The Many Reasons Why Bengal’s Besieged ‘Didi’ Has Mellowed Down, But Only For Now

The Many Reasons Why Bengal’s Besieged ‘Didi’ Has Mellowed Down, But Only For Now

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Thursday, October 27, 2022 04:37 PM IST
The Many Reasons Why Bengal’s Besieged ‘Didi’ Has Mellowed Down, But Only For NowWest Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. (Getty Images)
  • Mamata Banerjee is making an effort to tone down her usual rhetoric and project herself as a responsible politician.

    However, this mellowing of Banerjee, say political observers and those who know her well, is temporary.

Those who follow Bengal’s stormy politics closely would have noticed a surprising development in recent days: the absence of the usual angry rhetoric from state Chief Minister and Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee. 

The last time the mercurial Banerjee issued an angry statement was with regard to former cricketer Sourav Ganguly. That was nearly two weeks ago and going by her shrill standards, her diatribe accusing the BJP of denying Ganguly a second term as head of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) was quite moderate. 

But since then, she has not indulged in her usual routine of picking out issues —local, regional, national or even international—to rail and rant against the BJP and the union government.

Which, to put it very mildly, is very surprising. 

This ‘change’ in Bengal’s ‘stormy petrel’ has been dictated by a few pressing reasons. And all these reasons are of her own making:

Besieged By Scams

Mamata Banerjee is on the backfoot over the many scams that her party men, including her top aides, have been caught with their pants down in.

The recruitment scam in the state education department, which has already netted her senior Cabinet Minister Partha Chatterjee, a Trinamool MLA and many others associated with the party, has severely dented her image. 

Banerjee has realised that her initial full-throated denials and attempts to deflect attention from the scam by playing the victim card have had few takers even among her gullible and fawning supporters. 

The cattle smuggling scam has put her trusted and close lieutenant Anubrata Mondal behind bars and as investigations by central agencies continue, more skeletons are expected to stumble out of the Trinamool’s murky cupboard. 

The multi-agency probe into the illegal coal mining and coal smuggling racket is slowly gaining momentum and if central agencies are to be believed, the Trinamool supremo’s nephew and heir apparent Abhishek Banerjee could be named as a prime accused. 

There are many other allegations of corruption and financial misdeeds against many Trinamool leaders and functionaries, including those at the panchayat level. 

All this has tarnished her image considerably and Mamata Banerjee has also realised that trying to brazen it out, deflect public attention or play the victim card is not working at all. 

Acute Backlash Over Police Action Against Teachers

Last week’s midnight police raids on young men and women who had cleared the Teachers’ Eligibility Test (TET)—they were on a dharna since they were yet to be given appointment letters —evoked sharp reactions. 

Coming on the heels of the recruitment scam in the education department, the high-handed police action which had obviously been sanctioned by the authoritarian Chief Minister herself triggered widespread protests that have since singed Banerjee. 

What has become an acute cause of concern for the Chief Minister is that prominent film artistes, litterateurs and cultural personalities have sharply criticised her over this police high-handedness. 

They include many, like filmstar Aparna Sen, actor-director Kaushik Sen, thespian Bibhas Chakraborty, filmmaker Anik Dutta, popular actors like Badshah Maitra, Sreelekha Mitra and Debdut Ghosh, poet Mandakranta Sen, educationist Pabitra Sarkar and writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay.

Some of them even took out a rally to protest the police action.

What rattled Mamata Banerjee was that many of these eminent personas had sided with her during the Singur and Nandigram movements and had taken out similar protest rallies against police brutalities during those movements. 

The support of these prominent intellectuals and cultural personas for Mamata Banerjee at that time was crucial in turning the Bengali middle class (bhadralok) against the Left Front and the Left’s eventual demise in the state. 

Mamata Banerjee is obviously worried about Bengal’s intellectuals turning against her now. That would be disastrous for her and would cost her the support of the bhadralok class who lend a great degree of respectability to her rule. 

