Parliament Mohammad Salim describes: “Mamata Banerjee does not have any agenda. When she was in national politics as Railways Minister in UPA government, her time and energy were focused on Bengal only and now when she is the Chief Minister of Bengal she is very much concentrating on national politics. I don’t know whether she has any future in Bengal as a leader or a Chief Minister.” He also adds the State of West Bengal too is in a complete mess. “People voted her for good to correct what wrong Left Front did, and better things to continue and she will bring in more better things. But now in her government no body has the right to decide, only one person—Mamata Banerjee is the deciding factor. Lawlessness has increased mainly in health, education which shows deteriorating condition of the state”.
The business community too feels Mamata Banerjee needs to change and there is a need to change the image of the state as Bihar and only then did investment come in the state. Leading businessman of Kolkata Jitendra Khaitan too feels: “Mamata Banerjee needs to give space, power and develop confidence in her team members but now it seems Trinamool Congress without Mamata Banerjee is nothing, as Mayawati to BSP and Sonia Gandhi to Congress. But the head of the organisation must be flexible in her workings only then will new things come up and new investments too.”
It is always perceived that when there is smoke, some fire must be there within. The big fire is about to hit but to save everyone from embarrassment the deal is fixed time and again and people like Dinesh Trivedi are made hero one day while next day that very hero realises that he is a scapegoat. This is the interesting part of Indian politics where everything is unpredictable, anything can happen anytime.
By Joydeep Dasgupta from Kolkata
It was, thus mutually beneficial for the Congress and Trinamool Congress to tie up under the UPA umbrella for 2009 general election. While the Congress did well Mamata too delivered in West Bengal with 26 seats, but she put the Rail ministry as a condition for joining the Cabinet, which she got. But she needed to conquer West Bengal, so she was back in her opposition space in the state, preparing for 2011 Legislative Assembly elections, many a time allegedly ignoring her ministerial charge in New Delhi. Convinced that she could win the state elections all by herself, she continued in a confrontational mode with the Congress from the word go. Bizarre instances of uncomfortable cohabitation over the years are long. Among the major embarrassment caused to the government was in September 2011, when she declined to accompany the Prime Minister to Dhaka to settle Teesta water sharing, as the government had not consulted her and the treaty went against the interests of West Bengal. Obviously, both collective responsibility and primus inter pares position of Prime Minister, two main tenets of Cabinet government, have weakened further. Mamata Banerjee’s belligerent move to remove and replace a Cabinet Minister strikes both at the root of Cabinet government and coalition principles; as much as it continuously shows her opposing the government she is part of.
Mamata Banerjee has come to power in West Bengal riding over a popular wave that had gone against the CPM-led Left Front’s 35 years of rule that had become synonymous with party cronyism and lack of governance. Obviously, expectations are that she would not only undo the CPM’s party stranglehold at local levels that had taken over many governmental functions, but also provide good governance to the state. Contrarily, she has reportedly admitted the lumpen support base of the Left in her party and their misdeeds embarrass the administration and the police even in Kolkata, as her proclivity to rush to the police station to get her ‘party workers’ released, presumably from ‘high handed arms’ of the government she heads, puts them in a quandary. This is the height of oppositional mentality.
She has demonstrated scant respect for any institutional or constitutional norms. Her handling of the party and government are whimsical, as reflected in her decision to paint Job Charnock’s city blue and not allowing the Education Minister to make a statement on teacher’s strike to the media. Less said about her tendency to blame everyone—the media, English-educated intelligentsia, the Union government—except herself the better. Not only is she is UPA’s opposition within, she has for the first time given an Indian state rule by the Opposition.
By Ajay K Mehra
(The author is Honorary Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida)