When Mamata Banerjee stormed into power in 2011, destroying what had seemed an impregnable Left citadel for 34 years, it was on the back of a democratic uprising — but expressed through the ballot rather than barricades. A large section of Bengali society ranging from humble peasants to rarefied intellectuals had rallied behind her. After decades of stifling Left rule she was perceived as the storm that was necessary to uproot a deeply entrenched tyranny. It is not that Didi — as she has now come to be referred — was ever an ideal. Her temperamental ways were always suspect but, as was said in 2011, it needed something more than staid normalcy to take on and defeat a merciless Left.
In the past five years, Ms Banerjee has evolved into a consummate poli-tician, although there are bursts of regression. She has given West Bengal a respite from the Left’s overbearing political control, particularly in the villages. She has continued some of former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s good works in the urban clusters: Kolkata certainly is a much-improved city.
Yet, there is one crucial area where the Trinamul Congress government has failed to make any headway. Bengal has always dreamed of being able to claw its way back up the economic ladder and reclaim the position that it once occupied. Unfortunately, no significant investments have taken place and opportunities for local youth and entrepreneurs within the state are negligible, if not virtually non-existent. The Bengali middle classes in particular have moved away from the state and created a vibrant diaspora. This has resulted in Kolkata and its newer suburbs often seem like a vast, but quite agreeable, retirement home.
The failure can’t entirely be attributed to Ms Banerjee. Experiences in other countries suggest that once the image of a rust belt takes shape, it is difficult to shake off the perception. Indeed, many decades of Left hegemony has left West Bengal with a culture of entitlement, verging on insolence, which investors are wary of. The single-minded desire to get ahead — a hallmark of much of India — appears to have bypassed today’s West Bengal.
There is a perception — often promoted by “probashi” and expatriate Bengalis — which holds that Bengal is above the mundane. This romantic view may certainly be valid for the world of the arts. But in terms of popular culture, the refinement that was said to have been a bhadralok characteristic has given way to a brash coarseness. I don’t believe that Ms Banerjee is responsible for this cultural descent. She merely reshaped the idiom of anti-Left politics and incorporated cultural plebianism as a stick to beat the Left with.
In Kolkata, bhadralok society, preoccupied with its enormous sense of loss, is quite disparaging of Ms Banerjee. Once her loyal supporters, they appear to have abandoned her politically. In this coming Assembly election, the Trinamul Congress may lose some votes of the Bengali middle classes. But this electoral loss has been more than compensated by her increased support from the ranks of the slum-dwellers and the under-employed youth who spend their days playing carom in makeshift, state-subsidised club houses and organising every conceivable festival from Republic Day to Durga Puja.
Ms Banerjee may have failed to register any sharp increase in Bengal’s gross domestic product but she has certainly kept the “gross national happiness” curve on a northward incline. Bengal, consequently, is often a permanent carnival. And, most important, there is some fun for every section cutting across class, community and religion.
There are, predictably, some problem areas. The most important is the petty tyranny of the Trinamul Congress’ own version of the Left’s cadre raj. This purposeless dadagiri and petty extortion — now labelled syndicate — is a direct consequence of the limited economic opportunities in the state but it has resulted in the alienation of some voters from the state. I don’t think governance in West Bengal is corrupt by the standards of economically vibrant sta-tes. Corruption remains petty but the pace of delivery is excruciatingly slow.
This may be a reason why the Narada sting operation of Trinamul ministers and MPs has not produced a sense of outrage — which the Saradha chit fund scam did, not least because it affected the small savings of many tens of thousands of people. Corruption isn’t certainly an issue that puts the Trinamul Congress’ re-election at risk.
Nor is there any creeping nostalgia for the days when the Red flag was ubiquitous and local committees of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) ruled the roost. If anti-incumbency was indeed widespread, the once all-powerful CPI(M) which had a majority on its own from 1977 to 2011 would not have discarded the Left Front and entered into an alliance with the rump Congress. A mechanical addition of the Left Front and Congress votes in the 2014 general election may give the impression that the Assembly election is a cliffhanger.
Certainly that is the impression being conveyed by a section of the local media that has its own scores to settle with Ms Banerjee. But while the Left-Congress alliance may well unsettle the Trinamul Congress in some districts of North Bengal, in the rest of the state (including Kolkata and its neighbourhood) the Left has lost more ground since 2014 and the Congress exists only as a letterhead.
This is not to suggest that there is no worthwhile Opposition space left in electoral politics. In the immediate aftermath of Narendra Modi’s famous victory in 2014, it seemed that the Bharatiya Janata Party would be able to emerge as the real Opposition to the Trinamul Congress.
But the local BJP shot itself in the foot and failed to nurture any worthwhile leadership at the grassroots. The BJP will be a force in any parliamentary election but its impact in the Assembly election is likely to be nominal. This is despite the undercurrent of hostility towards Ms Banerjee’s supposed “Muslim appeasement” policy.
West Bengal doesn’t have a record of changing governments frequently. I don’t think the state has as yet tired of Ms Banerjee or even her eccentricities. It may in time but not this year. Unless, of course, the hostility is entirely subterranean.
The writer is a senior journalist