Kolkata: Mamata Banerjee’s second term as chief minister has got off to an eventful start. History was made, as the masses took over, and instead of a coronation inside the guarded Raj Bhavan, the swearing in took place on Kolkata’s famous Red Road, used till now to stage Independence Day and Republic Day shows. It was a spectacle arranged by Mamata Banerjee to underline the difference between then and now, between her and “them.”
There is no alternative to Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. The 2016 election has confirmed this, by endorsing her leadership and delivering 211 seats to the rag tag bunch that goes by the Trinamool Congress brand name.
The importance of being Mamata Banerjee was very evident. As witness to her outstanding capacity to win against all other political parties, including the “Mahajote” of the Communist Party of India Marxist led Left Front and the Congress, a host of leaders came to witness the consolidation of change in West Bengal. The central leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party turned up, with Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitely and Babul Supriyo, MP, doing the honours. The Congress was not visible. Instead, the “new beginning” announced by Mamata Banerjee in a tweet was attended by leaders who Derek O’Brien described as members of the unborn “the first front;” three chief ministers and leaders of two other regional parties attended the event. There was Akhilesh Yadav from Uttar Pradesh, Nitish Kumar from Bihar, Arvind Kejriwal from Delhi; Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference came as did Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal.
The encrypted message in the line of leaders who came is that local opposition can boycott the swearing in; the national leadership cannot afford to do so. She is a winner; an asset that every potential coalition group will want to secure for itself. Therefore it mattered little that the BJP’s local boss Dilip Ghosh was missing; the Congress’s Adhir Chowdhury was missing and of course the CPI M’s Surjya Kanta Mishra and the Left Front’s Biman Bose were conspicuously absent.
Mamata Banerjee has done more than win a two-thirds majority, on her own, in West Bengal. She can and will probably call the shots at the Centre. Between now and 2019, she could get to punch way above her weight as a “simple person” and from a “regional Party” as she modestly described herself on May 19. By 2017 she will have more MPs in the Rajya Sabha than almost all regional parties. She now has 12 MPs in the upper house, just behind the Janata Dal United and the Samajwadi Party. This makes her one of the most powerful regional straps in India today. And she knows that she is a powerful ally for the 2019 elections.
Playing footsie with the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party does not make Mamata Banerjee uncomfortable. Instead of waiting for the Congress to publicly woo her, Mamata Banerjee has offered an olive branch by dangling the Leader of the Opposition slot to the Congress in the West Bengal state assembly. And to keep the balance right, she has offered “issue based support” to the Bharatiya Janata Party in Parliament, clearly indicating her willingness to barter Rajya Sabha support that Narendra Modi needs against favours to herself.
There is nothing surprising in the speed with which contact has been established by the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the regional party front that Nitish Kumar chairs. And Mamata Banerjee reciprocated by inviting them all to her mammoth public swearing in programme on May 27. The BJP has made no bones about how much it needs the Trinamool Congress, especially its MPs in the Rajya Sabha. As a crucial vote bloc the Trinamool Congress has serious bargaining power and Mamata Banerjee knows how to use it. In fact, her record suggests that she revels in doing so. This is a possibility that the Congress and the BJP must find a way of handling; how to attach the remarkably adroit Mamata Banerjee to their side, because critical legislation could be blocked or passed on her whims. This gives her a power that is rarely achieved by a regional party. The Congress and the BJP therefore must keep her sweet. Political circles, especially in West Bengal maintain that the slow progress of the CBI investigations into the Sharadha chit fund scam in which several Trinamool Congress leaders are implicated has been calibrated to suit her political needs.
Mamata Banerjee is now hostage to her success. And she has a future to craft out of it. There are new frontiers that are open and she has always wanted to conquer places and climb peaks beyond the boundaries of her home turf.
