The Rapid Unravelling of Mamata 'Didi' Banerjee as a Politician & Chief Minister

A little over a year ago, while she was still the Minister in charge of Railways, this cartoon would have been unthinkable. No doubt she had a reputation for being mercurial, impulsive & unpredicable. But 'Didi', the feisty politician, was known to fight for 'causes' and uphold the rights of the 'common man', even though some of what she said & did smacked of sheer populism.

All that has come unstuck over the last one year, ever since 'Didi' assumed office as the Chief Minister. Riding a wave of popular support for having, virtually single-handedly, unseated the Communists after they had ruled the state for 34 years at a stretch, she promised a lot initially. Given the mess created by the Communists and the fact that the state's financial reserves were running on empty, not too many people had high expectations about what she and her administration would be able to achieve in the short & medium term. Just sweeping aside the muck left by the Communists (CPM) and correcting the many aberrations created by them was a monumental task by itself.

The fissures started appearing soon enough, though. Among the first were her eleventh-hour refusal to accompany the PM during his trip to Bangladesh. Apparently she was miffed about not being consulted about the Teesta river water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh, which was to be ceremonially signed during the PM's visit. 'Didi ensured that no such event happened.

Despite being a key ally of the UPA, she seemed bent on spoiling their party every once in a while. Some opined that this was her way of getting more help by way of resource & revenue allocation for her impoverished state. Whatever be the reasons, the Centre had to beat a retreat about allowing FDI in retail, mainly because 'Didi' was opposed to the idea.

Back home, evidence of her mounting paranoia became apparent when she dismissed an incident of rape as a 'conspiracy' to malign her government. Faced with mounting criticism, she did attempt a damage-control of sorts in the coming days but never quite apologized to the victim about her earlier statement, which, as many expected, was the least she could do to redeem her image.

The faux-pas & missteps started coming in thick & fast. Her school-marmish behaviour during a gathering of business leaders & country representatives ostensibly to promote industrial & business investments in the state, became the subject of much hilarity and trended in social media for days. If you haven't come across this yet, have a look here for yourself:

Worse was to follow. Dinesh Trivedi, a senior party functionary of hers & a person she had earlier nominated to take over the Railway Ministry from her when she became Chief Minister of W. Bengal, presented the annual budget in Parliament and started off an orchestrated furore in her own party. Apparently the hike in fares that he had announced across all classes was against the party's policy of opposing hikes all across in keeping with their 'political DNA' or more plainly their own brand of mindless populism. Trivedi had prepared the Railway budget in consultation with the Prime Minister and other cabinet colleagues but apparently had not consulted her or taken any feedback from her. Amidst much political grandstanding, veiled threats and populist posturing, Dinesh Trivedi, who appeared to have unfurled a little banner of political revolt within the party, was sacked as the Railways Minister and the UPA was asked to install one of her old-time loyalists, Mukul Roy instead, as the new Minister. Roy's first task, after taking over, was to announce a rollback of the fares which Trivedi had proposed in his budget.

It was all beginning to unravel rapidly, surprisingly in less than a year after her taking over as the Chief Minister of W. Bengal. Her hands-on style was appreciated by many initially when she took on recalcitrant medical practitioners & officials in the healthcare sector and started making unannounced visits to some of the government-managed hospitals to check out the state of affairs for herself. The same hands-on approach was evident when a major fire broke out in a privately managed Nursing Home. Though her intervention and presence on the scene could not prevent the significant loss of lives, mainly owing to patients being trapped within, action against the management was initiated soon after, amidst much controversy and mutual finger-pointing.

The authoritarian streak in her was becoming slowly apparent though. She announced, virtually unilaterally, that in keeping with her plans of beautifying Kolkata (Calcutta), government buildings and flyovers were to be painted blue. A minion of hers, who had been installed as a Minister when she came into power, justified the decision thus:

How Dare You Laugh At This?
Piqued by sections of the media which had now switched to criticizing her & her administration vociferously, one of her ministers announced that henceforth state-run libraries were only going to keep a carefully selected bunch of newspapers. Later this was sought to be justified as a move to promote small newspapers.

The offending item which led to the arrest of a person
'Mukul, can you see the Golden Fort (Indian Railways)'
'But Didi, there's a bad man (Dinesh Trivedi) there'
'Bad Man? Vanish!'

Worse was to follow. An academic of a local university who had circulated a cartoon lampooning her sacking of her own minister from the Railway Ministry by e-mail and posted it on social media as well was arrested & then released on bail. Local media, including social media was outraged. A local columnist, Ruchir Joshi, asked for her resignation in his piece, 'The Moral Minefield' . The hashtag #ArrestMeNow started trending on Twitter. The NYT wondered whether she is headed for a fall. And while there were belated attempts by her to distance herself from the whole episode & even make light of it, clearly the damage to her image as a leader, politician & administrator had been considerable.

While the euphoria over the unseating of the Communists, who had maintained a stranglehold over the state for 34 uninterrupted years, was widespread, there were sections who had expressed doubts and concerns about Mamata Banerjee's credentials as an administrator, given her rather patchy record as a Central Minister in charge of various portfolios in the past. To be fair, it is a monumental task to clear up the mess left by her predecessors and to govern a state whose financial coffers are virtually empty. Her present difficulties and loss of image clearly however seem to be of her own making and unless she applies the brakes now and initiates major mid-course corrections, her slide down the precipitate slope of ignominy & eventual oblivion will continue unchecked, accelerating all the while.

An Update: This piece of news had not emerged at the time I wrote this blog piece; however it is a relevant & significant one which merits mention.
Apparently, a team of 450 'party volunteers' spread all across, are hard at work trying to uncover posts in Social media and on the internet which they deem derogatory to their 'Didi'.  Paranoia and insecurity clearly seem to be ruling the roost, driving out common sense & age-old concepts like freedom of expression for the moment.

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