A reputation to live down
Bad news travels fast. Especially bad news that has been spiced up. And so a local diplomat asked almost as soon as I had landed in Singapore, "Who do you write for now that your new chief minister has banished all English-language papers?"
There's the power of propaganda for you! I explained that, like Mark Twain's death, news of Mamata Banerjee's autocracy had been greatly exaggerated. But, sadly, 12 months after that dawn of hope when it was bliss to be alive, few are willing any longer to give her the benefit of the doubt.
The principal charge to be laid at the doors of the Trinamul Congress government, I tried to explain, is of omission, not commission. Of soaring bombast matched by bumbling inefficiency, of incompetent personnel without the ability to translate lofty promises into action, of scarce resources squandered on what Singaporeans would call "upgrading" — ornate street lamps and blue and white paint — instead of being invested in crying needs like road repairs, sewage and bustee clearance.
My Singaporean interlocutor would have remained sceptical about what sounded like my defence of the indefensible if Partha Chatterjee hadn't bundled out of a plane the next day (or was it the day after that?) and convinced everyone of the truth of that homely saying: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
The industries minister had an escort not on a white charger but gliding up in a gleaming Rolls Royce in a city where the Mercedes is the ultimate symbol of wealth and power for most folk.
Fact and fiction swirled excitingly around Prasoon Mukherjee, a smooth man for all seasons, leaving Singaporeans agape. "He says he has personally invested Rs 29,000 crore in West Bengal!" an awestruck local businessman told me, wondering where so much money came from.
"Mr Prasoon", someone else said, using the East Asian form of address, "can get West Bengal all the central funds it needs since he is your Pranab Mukherjee's nephew." Is he? I asked, again displaying my ignorance.
People wondered whether the Bengal Unitech Universal chief had turned his back on Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and the Left Front whom he championed so stoutly at one time. They asked why he didn't make another effort to take the Salim Group to a West Bengal that is desperately combing the world for investors.
Singaporeans, who can't forget the horrors of Nandigram, have a soft spot for the Salims for, despite that Muslim-sounding name, Indonesia's biggest conglomerate is as Chinese as its founder, Liem Sioe Liong. With Mr Prasoon of the deep pockets and dazzling connections at her beck and call, why did Miss Banerjee need to send a well-meaning (everyone found him extremely pleasant) amateur like Chatterjee to talk to hard-headed businessmen?
He isn't the first innocent abroad from the murky world of Indian politics to leave Singaporeans unimpressed. There was Susheela Gopalan, industries minister from Kerala, whom the Trade Development Board head asked what project she wanted to discuss. When she replied, "Everything", he closed his file, pushed it aside and indulged her with a few minutes' courteous small talk before calling it a day.
Hope soared when another industries minister, P.K. Kunhalikutty, threatened to make history by opening a Kerala office in Singapore to handle trade and investment with the entire region. But Singapore hadn't bargained for New Delhi's jealousy; nor for the sex scandal in which Kunhalikutty became embroiled.
Lalu Prasad wanted to regale a press conference with the wonders of Bihar's mangoes and lichees. They speak with respect only of Chandrababu Naidu with his iconic laptop.
Of the many important visitors from West Bengal, Somnath Chatterjee signed so many memorandums of understanding leading nowhere that he became "Mou-dada" back home. Our high commission had to sanitise the late and ill-fated Bidyut Ganguly's bio-data because it bristled proudly with the many strikes he had called and jute mills he had closed down, information that wasn't likely to endear him to his determinedly capitalist hosts.
The rebel evaporated into the Bengali bhadralok when Ganguly visited us at home one Sunday morning: had we bought the bungalow and for how much, he demanded even before he was out of the official car. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee left Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's Prime Minister, pleasantly bemused by declaring his motto was "Reform or Perish."
Partha Chatterjee impressed Singaporeans with his devotion to his leader. "The vision of the Ms Mamata Banerjee-led government is to make the state the best place to live, learn, work and do business," he declared as he tried to sell "Beautiful Bengal… a land of immense opportunity".
One Singaporean thought he might have been speaking of the goddess Durga. Not even at the height of Lee Kuan Yew's power did any of them refer so obsequiously to their boss, certainly not when he wasn't around.
The other worrying thing I picked up was that Chatterjee had given his Singaporean interlocutors to understand that Amit Mitra — whom some of them had worked with in his Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry days — is of little account in the Trinamul hierarchy.
The ruling party's pecking order doesn't concern us but if Mitra is of no consequence, Chatterjee is a pujari and the former civil servants strutting about in ministerial disguise can only take orders, who then is there to translate the Trinamul manifesto's vision into action?
The document speaks of turning rivers into highways and making West Bengal an "export hub" and "a logistics hub and a transport corridor" from Punjab to "Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and the entire Northeast region".
Aung San Suu Kyi's election has sparked speculation regarding Bengal as a link to Myanmar which, in turn, will connect with Southeast Asia. A Bangladeshi diplomat wrote prophetically that West Bengal enjoys a veto on India-Bangladesh relations. "Modern Singapore is a daughter of the city of Calcutta," once said Singapore's former foreign minister, George Yeo. Cambodia and Sri Lanka trace their roots to Bengal.
Bankruptcy is all the more reason why West Bengal should play a lead role in configurations that can facilitate investment, boost trade and change the region's economic geography to flesh out a robust Look East policy.
The unfulfilled legacy Miss Banerjee inherited lies heavily on her. She must know that a ragtag and bobtail crowd of small-time operators is ever ready to flaunt the Trinamul colours and swear by her for personal profit.
She should know, too, that small individual acts of generosity like persuading SSKM Hospital to admit an injured young man or giving a five-hundred rupee note to a clutch of street urchins is no substitute for a well-planned and well-executed strategy to attract investment, revive and expand the state's derelict manufacturing base and create jobs.
Haroun al Rashid's stray acts of inquiry and kindness were followed up by official action. Gestures like a grant of Rs 2 lakh each to 700 clubs or a monthly honorarium of Rs 2,500 to around 30,000 imams look like gimmicks to create a coterie of private supporters at public expense.
As the question about the media I was asked showed, Miss Banerjee's public image couldn't be worse. This was confirmed when a Singaporean businessman told Chatterjee bluntly that his party had become notorious for driving India's biggest industrialist out of West Bengal.
He brushed aside fumbled excuses about Shilpa Bandhu, the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Bill and the West Bengal Land Reforms (Amendment) Bill with the curt statement that Narendra Modi had given Ratan Tata land and a favourable tax dispensation. His chief minister would have to repair that image before expecting Singaporean help.
Mamata Banerjee's only qualification is that she vanquished the communists. Fate invested too many hopes in her too soon. A year ago, she had a future to realise. A year later, she has a reputation to live down.