Monday, November 21, 2011

Mamata Banerjee: A Big Disappointment, and Pointer to a Dangerous Phenomenon

Mamata Banerjee is a street fighter. Which is fine; street fighters have a role to play in a stubborn democracy like ours. What is not fine, however, is that she does not see the difference between a street leader and a government leader. Six months into power, she has not done a thing to show that she knows what it is to be the chief minister of a state. Vision? Forget it. Dashing everyone's expectations, she has become India's biggest disappointment.

Consider the way she walked from her house to a police station, shouted at the senior officers there and got two hooligans released from the lockup. The youthful pair had been causing nuisance in the area with loudspeakers and blocking the busy road with a puja celebration. When they were told to clear the road, they stoned the police, damaged vehicles and ransacked the police station. What made them so haughty? They were members of a local club called Sevak Sangh which was run, among others, by Baban Banerjee, the chief minister's brother. Mamata won cheers from the mob by ordering an inquiry into “police highhandedness”.

The police is of course highhanded, all across the country. But when it is a confrontation between hooligans and the police, no chief minister in the country has taken a position against the police. This is the same Mamata Banerjee who said that she would turn Kolkata into India's London. She won't do that in her lifetime because she does not understand what makes London London. Prime Minister Tony Blair was once stopped by the traffic police on a motorway and fined for speeding. The Prime Minister did not walk up to the police station, shout at the officers and order an inquiry. He just paid the fine.

Mamata Banerjee does not have the mind to understand that kind of culture. She does not even understand the need for a head of government to show empathy when tragedy strikes citizens. When newborn babies died in disquieting numbers in Kolkata's government hospitals, unacceptable problems of neglect came to light – lack of doctors and medicines, pathetic facilities in the general hospital, overcrowding and unhygienic conditions. And what did the Chief Minister do? She kept silent for an inordinate period, then made wishywashy statements that seemed to justify the hospitals.

London is a place where the red double-decker bus is maintained as a proud ikon. Models four or five years old are replaced with the latest ones, looking not only new but impeccably clean and gleaming. Kolkata is the only metro in India where the oldest buses still keep running, dilapidated, even scary. The ramshackle trams are no better. Nor the rickety Ambassador taxis of 1960s vintage, museum marvels of survival. All that the people's leader has achieved so far is to give a fillip to Rabindra Sangeet. A good deed, but no big deal.

We look for signs of change on the industrial front. There is none. Improvements in the living conditions of the poor in central Kolkata? There is none. Some badly needed cleaning up? None. Untreated water from the Hoogly passes for water supply in several parts of the city. And the all-important Maoist problem? In her race to power, she seemed to work with the Maoists. Now she has ordered a new campaign to destroy them.

She is not only doing nothing to take Bengal forward; she is still doing what she can to take India backward. Thanks to the “coalition dharma”, she controls the Indian Railways. Never has Indian Railways been so hidebound, so badly led.

Actually, the plight of the railways illustrates the central problem of the Mamata Banerjee phenomenon. She is, like Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi, a one-person universe. Nothing moves without her say-so, and all those who are supposedly in her cabinet are no more than office furniture. Such phenomena are the sustaining force of dictatorships. When they enter the democratic space through legitimate means like elections, they become a dangerous half-breed: Legitimate dictatorship.