She has realised that defending the police action or indulging in diversionary tactics as is her wont will further alienate the intellectuals. Hence, she has dialled down on her usual angry rhetoric.

Sharp Reduction In Allocation Of Funds For Central Schemes

The virtual stoppage of flow of funds from the union government for various centrally-sponsored schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MNREGA), Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), among many others, is hurting The Trinamool very badly in rural areas of Bengal.

Banerjee made a huge hue and cry over this over the last few months and even met Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding that the dues of the state be released immediately.

She accused the BJP of meting out step-motherly treatment to Bengal and ‘punishing’ the people of the state not voting the saffron party to power in the state last year. 

But the BJP went on the counter-offensive last month and pointed out that central funds for the social welfare projects were not forthcoming after many audits had detected widespread anomalies and defalcation of funds. 

This counter-offensive found a ready resonance among rural folks who were only too aware of how Trinamool functionaries had pocketed huge sums of money meant for them (the intended beneficiaries of central schemes) and even rigged the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) system to syphon off huge sums of money. 

The Trinamool was thus put on the defensive and Mamata Banerjee was forced to go silent. There was no way, she realised, that she could go on defending the indefensible. 

Instead, say Trinamool insiders, the Chief Minister has issued strict instructions to party functionaries to reach out to the rural folks and make amends. 

Bengal’s Precarious Financial Condition

It is no secret that Bengal’s finances are in a mess. Mamata Banerjee has borrowed recklessly to finance all her sops and wasteful expenses and doubled the state’s debt burden in the last 11 years that she has been in power in Bengal. 

So precarious is Bengal’s financial situation that if the state does not receive more than its due share of funds from the union government, she will not be able to pay the salaries of state government employees on time next month. 

Given this, Mamata Banerjee has realised that a constant confrontationist stance against the union government will not help. That is why she has drastically toned down her rhetoric and has quietly sent feelers to the top BJP leadership seeking help from the Centre to ward off the looming financial crisis.

Ghost of Tata Nano Plant Exit Has Come To Haunt Her

Mamata Banerjee’s best efforts to attract investments, especially big-ticket investments, and project Bengal as an attractive investment destination has failed miserably. 

The realisation has dawned on Banerjee, quite belatedly though, that the exit of the Tata Nano plant from Singur in October 2008 due to her obdurate stand has permanently tarnished Bengal’s reputation as an investment destination. 

The little investments that have come into the state are mostly in the Medium, Small and Micro-Enterprises (MSME) sector and in some high-tech sectors that do not create any jobs. 

This has led to unemployment levels rising exponentially in the state. And also resulted in Bengal’s dismal failure to improve its economy. 

That is why she has been trying to make amends. In a recent statement, she said that she did not drive the Tata Nano plant out of Bengal and the CPI(M) was responsible for that disaster. 

Though that did not cut any ice with anyone, it signalled a major rethink on her part and the realisation that she needs industry to create real jobs and improve the state’s finances. 

She Has Realised That A Permanently Confrontationist Stance Is Driving Away Investors

This is another realisation that has dawned rather belatedly on Mamata Banerjee. A chief minister who is always battling the union government does not inspire much confidence among investors. 

That is a major reason why Mamata Banerjee is making an effort to tone down her usual rhetoric and project herself as a measured and responsible politician. 

Trinamool insiders told Swarajya that Abhishek Banerjee had a major role to play, in making his aunt realise that it pays to cooperate with the union government and the BJP at the centre. 

The Caveat: 

This mellowing of Mamata Banerjee, say political observers and those who know her well, is temporary. 

That’s because Banerjee, by her very nature, is very combative. She tries to make up for her abysmal lack of governance skills with rhetoric, a lot of it empty. She has perfected the art of playing the victim card.

Banerjee has built her political career on continuous confrontation with her political adversaries and even her friends and allies. She is far from the sober, measured and responsible politician that she is now trying to cast herself as. 

It is, thus, only a matter of time before Banerjee returns to her usual combative and rhetorical self. And, then, politics in Bengal will once again return to its default state of all sound and fury sans substance. 

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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