The question is what will Mamata Banerjee do? Will she maintain an equal distance from the two national parties and the regional party group chaired by Nitish Kumar or will there be a definitively closer connection to the Congress and the Janata Dal (United) led regional party group? Mamata Banerjee has said, on record at least, that she will have no truck with the BJP. Her career shows that she is enviably flexible. Mamata Banerjee’s vertiginous climb up the political ladder as a distinctly new entity in the 1980s began when she was air lifted to New Delhi by Rajiv Gandhi and made a minister. Between then and till she seriously got down to defeating the Communist Party of India Marxist led Left Front in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee had flitted between Kolkata and the capital, keeping her options open. She has sometimes been a minister with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and sometimes with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
And yet, as a product of the Congress, Mamata Banerjee is curiously loyal to the party that nurtured and groomed her. It was very evident when she stepped out on May 19 to claim the victory, even as the votes were being counted; she said the Congress had made a mistake and that the past must be forgotten and the breach forgiven. There were enough indications that the Trinamool Congress would be happy to kiss and make up, and there are Congress leaders in New Delhi who would welcome such an embrace.
Having secured West Bengal, Tripura is a plum ripe for Mamata Banerjee’s picking. There is a disgruntled section of the Congress, which has stagnated for years because it has been unable to dislodge Manik Sarkar as chief minister. Rebellion has broken out in the Congress against the “unethical and opportunistic alliance” with the CPI-M in West Bengal. The PCC working president Asish Kumar Saha and State Youth Congress chief Sushanta Chowdhury put in their papers after Leader of Opposition Sudip Roy Barman resigned and fled Agartala early in May. Mamata Banerjee possibly anticipates that it will be easy to split the Congress and then launch an offensive against CPI-M’s hard working, modest and popular leader, Manik Sarkar. Apart from the fact that the majority of its inhabitants speak Bengali, its politics mirror what West Bengal was before the Trinamool Congress takeover. The CPI-M has been in power with one interruption since 1977. There is another advantage; there are no touchy regional parties in Tripura to make a hostile takeover by Mamata Banerjee into an ethical issue. And the Congress may be relieved that its rebels have found a shelter which is not the BJP, especially now that Assam is newly saffron.
With all these exciting possibilities open to her, Mamata Banerjee has one big headache: how to fix West Bengal up so that she can step out, and, do so in style. It would be easy enough for her to coast along because there are no challengers on the plateau where she is now perched. And as she has said more than once, there is not much more to do because what the Trinamool Congress government has achieved in five years others have not in 400 years. However contested this claim may be, her electoral success validates her confidence. The advertisement released the day after her spectacular victory made the point on the front pages of all major newspapers in West Bengal.
A closer look at the results however paints a somewhat more realistic picture. By contesting all 294 seats, the Trinamool Congress has pushed up its vote share to around 45 per cent; whether this is a real increase in popularity is more difficult to gauge. The margin of victory in too many seats was narrow; in 21 seats, the Trinamool Congress won by less votes than those who chose to push the None of the Above button on EVMs, which is probably why around 1.5 per cent voters adding up to a staggering almost 9 lakh votes felt that none of the choices on offer represented their interests, concerns or values. The margin of her own win in Bhowanipore is just over 25,000, which is not comfortably large and does not reflect her almost absolute dominance over the West Bengal poll landscape.
Even though the next big fight is two years away, when West Bengal’s panchayats go to the polls, the Trinamool Congress cannot get complacent. It is now poised to fight every future election keeping its fingers crossed that in the next poll the “Mamata magic” or chemistry will stave off the eventual decline.
Having cut her ministerial teeth in New Delhi, Mamata Banerjee knows full well that hand outs are populist measures and not to be confused with conventional development initiatives that can be measured and seen by economists and experts. Her deliberate substitutions, of doles as development, are a way of deflecting attention and avoiding the problems.
What West Bengal now needs is hard core development interventions that go beyond improving roads and completing long overdue infrastructure projects, including the tragic flyover that collapsed in April in Kolkata. The state has run up colossal debts, around Rs 3,088 billion and its revenues need to have new sources of growth if it hopes to manage its finances. According to reports, West Bengal’s liabilities are 32.9 per cent of the gross state domestic product, which indicates that fiscal discipline is not practised here. Pundits could cry themselves to sleep over this, but it is Mamata Banerjee who will have to decide on how to spend it – capital investment and asset creation or hand outs to clubs that overnight change into Trinamool Congress camps at election time?